Italy’s New Art

David Sylvester

The Italians have the same sort of problem over making art as we have over playing football. After ages of doing it far better than anyone else, they had to come to accept that quite a lot of foreigners were doing it better – with the difference that our football has been in that situation for about thirty-five years, Italian art for about three hundred and fifty. However, the time of its supremacy had been even longer, so that the accumulated riches, plus the legacies of the Romans and the Etruscans, plus its all being so ubiquitous and conspicuous, make life easy for tour operators but complicated for artists: ever-present glories of the past create inhibition and resentment but also constant temptation, like that of a well-stocked cellar.

In the Royal Academy’s exhibition of ‘Italian Art in the Twentieth Century’ the problem is especially evident in Gallery III. This room, the Academy’s traditional space for the stars, measures 82 feet long by 42 feet wide by 48 feet high, and the most obvious use to have made of it for this exhibition would have been to save it up for the Arte povera pieces, which (like Tiepolo beggars) are suited by palatial spaces. However, the organisers, Norman Rosenthal and Germano Celant, have done something more daring with the space: they have filled it with art, much of it unfashionable, dating from 1919 to 1934, the time of the rise of Fascism. They have put sculptures by Arturo Martini and paintings by Sironi, Carra, Casorati and Morandi in the space on the near side of a curved wall, and on the far side paintings by de Pisis, Savinio and de Chirico.

The room exposes the problem of the presence of the past because it covers the period of the rappel à l’ordre, the reaction against experiment in favour of a new Classicism. Whereas in Paris this meant a hard search, by Picasso, Léger et al, for styles with which to fulfil that aspiration, in Italy the artists who didn’t mind living off inherited wealth, the Sironis and Carras and Casoratis and Martinis, had paradigms to hand (mainly in Florentine art from Giotto to Pontormo). Today a Clemente or a Chia can draw upon the past with the same sort of ease, now touched with irony.

This could be why Cézanne has had so little influence in Italy – the most notable exception being Boccioni’s work of 1912-13. Painters in Paris (including Modigliani) have tended to use Cézanne’s remaking of tradition as a medium through which to come to terms with the past. Italian painters are able to have a more familiar relationship with the past, an easy-going relationship – like one with grandparents who will bail you out when you’re short of funds to draw on. It is the sort of relationship that keeps tensions at bay, tensions of the kind that generate creativity. The relaxed quality of a Sironi or a Martini, or, from 1920 on, a Carra, is what makes it pleasing and even impressive and soon makes it boring. Casorati, on the other hand, does sustain interest and surprise, through the ingenious way the pictures are put together and in a way associated with English artists – through the quirkishness of their poetic atmosphere.

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