Years ago, when I was a museum director, I wanted to send an exhibition to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. The curators balked. “But it’s an Italian museum!” In those days, American museums wouldn’t lend their art to a museum in Italy. Italian museums were notoriously unreliable. Security dated from the days of Leonardo. They didn’t have proper climate controls. The staff was presumed to follow the rules of “la dolce vita,” impassioned by Verdi and as convoluted.
I reminded the recalcitrant curators of some simple facts. First, many Italian museums were modernizing. While I wouldn’t lend a weed whacker to a museum in, say, Brindisi — it might never come back or might come back covered with mold — a museum such as the Brera in Milan or the Strozzi Palace in Florence would be worth considering for a loan of a good painting. Second, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection isn’t really an Italian museum. It’s an American museum that happens to be in Italy. Its master is the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. So we sent a gorgeous show of the great Homers, Eakinses, and Whistlers from the Addison Gallery’s collection. It opened in the summer of 2008. It was the most visited show in Italy that year. At the opening, the power failed, and in the ten minutes it was out, I felt the Venetian heat and humidity rise by the second. I breathed deeply, the power returned, and as far as I know it functioned throughout the run of the show.
Let’s just say that the Guggenheim Collection in Venice is unique. It houses the extraordinary collection of the heiress and visionary Peggy Guggenheim (1898–1979). She both championed and purchased what was then bleeding-edge painting in the 1930s and ’40s, American and European, at a time when the art establishment in both places considered abstract art psychotic, Communist-inspired, or just plain junk. She was a collector, dealer, social whirl, muse to struggling artists, taste maker, museum founder, and sexpot with appetites so voracious they’d made a Greek god look prim. She was a larger-than-life personality.
This year begins anniversary recollections of her stewardship and impact. She died in 1979, 40 years ago next year, and this year marks the 70th anniversary of the landmark exhibition of her collection in the Greek Pavilion of the 1948 Venice Biennale. No one really understood the scope of her buying, so it was a revelatory, startling event. It was the first Biennale after the Second World War. Greece was in the middle of a civil war, so its pavilion was available. She moved to a palazzo on the Grand Canal the next year. Now, the museum has cleverly reconstituted the Greek Pavilion display, using photographs and old records. It’s a feat of curatorial energy and initiative that underscores how imaginative, daring, and dogged Guggenheim was.
Last month, I saw a retrospective at the museum of the mystical, moving work of Osvaldo Licini (1894–1958). He was in the stable of younger artists Guggenheim collected. Licini’s work is rare and much loved among Italian connoisseurs. It expresses an unusual vision and is a slice of the avant-garde unknown to Americans. Its small, spooky, and beguiling work teaches us some overlooked lessons.
The museum sometimes explores Italian artists from what I call the modernist era, from the 1910s to the 1970s. This is a curious but rich period in Italian art, overwhelmed by the work and reputations of German, French, Russian, and, after the Second World War, American artists. It’s a storyline punctuated by Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Kandinsky, and the Blaue Reiter artists in the Teens through the French Surrealists and the German-angst artists in the Twenties and Thirties, and then the New York School of Pollock, de Kooning, and Rothko after the war flattened Europe, passing avant-garde leadership to America. What about Italy?
In the Licini show, we see one artist, a sublimely talented one, working in a climate of extreme upheaval that’s distinctively Italian. But he has a vision consistent with the international mood of experiment. Licini is a new figure for most readers, which is good, because I can use him to explore some basic points about abstract art. Licini isn’t burdened by any hero worship based on his persona, so we can judge him on aesthetics alone.
Abstract art makes no easy-to-spot reference to things of the everyday world. Period. On one level, it’s that simple. Beyond that, approaches and goals wander in lots of directions, discernable or ambiguous, depending on the artist. There is no fixed, single reason why an abstract painter or sculptor does what he does. Some, like Jackson Pollock, painted in a non-representational style as a kind of subconscious, automatic writing, the poured paint coming from some inscrutable interior. Others, such as Piet Mondrian or Barnett Newman, wanted to reduce form to a minimum of shapes and colors. Often, it’s ruthlessly political, equating simplicity with equality. This is sometimes a visual analogue to revolution.
