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PRINT January 1983

BIOGRAPHICAL NOTES ON A METAPHYSICAL ARGONAUT—ALBERTO SAVINIO

Alberto Savinio’s life defines him as an argonaut—his life was a continuous voyage through the world, but above all through the realms of the unconscious. First of all there was Savinio the painter, whose only guide was metamorphosis; then there was Savinio the composer, who in the years prior to World War I stupefied Guillaume Apollinaire with his dodecaphonic blocks of sounds. Finally there was Savinio the man of letters, the contributor to Dada publications, who frequented Surrealist circles in Paris and who later became the disenchanted poet of black humor.

Certain prejudices about Savinio must be shaken loose. He clearly did not think of himself primarily as a painter: “With my kind of painting one doesn’t ask ‘what is painting,’ but rather ‘who am I?’. I’ll tell you immediately: I am a painter who is beyond painting. For painters, painting is an end. For some—for very few—it is a means.” This “beyond painting” was to become the slogan of Max Ernst, but for Savinio it developed into a scientific study of the crises of Modern man, fractured by a way of life that threatens to become a harrowing assembly line. He felt that the task of the intellectual is to reestablish a world view according to which one thinks first as a human being rather than specifically as an artist. In a statement which at first reading might seem to be a sociological deduction, he elucidated his position: “The proletariat doesn’t ask for better treatment, it asks for power. In the arts it is forbidden to use the appropriate means to investigate situations to the fullest. On the contrary, certain ‘authoritative’ statements, only apparently nontyrannical, prevail—‘painting is not literature,’ for example. I, a proletarian of art, don’t look for better treatment. I look for power, and I intend to find it.”

Savinio has been called a creative powerhouse, and indeed, no term could better describe his development. His painting emerged from literature and later returned to its literary origins; his music is a form of ballet which aspires to pure imagery in motion; his stage designs—which complete the cycle—can be viewed as painting, which in turn undergoes a metamorphosis into literary discourse. Yet with all this, his painting still remains original and technically innovative. It may be that Savinio followed the example of his brother, the great metaphysician Giorgio de Chirico, in his compulsion to paint, and the result is painting in the service of mystery. If the work of the Surrealists is dense with meaning, the mystery of Savinio’s painting is like “a covered mirror,” as he puts it, containing certain truths familiar to the artist but which he could at any moment conceal. Savinio didn’t search out mystery among primitives or children, as did André Breton, but he looked toward Greece, which for him was the true terrain of profound meaning. The religion of the classical world was a marvelous synthesis of the Apollonian and Dionysian instincts; Olympus was a meeting ground for both cheerful and surly gods. Savinio’s goal was to rediscover a sense of unity between the irrational and the rational, between prophecy and revelation, between dream and life. Art can humanize the monstrous element in life (so prevalent in Savinio’s work) and can imbue whatever it portrays with spirit. It can also liberate human relationships of brutality. Savinio’s human figures with animal faces are not social satires; he said that he sought not to bestialize man (as the Surrealists did), but instead to humanize the beast.

Is Savinio a Surrealist? He categorically denied it. If Surrealism is “the representation of the formless,” then Savinio aimed to give “form to the formless and consciousness to the unconscious.” While he shared with the Surrealists an interest in phantasmic and spectral phenomena, his theory of memory is what sets him apart: “Art has nothing in common with dreams, and any art that happens to exhibit certain characteristics of dreams-such as loss of memory-would be not only useless, but amoral as well; [in fact] no less amoral than the dreams themselves.” And elsewhere: “Thanks to the power of memory, when we observe images we perceive not only what they have been, but what they will be as well; this is the poetry of the glance.” One could say that Savinio is to the Surrealists as memory is to the dream.

As with de Chirico, it is impossible to think of Savinio as only one type of painter. Rather he must be considered as several different ones, each of whom had a turn in the limelight of what this restless genius liked to describe as his “dilettante life.” Consequently his painting does not appear homogeneous like that of so many other artists, but instead variable, capricious, and above all related to the events of his life. This differentiation among his creative periods helps to explain the variations in the intensity of his dedication to painting, and in the quality and quantity of the work produced as well. Savinio’s work as a painter has too often been seen as subsidiary to his extremely lucid literary contributions, to his musical production, or to his other activities as a member of the “intelligentsia” (a term he favored).

