Alberto Savinio, Les Dioscures (The Dioscuri), 1929, oil on canvas, 25 5⁄8 × 21 1⁄4".

Alberto Savinio, Les Dioscures (The Dioscuri), 1929, oil on canvas, 25 5⁄8 × 21 1⁄4".

Alberto Savinio

An eclectic artist with many talents—music, writing, painting—Alberto Savinio fully inhaled the avant-garde climate of the early twentieth century. Born Andrea de Chirico in Athens in 1891, he studied music in Munich, then arrived in Paris in 1910. Adopting the name Alberto Savinio, he made his debut in 1914 with Les chants de la mi-mort (Songs of the Half-Dead), a dramatic poem and a suite for piano. For Guillaume Apollinaire, he was a “poet, painter, and playwright, similar to the versatile geniuses of the Renaissance.” One of Savinio’s most intimate paintings, Le rêve du poète (The Poet’s Dream), 1927, is thought to represent Apollinaire: It shows a young man with vacant eyes lost in a melancholy dream about a beloved friend. In his writings of the 1920s, themes emerge that he would later express in painting: a critique of the moral degeneration of the bourgeoisie, and a dismantling of classical myths and heroes through sarcasm and black humor. Beginning in 1925, he began to devote himself to painting, at first clearly influenced by his elder brother, Giorgio de Chirico, but quickly finding his own style: that of a rule breaker with a lingering nostalgia for an enchanted past.

Savinio glimpsed the end of an old, already disintegrating world, of which only fragments and shards remain, punctuated by brightly colored flashes. But the new world was still confused, in suspension, a puzzle in formation. His invented architectures, fallen apart and recomposed, are anti-Cubist geometries—light, aerial, transparent. Among the works he made following the birth of his daughter Angelica in 1928 are ones in which we see piles of toys deposited near sun-drenched Mediterranean beaches; the freshness of their hues is striking. These monumental, colorful constructions maintain a look of enchantment. Tied to the Nietzschean theme of the child who in playing shapes the world with their innocence, Savinio, with the same curious spirit, breaks down, reassembles, and reinterprets reality as if it were an enormous toy.

His ingenuity is mixed with witty irony. But beware: He can also grow fierce. In his anti-bourgeois portraits, monstrous hybridizations of animal heads on human bodies bring to mind the metamorphoses of Max Ernst. Like Ernst, Savinio drew on nineteenth-century illustration, creating environments where common sense is perverted by biting sarcasm. No one is safe: heroes, gods, Penelope, Niobe. Sumptuously dressed women flaunt absurd duck or pelican heads, ridiculous in their presumed superiority as they sit for family portraits. In Savinio’s subversive vision, even landscape becomes absurd: Vistas open up onto dark forests, while zigzagging geometries plummet in free fall from the sky. Oblique windows look out onto skies split by dotted lightning bolts, as in the stunning Les Dioscures (The Dioscuri), 1929, where two male nudes, endowed with monumental Mannerist body torsions and tiny ovoid heads, embody the artist’s ambiguous feelings about his bond with his brother.

Titled “Savinio: Incanto e mito” (Enchantment and Myth), this exhibition, masterfully curated by Ester Coen, brings together approximately ninety works, focusing on the golden years of Savinio’s Parisian production, between 1925 and 1932, and on his activity as a theatrical set and costume designer in the late 1940s in Italy. (He died in Rome in 1952.) The Greek, Roman, and Egyptian masterpieces housed in the Palazzo Altemps, a sumptuous fifteenth-century building that is part of the National Roman Museum, establish a close dialogue with Savinio’s works, showing surprising analogies and influences. At times we discover the same gestures and postures, with some ironic twist: The bust of Savinio’s Apollo, 1931, a vain god with the head of a duck, all muscles and little brain, rises up pompously from an Ionic capital, but his arms are positioned like those of a Roman copy of a fifth-century BCE Hermes Logios—the god of eloquence—in the museum’s collection. Savinio freely distorted myth, history, and personal memories, using metamorphosis and grotesque hybridization as sources of an exuberant pictorial vitality.

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.