Washington, DC

Giacomo Balla, Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo and Gino Severini

“Masters of Modern Italian Art,” an exhibition of 104 works from the Gianni Mattioli Collection of Milan opened its tour of the United States (Washington, Dallas, San Francisco, Detroit, Kansas City and Boston) at the Phillips Collection. It’s very much a study show, “intended to provide a direct knowledge in depth of Italian art between 1910 and 1935,” and it performs this service excellently.

Of the five artists (Giacomo Balla, Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo and Gino Severini) who signed Boccioni’s Milan “Manifesto of Futurist Painters” in 1910, Carrà turns out to be the most interesting. He was the most versatile, quick to pick up ideas, capable of assimilating styles. Some drawings in the exhibition, along with his painting The “Galleria” in Milan of 1912, show him absorbing Cubism in an intelligent and successful way (Boccioni’s prickly Materia of the same year doesn’t have the same grasp of the style, or the same ease). Carrà subsequently took up collage in his war painting, Pursuit, and the “Free Word” Painting (Patriotic Celebration) of 1914. Though the latter is too diffuse—a kind of over-worked Schwitters—to succeed well as a painting, the former comes off competently enough. Meeting de Chirico at the military hospital at Ferrara in 1916, Carrà branched out next into “metaphysical” painting, producing works such as The Hermaphroditic Idol and The Cavalier of the West of 1917, both of them calmer and more surely composed (the latter has some well-placed color) than de Chirico’s work of the same period. In the early 1920s, Carrà changed styles again, painting small, roughly impastoed landscapes and seascapes (a little like Pollock’s early landscapes of the W.P.A. period in their color and touch).

Like Boccioni (who died in the War), Carrà and Severini were also writers; they both went on to publish many books and articles on art, as well as their memoirs. Severini’s two paintings in the exhibition, the Danceuse Bleue of 1912 and The Guitar of 1918, pointed to the abiding influence of Gris, along with touches of Leger and Picasso: The Guitar is especially well brought off. Balla’s work was, I thought, altogether too “theoretical” and “programmatic” in its sequences of angles and curves: the results didn’t hold up. Russolo, the musician, was represented by a slight work of 1912.

It’s not the Futurists, though, or their followers who make up the glory of this period in Italian art, but the loners, the odd-men-out. Of these, I suppose Modigliani, who became thoroughly a part of the Paris art scene and “refused categorically to subscribe to Futurism,” has been the most fêted. The exhibition contains five portrait drawings by him, and two paintings: Portrait of the Painter, Frank Haviland, of about 1914, and the well-known Reclining Nude of 1917–18, formerly in the Zborowski Collection. Frank Haviland is a brilliant piece of work, very airy, full of tentative experiments in drawing and brushwork (separated slabs of color, the little bit of Impressionism that found its way into Cubism); the Reclining Nude, like most of Modigliani’s nudes I’ve seen, was for me too arch in its appeal, too hot in its color, too constricted in its composition. (Two exceptions are the nudes at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Courtauld Institute in London.)

To borrow a phrase from that superb critic of art critics (who also wrote a book on Severini and sponsored a large retrospective exhibition of Giacomo Manzù), Lionello Venturi, “the moment of art” in de Chirico seems, on the strength of the works in this exhibition, to have been his earlier, more limpid period of dream-like frontal facades. His The Enigma of Time of 1911 seemed to gain so splendidly from its quietness, loose, unconcerned sketchiness and vagueness, in comparison with the intense, garish color, closely packed forms, and clever perspectives of the later paintings, with their sections of stretcher frames and wooden mannequins.

Vagueness, too, seemed one of the virtues of Morandi’s “moment” of 1916: his lovely, flattened and opened-out pink still life of Bottles and Fruit Dish, where the far edge of the table top is left charmingly uncertain. The Mattioli Collection is especially rich in Morandis, and the 14 paintings and four drawings included in this selection provided a generous view of his early career. There was a Cubist-looking Landscape of 1914; a Fragment of Composition with Bather of the same year, derived from Cézanne; a Still Life with Traveling Clock of 1915, rather like Wyndham Lewis or Alfred Maurer (not very successful). After the Bottles and Fruit Dish of 1916 came a painting of Roses of 1917, and the more “precisionist”-style The Cactus (both the oil and a watercolor study for it) of 1918–19. Two works of the early 1920s declared a new shift—back to a more traditional, 19th-century naturalism: a Still Life with Lamp of 1923 that looked like the very beginnings of Matisse and a remarkably fresh, unruffled, just sufficiently sketched in Wildflowers of 1924. After this came a lull, or drop, in four thickly painted, very clogged, brown still lifes, with awkward, wobbling outlines, of 1929–31; and then a return to freshness and more effective color, in the last included oil, a Large Still Life of 1935. (That this was not the end of Morandi’s story is shown by the small, sturdy, colorful Still Life of 1953, belonging to the Phillips Collection, that struck a radiant note outside rooms of Braque and De Stael during the “Masters of Modern Italian Art” exhibition.)

This selection from the Mattioli Collection was rounded off with one sculpture apiece by Arturo Martini, Manzù and Marino Marini, and paintings by Massimo Campigli, Gino Bochini (called Scipioni), and Fillipo de Pisis. “Masters of Modern Italian Art” was organized and is being circulated by the International Exhibitions Foundation; the introduction to the very full catalog is by Franco Russoli, Director of the Pinacoteca di Brera of Milan, who also helped with the selection.

Andrew Hudson