Savinio entered the world of painting at an early age. Born Andrea de Chirico in Greece three years after his brother, Giorgio, he was the family favorite. In 1903, at the age of 12, he graduated with honors in piano and composition from the Conservatory of Athens. After spending time in Italy the two brothers moved in 1906 to Munich, where Giorgio enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts while Andrea studied music with Max Reger. In 1909 they both went to Milan; from there Andrea proceeded to Paris in 1910, where he was joined by Giorgio the following year. There he entered the cultural circle of Apollinaire, with whom he would maintain ties throughout his life. While de Chirico was to find recognition in both the Salon d’Automne and the Salon des lndependants, Savinio (as he was called from 1914 on) gained notoriety through his concert at the offices of Apollinaire’s Les Soirees de Paris (May 24, 1914). During his time in Paris Savinio became interested both in the work of Rembrandt and in African art—indicating his growing predilection for figurative work. These interests continued after he moved to Ferrara, Italy, where he enlisted in the Italian army. This was perhaps influenced by his need to assure for himself some precise national identity, a need shared by Apollinaire, a native of Rome. During this time Savinio contributed to early developments in metaphysical art, a movement which grew out of the interaction between de Chirico, Carlo Carra, and, a bit later, Filippo Tibertelli (de Pisis). While in Ferrara both Savinio and de Chirico came in contact with Tristan Tzara. Despite his disavowals, Savinio was grouped with both the Surrealists and the Dadaists; an explanation for this may be that during these years he was always at the center of European avant-garde activity: Even after the end of the war, in the Valori plastici period, he makes significant contributions to art theory.

Numerous witnesses recall Savinio’s precocious beginnings as a painter and designer. In his memoirs de Chirico states that as early as the years in Milan, when the brothers had first arrived from Munich, they worked side by side: “I painted in the style of [Arnold] Böcklin while my brother worked on drawings. We also read and studied a great deal.” According to Apollinaire, “Savinio—poet, painter, and playwright—resembles the multifaceted geniuses of the Tuscan Renaissance.” De Pisis recalls Savinio during his Ferrara period: “He was always painting. I remember certain pen-and-ink drawings, almost Pre-Raphaelite or Böcklinian, with Greek temples and figures in black robes at the edge of the sea.” Finally, Savinio himself casts some light on his beginnings as a visual artist. At least one admission was public, a footnote to the program for his Parisian production of Les chants de la mi-mort (Songs of the half-death): “Sets and costumes designed by the author.” This early period has yet to be fully reconstructed, and the task has been made more difficult by the scattering of Savinio’s extant work. I would date the earliest known works, which have an archaic and frankly de Chirican feeling, from this Italian/Parisian period. One drawing is certainly from this time, when he and his brother both consciously emulated Böcklin; in it a shrouded figure by the edge of the sea, framed by a temple facade, is disguised as an oracle or as a Zarathustra figure. (This same piece was published by Savinio in a literary journal in 1932.)

A group of small paintings and collages from this Paris period employs double images, evocations from memory, and true or simulated collage, paralleling de Chirico’s work, which was then receiving great acclaim. These works by Savinio can be dated not only by the writing, which is in French, but by the technique used as well. One typical collage depicts a boat setting sail, a clearly defined low wall and portico, a Greek god seen in profile paired with his black shadow, and two moldings, one dark, one pale; an actual piece of lace is juxtaposed against a French train schedule and a figure cut out of a newspaper. In this period Savinio’s style merges the naive (de Chirico’s influence) with a wide-ranging literary fantasy which already hints at some of his future interests. And so one finds an archaic Greek Kore figure, childhood nightmares, bourgeois parents, and a Hellenic Zeus all existing side by side. Until new information proves otherwise it would seem that these studies—all executed on light-blue paper and each bearing both title and signature—make up a series of minor exercises, literary in tone. Their written equivalent, at least in terms of subject matter (departures, voyages, argonauts, trains, childhood, Greece) and enchanted atmosphere, can be found in Savinio’s poetic drama Hermaphrodito (1918).