In diminishing the obsession with an object’s reality, abstract art can take dead aim at materialism and all the foibles surrounding it, including greed and envy. It also spurs us to focus on states beyond the mundane — our relationship with God, our purpose in life, destiny, the search for harmony.
In the Licini show, we see how one artist used abstraction to pursue these core spiritual values in the context of a country smitten with Fascism and eventually crushed by its consequences. Even his earliest work, such as Italian Soldiers, from 1917, is a flight of fancy, or a flight from reality. Licini’s beacons in the Teens would have been the Italian Futurists, who deplored the passivity and decadence of Italian pre-war culture, but this new thinking, while breaking with the past, celebrated speed and machinery. Both were of little interest to Licini.
He shared the Futurist disdain for bourgeois materialism, but he expressed it differently. Licini had a dreadful war and left it badly wounded, as did most Italian soldiers fighting in World War I. His take on war reduced soldiers to stick figures, performers in a bizarre chorus, their individuality gone and heads shrunken. The picture — and war — has the unreality of an opera.
Increasingly, he lost interest in the world, convinced that God had lost interest, too. The show steadily and surely lays this transition before us, from minimalist, barren landscapes in the 1920s to cryptic shapes and signs such as his Rhythm pictures of the 1930s. Straight lines evoking regularity jostle with chromatic blends against thinly painted backgrounds on rough canvas. One passage might suggest reason, others a world that is uneven, difficult terrain.
Gradually, he retreated, to the Marche in Italy, an area that begins with mountains but descends gradually to the Adriatic. Urbino, one of its many small towns, was the home of Raphael. His most abstract works, like Memories of the Afterlife, feel like cave painting. They’re small, intimate, dreamy, and far from the brash, pedantic, in-your-face art that Fascism inspired.
In 1935, he wrote that he wanted “to create other ghosts and chimeras and illusions to make us momentarily forget the boredom of the world and the ugliness of existence.” He called his work “irrational painting . . . works painted at 500,000 meters of altitude, in the celestial realm.” Soon, ascent, escape, and flight became his basic themes. Instability and balance, he believed, wrestled constantly. Balance was the elusive goal; but instability, the age’s default setting.
In Marche, he found a distinct landscape and zeitgeist, mostly rural, removed from Rome, Milan, Naples, and other Italian hotbeds of turmoil and menace, what he called “the region of the Mothers, where I have descended to preserve unsoiled certain immaterial, incontrovertible values that belong to the human spirit.” His late work is avowedly religious but not denominational or doctrinal. It’s very strange religious painting, with enigmatic angels who might embody celestial goodness or suggest the avenging angels of the Apocalypse.
It’s a lovely show for many reasons. It’s not big, for starters. Licini was a slow painter, so there aren’t many objects from which to select. His work is small, and that scale is essential. He encourages the viewer to take intimate possession of what he or she sees and to absorb the mind in the visual. He’s a new artist for me, and in walking through, I was amazed at how little I understood Italian art between the wars.
The show honors another anniversary. Licini’s work, quiet and not obvious, was slow to move beyond a small circle of intellectuals and art lovers. Sixty years ago, he won the Grand Prize for Painting at the 1958 Venice Biennale, which finally secured for him a place of honor among living Italian artists. He died only months later. The award was controversial. Licini was not well known. The left-wing press in Italy complained that he was too escapist. By then, much of Italy’s art establishment belonged to the country’s large and lively Communist party. In seeming to eschew specific social causes, Licini appeared a tool of imperialists, reactionaries, and capitalists. Obscuring his win in the international press was another Grand Prize winner, Mark Tobey, the first American to win a gold medal since Whistler.
The Mussolini regime made every aspect of life louder, angrier, and more covetous, obsessed with grievance, revenge, and ostentation. Licini developed an escape hatch based on withdrawal and interiority and a visual vocabulary directly opposite hard, mean reality. The show wisely pairs images and Licini’s expressive writing. It has a good, English-language catalogue, essential for introducing the artist to a bigger audience.