New York

Alberto Savinio

Paolo Baldacci Gallery

Alberto Savinio (1891–1952) spent much of his life trying to dodge the shadow cast by his older brother Giorgio de Chirico. Just as the need to establish a separate identity pushed him to adopt another name, so it may have stimulated the distinct singularity of his work in a number of different media. Savinio’s first efforts were as a composer and writer. While his music is no longer played, his remarkable books—fiction, plays, essays—remain highly regarded in Italy, and several have been translated into English. Savinio’s first efforts as a painter, around 1926, show clear evidence of the influence of his already successful brother, but it should be remembered that their shared themes had all been developed as much through Savinio’s early literary and musical efforts as through de Chirico’s paintings. In this sense, the brothers truly were Dioscuri (twin stars), as they liked to call themselves, though, as the art historian Luigi Cavallo once observed, Savinio’s paintings also reveal a mischievous streak: the “manipulation and ironic abuse of those models that in all seriousness had been de Chirico’s formative patrimony.”

Savinio’s work has not been shown previously in the United States. Fortunately, this recent exhibition—a concise show that emphasized early work (1927–31) but also included a handful of postwar paintings—presented a number of his most significant pieces. It gave a clear idea both of the range of subjects and of Savinio’s style, with its collagelike juxtapositions of figuration and abstraction, mannerism and naturalism, which at times recall the late work of Francis Picabia. Savinio revels in paradox: he looks at irrationality—at man’s eccentricities, perversions, obsessions, and myths—indulgently, but with the eye of a rationalist, so that his work is at once humorous and ironic, with a pessimistic, disturbing undertone. Many of the paintings derive from photographs of Savinio’s childhood but in a depersonalized form; they read as sly profanations of bourgeois family relations. The most memorable of these works may be Les Ennemis de l’Olympe (The enemies of Olympus, 1929), in which the brothers are seen as more than just twins; as their intimate conspiratorial whisperings fuse the two nude figures into one, their very identities seem to merge. Presumably, despite all we know of classical Greek mores, it is the blatantly homoerotic nature of this too-closeness that defines it for Savinio as inimical to the natural order—whether that order is represented figuratively, by the Olympian gods, or abstractly, as Platonic “patterns in the heavens.” But the former are absent, unless the depicted twins are to be understood as both Olympians and their enemies, while the latter are ironically realized as colorful but arbitrary ornamental forms floating freely in the air.

In another painting of the same year, the two figures, abstracted and faceless, are, as the title indicates, gardiens d’objets (custodians of objects). They pose with vain drama before a “trophy”—a pile, not of conquered weapons, but of useless volumetric forms. As Pia Vivarelli points out in the exhibition catalogue, Savinio’s figures “are both heroic and shapeless,” a combination that enables him to give the universality he discerns even in contemporary reality an ironic twist.

Barry Schwabsky