From the war’s end in 1918 until 1925 Savinio showed little interest in painting. But in a note from 1927 he recalled, “In July of 1925 I returned to Paris. Before leaving Rome I made some colored sketches, watercolors, etc. Since last March I have devoted myself to painting.” Some of the works he mentions in this note can be specifically identified, and a postcard from his brother, dated April 24, 1926, refers to these, in a manner at once severe and good-natured:

Dearest brother, I finally received your drawings. If you send others, I would suggest that you insure the package. They are all extremely beautiful and impressive. I’ve already shown them around a bit, and everyone has been struck by them. I think a show of your work would meet with great success. However you don’t need to get mixed up with the Surrealists; they’re a cretinous and hostile bunch. With the help of [Paul] Guillaume and [Léonce] Rosenberg we’ll amount to something. Keep working, and if you have other drawings send them on. My only advice is that you avoid colors that are too crude and vulgar, like carmine red and pure blue. Mix in some gray with all your colors, and soften the forms a bit. In the meantime I’ll frame the best ones.”

Savinio’s sense of painting continued to develop during these years. He still had no clear direction, and his style was rather groping, but his work from this time shows a consistent concern with issues of memory. And by this point he had undoubtedly embarked on the path of painting.

In January 1926 he married Maria Morino, an actress in the “group of eleven” headed by Luigi Pirandello, and a member of Eleonora Duse’s circle. In July they settled into the Hotel D’isly on the rue Jacob in Paris, where he executed his first paintings; his brother’s studio was around the corner, on the rue Bonaparte. Savinio became acquainted with Paul Guillaume and his secretary, Jeanne Castel, both of whom were involved with new painting. Meanwhile Savinio’s book Angelica o la nolte di maggio (Angelica, or the night in May), was published both in Milan and in a French edition (by Kra, the Surrealist house). A frontispiece of this work consisted of one of his engravings—the style severe; the iconography, classical nudes and toy mannequins.

In October 1927 Savinio had his first one-man show, at the Bernheim Gallery. The announcement, a cabalistic representation by Jean Cocteau, is in the form of a double acrostic, both parts of which are based on the letters in Savinio’s name. On one side the letters are used to form the phrase, “son Art Vexe Ingenieusement Nos Imaginations Occidentales” (His art ingeniously ruffles our Western imaginations.) The second acrostic, written in a mirror script, forms the phrase “Sans Artifices Votre Instrument Nouveau Intrigue Orphée” (Without artifice your new instrument intrigues Orpheus.)

In an autobiographical note from 1927 Savinio recalled that 18 of the 29 pieces exhibited were sold and that there was a positive review in the Bulletin des Arts: “Savinio is to de Chirico as Cocteau is to Apollinaire.” Without doubt that same instrument which had enchanted Cocteau/Orpheus—in the acrostic quoted above—introduced the rising painter/writer/playwright to Parisian intellectual circles as well. He kept company with Louis Aragon, Max Ernst. Andre Breton, Gala and Paul Eluard, and Andre Derain, as well as expatriate Italians such as his old friend De Pisis and Mario Broglio.

The paintings of this period, produced at a steady pace, take on a precise style, with an emphatic use of outline that seems almost detached from the color. The color is unnatural, the basic theme still that of memory. Interestingly, at this stage photography often provided him with a point of departure. Many paintings from this period are transcriptions of old daguerreotypes or of modern photographs. For Savinio, as for de Chirico, photography implied a spatial and temporal distance from the chosen subject. Savinio would later explain that for him photography had a “lyrical” value in that it effectively “diminished nature” in its translation into anonymous black and white, thereby “creating a different, and one might say false, nature.” This was a productive time for Savinio, although his iconography was still overloaded with disparate themes and heterogeneous styles—to the point of unwitting kitsch. In any case, his work was lauded by Cocteau, the newfound supporter of antiquity and chaotic author of the “call to order” who during this same period paid homage to de Chirico in his Le mystere laïc; essai d’étude indirecte (The lay mystery; an indirect study).

