Anna Maria Benedetti
Painting in late 19th and early 20th-century Europe isn’t only about the avant-garde! In the second half of the 19th century, the impressionists mastered a revolution by eliminating non-naturalist subjects from painting with their ‘retinal painting’ (Duchamp). They eliminated past and future in time, reducing the present to the moment. Reality was what you saw. The inventio, elaborated in the studio, gave way to the sketch en plein air from drawing on to the fast and unfinished brush stroke.
Towards the end of the century the first modern revolutionary movement was over and impressionism was questioned: in 1878 Cezanne gave life to cubism, Renoir went to Italy and discovered Raphael along with the paintings of Pompeii. Only by thinking about going beyond can we speak of return. In 1895, after visiting the Vatican museums, Maurice Denis wrote to Gide about classical art: “It reveals the power of an art that does not seek superficial pleasure: this is the teaching of Rome”. Gauguin loved simplicity, Van Gogh adhered to Symbolism, the Pont Aven group was born, the Nabis theorized a ‘new classical order’ that was active throughout the first half of the 20th century in a dialectical relationship with the impressionist revolution. Presences that were extraneous to nature appeared in the paintings, they were references to the temple of Borobudur in Java, Egyptian paintings, Japanese prints, Buddha statues, Greek and Roman sculpture. The present was painted recalling the great art of the past, where the past did not exclusively include European art.
In the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the path that was different but parallel, going from Symbolism to a new classical order; the witness is Klimt who in 1903 went to Venice and Ravenna, inducting the neo-Byzantine way of modernity.
Beauty was what the artists of that time aspired to. People sought tranquillity. References to tradition are already present in the age of the avant-garde or the era of ‘adventure’, as Apollinaire called it. The Salon d’Automne of 1904 hosted Renoir, Cezanne and Puvis de Chavanne, the latter captivating young artists with his arcadian and metaphysical world, though sadness was lurking there. The Salon d’Automne of 1905, remembered for the scandal of the Fauves, included a retrospective of Ingres where his Turkish Bath (modified in 1862) was displayed for the first time. A summer spent in the Pyrenees marked Picasso’s first classic turn. The 1909 Salon d’Automne was followed by the French translation of Leonardo’s Treatise on Painting, focusses on his Pythagorean considerations about harmony and his notion of painting as a mental thing, which went on to influence Duchamp.
In Invitation to a Voyage Baudelaire dreamt of an idyllic place where everything is ‘luxury, calm, voluptuousness’, which would be the title of Matisse’s painting Luxe, Calme et Volupté (1904) inspired by Baudelaire’s poetry. In 1916 Gino Severini painted Maternity, inspired by the Madonnas with Child of Tuscan art of the 14th and 15th centuries. Metaphysical painting was born in Ferrara, and saw the return of the classic subjects from Greek and Roman antiquity; the metaphysical aspect addressed the unconscious, the dream, the surreal. This artistic path led to magic realism. As in dreams, landscapes appeared realistic but confusedly assembled.
After World War 1 ended, what remained was great despair, men and women no longer understood their world. De Chirico’s enigmatic works seemed to portray the new reality. Amazement and estrangement hovered in all works. A few years later, in 1926, Massimo Bontempelli called that period magical realism, a realism full of wonder. Everyone talked about the Demoiselles d’Avignon, in the same year Matisse painted Joie de Vivre.
We can understand the habits and customs of a people by observing the environment in which they live, we can see the soul of a person from the objects he has collected throughout his life.
On display are 16 paintings from the Rusconi Collection that were donated to the Capuchin friars in Milan. The Capuchin philosophy, refined over the centuries, knows how to give new life to things. Now these works constitute a permanent exhibition in the museum.
The paintings are from the early 1900s and the period between the two wars, when logical positivism was born in the Anglo-Saxon world and existentialism in the Latin world. The question to be answered was what is the ‘function of the sciences and the meaning of man?’.
The collection is the expression of this period: disillusion after World War 1, and the desire for a return to order. It is the search for a corner of serenity, a way to exorcise problems.
Umberto Boccioni conveys the restlessness of the time. Massimo Campigli immerses us in a nature inspired by the primitivism of Etruscan painting. A Filippo De Pisis, from 1947, gives us the liveliness of life in the Venetian lagoon. Pio Semeghini, an established painter then and later forgotten, brings us back to the harsh reality of how the world of criticism is always capricious. The presence of the Chiarists testifies that they were a must in the houses of the Milanese bourgeoisie.
These are mostly scenes of everyday life. In Mario Sironi’s (1885-1961) work we have a glimpse of the 1920s Milan displaying the city’s vulnerabilities, where men lose their identity there follows loneliness.
The exhibition has proved popular; there is a reflective silence in homage to the memory of the past, and it seems people like to imagine what the life of the bourgeoisie was like: it speaks to everyone, young and old.
On the back of one of the paintings is a portrait, another one is painted on a board that was used to cover the windows against the cold in Venice, another was done on cardboard as painting material was scarce. The numerous travel tags on the back of one of the paintings attest to its presence in as many exhibitions.
Anyone can live this experience of going back in time – entrance is free, but they also rely on donations from visitors. The message for us? In every age we seek serenity, here we find an art that goes beyond description, that is if we can make an effort to see not only with our eyes.
Museo dei Cappuccini – Permanent exhibition “Rusconi Collection” – Milan