The years 1928–29 mark Savinio’s high point as a painter. He had shed his chrysalis and he now came into his own. Art-world figures and friends alike sensed that he had achieved new heights, and his paintings proliferated with the ease of a spontaneous organism. The work from these years is often earthy and dense with meaning, taking on the captious and tormented quality of the unconscious. Male figures are transformed into muscular creatures recalling Michelangelo’s figures, but their barely existent heads are mere embryos, enclosures for thoughts. As in de Chirico’s work, Greek heroes make themselves at home in interiors with distorted perspectives; images of the sea—with all its attendant symbolism and references to past centuries—also abound. This body of work is not intended as fantasy, but, to quote one of Savinio’s titles, as a “souvenir d’un monde disparu” (memory of a vanished world).

This same vanished world was being pursued by the frenzied Surrealists, who issued their second manifesto in 1930. De Chirico, who had suffered a violent rupture with Breton, was no longer part of the Surrealist core group, as he had been at the time of their first manifesto in 1924. But his metaphysical, mysterious shadow cast itself over the oneiric nightmares of the signers of the new manifesto. Whether they would admit it or not, painters like Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte might be thought of as emerging from a de Chirican Piazza d’ltalia, from his Nostalgia dell’infinito (Nostalgia of the Infinite, 1913-14?) or from his Sogno di Tobia (Dream of Tobias, 1917). The most genuine Surrealist of this period, however, was Savinio. He was greatly admired by Breton and he contributed regularly to the publications of the movement. His work, still close to that of de Chirico, is filled with archeological scenes, images of gladiators, ancient horses, and interiors that hint of both ancient Greece and contemporary middle-class life. If his color at this point tended toward the lurid, his iconography was anything but.

Savinio seems to have been trying to communicate literary meanings rather than to formulate a true style, but it is herein that his own pictorial style lies, reaching its highest point of development during these years. Léonce Rosenberg, who had earlier backed the Cubists, commissioned Savinio to paint a series of canvases for a room in his house, having commissioned for the other rooms works by Francis Picabia, Gino Severini, and de Chirico. This project gave birth to one of Savinio’s most original images—his “monumenti ai giocattoli” (monuments to the toys), transparent accumulations of forms reminiscent of childhood objects but which also imply aerial cathedrals. They are like sublimated thoughts, allegories created out of a new, limitless imagination. Their colors range from luminous to monochrome; in them history defers to prehistory as man, “too human,” is expelled from paradise.

The 1929 Wall Street crash was an abrupt recall to reality, acting as a cold shower. Art exhibitions came almost to a halt. De Chirico worked for Les Ballets Russes (in the last season before Sergei Diaghilev’s death), but Savinio seems to have pulled back as a painter. A canvas from 1930 seems leaden; the previously joyful, inventive forms now swell into huge baroque angels, and a taste for the monstrous threatens to take over. Savinio’s first public showing in Italy was at the 1930 Venice Biennale, where he participated in the “Appels d’ltalie” section organized by George Waldemar and Mario Tozzi. One of his paintings there was emblematic: Ritorno del figl io prodigo (The return of the prodigal son, 1930). Indeed, in 1932 the two brothers did return to Italy, to be greeted by a scathing caricature by Maccari in Selvaggio: “Non quando Ii prende/ma quando Ii rende/Parigi ci offende” (Paris offends us/not when she takes them/but when she gives them back). Savinio had an exhibition in Turin where one canvas was acquired by the Casa Reale. He began to show regularly, and in 1938 he received what was perhaps the highest recognition of his avant-garde literary achievements. Breton, who had already published one of his pieces in Le Surréalisme au service de la Révolution and had included his name among a list of “suggested writers,” extolled Savinio in his Anthologie de I’humour noir (Anthology of black humor): “All modern mythologies still in formation stem from two sources, nearly inseparable in spirit—the work of Alberto Savinio and of his brother, Giorgio de Chirico.”

Savinio’s paintings of this period are populated by men with heads of animals; these are neither criticism nor jest, but are meant to extend the boundaries of the known universe. Many of his small canvases still maintain a high pictorial quality, but the most interesting works are the portraits, in which Savinio manages to reveal the invisible, as though he has penetrated the subject with an X-ray. Savinio described these works as follows: “My friend Libero de Libero says that my portraits are, above all, judgments. Painters are no longer expected to be portraitists but, rather, specialists of euphemism. Man no longer has the courage to formulate judgments, let alone pay the price for having done so. He lacks not only courage, but a feeling of duty—duty to paint a true likeness.” These portraits are not so much likenesses as analyses of the spirit of the sitter—at times as merciless as a police sketch, at times as haunting as a prophecy. The subjects seem to exist in a nightmare from Pirandello; they will end up resembling their portraits. Savinio perceives the salient characteristics of a face and projects them into the future, nearly to the moment of death.

While de Chirico branched out in an ever more baroque fashion, Savinio restricted himself to a single expressive path. He seems to have purified his palette and his images, his vision becoming more simple and synthesized with time. Certain themes, formerly part of the confused mass of information in his paintings, became prevalent: puffy old men and women, sea gods, spirits, monsters, scenes of return and of prehistory. He exhibited his work throughout Italy in a period that began with a particularly memorable show at Il Milione gallery in Milan, with a catalogue preface by de Chirico. Savinio also wrote prolifically, with many of his major works appearing in this period, along with previously unpublished pieces written earlier—these often seeming like “continuations” of his painted images. After World War II he participated in the Quadriennale exhibitions in Turin and in Rome. His work was admired by many literary figures (de Libero, Belli, Leonardo Sinisgalli, Bruno Barilli, Carrieri), as well as some distinguished intellectuals (Giorgio Castelfranco), but he achieved little critical or commercial success.

The theater—in every aspect, from stage design and costumes to music—became his chief preoccupation. While he had always maintained an interest in the theater, it now became the crux of his creative activity. He began his artistic career as a composer, but from the start his notations had theatrical implications (similar to the Parisian paintings of his brother), seeming like disturbing “pantomimes” rather than mere scores. La mortedi Niobe (The death of Niobe), written in 1914 but performed in 1925 in Florence with sets by de Chirico, presaged his painting that would later burst to the surface. The seeds were also there in some unpublished sequences for his Ballata delle Stagioni (Ballad of the seasons; performed in 1925 with costumes by Antonio Valente). After World War II he once again devoted himself to musical and theatrical projects. A 1946 ballet, Vita dell’Vomo (Life of Man), for which he also designed the sets and costumes, and which he described as a “tragicomedy in mime and dance,” was performed at the La Scala Opera house in Milan in 1951. From 1948 to 1951 Savinio frequently participated in collaborations at La Scala, bringing to completion four productions in which he acted as set designer, costume designer, and director. His 1952 staging of Gioacchino Rossini’s Armida at the May Musical Festival in Florence was undoubtedly extraordinary, with Savinio providing the direction, sketches, and models, and with some exceptional figures collaborating on the production: the heroine was played by Maria Meneghini Callas; the conductor was Tullio Serafin; and the choreography was by a star of the avant-garde, Léonide Massine. This all-encompassing work was also to be Savinio’s last. This genius, who had begun life as Andrea de Chirico, attended the opening night on April 26, 1952, and then returned to Rome where he died unexpectedly on May 5, the day after the third performance. And so Armida became symbolic of its author, and therefore rather magical.

At Savinio’s deathbed de Chirico placed a crown of laurel on his brother’s head, bringing their extraordinary relationship to a close.

Maurizio Fagiolo dell’Arco has recently published the newly-rediscovered correspondence among Savinio, de Chirico, and Tzara. He is the author of “De Chirico in Paris, 1911–1915,” in De Chirico (New York: The Museum of Modem Art, 1982), and other studies on de Chirico.

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.