From Morandi to Balla, Magnelli and Severini: why did still-life painting flourish in early 20th-century Italy?

Although more readily associated with countries north of the Alps, still-life painting was adopted by many modern Italian artists in styles ranging from Cubism to Metaphysical Painting and even Futurism. A number of these diverse works are offered online from 24 May

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Gino Severini (1883-1966), Natura morta con uva e pere, 1942-43. Oil on board. 24 x 29.7 cm. Sold for €30,240 on 7 June 2023 at Christie’s Online

The novelist Umberto Eco, when discussing the still-life pictures of Giorgio Morandi, said he was left in awe at ‘how so much spirituality can be expressed… through such humble items’.

Morandi is the best known of Italy’s 20th-century still-life painters, but he was by no means a one-off. A plethora of his compatriots worked successfully in the same genre, from Florence’s Alberto Magnelli, and Sicily’s Francesco Trombadori to the Turin-born Felice Carena. Still-life paintings by this trio and several others feature in Centuries of Beauty — A Refined Private Collection, held online between 24 May and 7 June 2023 by Christie’s in Milan.

How to explain the popularity of this genre among Italian artists of the 20th century, particularly in its first half? On the face of it, such pervasiveness might seem unexpected, as the still life tends to be associated with the pictorial traditions of other countries. As the Italian art historian Adolfo Venturi put it in 1913, this was ‘a genre which until now has been regarded as the exclusive property of painters north of the Alps’.

The still life — a depiction of inanimate objects positioned together, usually on a table — is most readily connected with the 17th-century Netherlands, where the wealthy bourgeoisie filled their homes with secular paintings of this type. Though loaded with symbolism — about the brevity of life on Earth, for example — Dutch still lifes lacked the overtly religious narrative that was so common in art of the same time from Catholic countries.

‘One of the striking things about the still lifes of early-20th-century Italy is their diversity... [artists took] the genre in many different directions’ — Roberta Cremoncini, director of the Estorick Collection

It’s wrong to think that Italy had no tradition in this genre at all, however. Still-life paintings can still, in fact, be seen on the walls of ancient villas in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Also worth mentioning is Caravaggio’s famous Basket of Fruit (1597-1600), today found in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan. Portraying a wicker basket brimming with grapes and figs, along with other fruits and leaves, this canvas kick-started a whole trend — in Rome and Naples, in particular — for dramatic, naturalistic still lifes.

All of which is to say that paintings in the genre in question by Italians of the 20th century didn’t come completely out of the blue. The innovative still lifes of Paul Cezanne — whose work was shown prominently at the Venice Biennale of 1920 — were also an influence.

So too, crucially, was the rise of formalism across European art at this time, which emphasised a work’s purely visual aspects over its narrative content. (The self-contained nature of still-life scenes lends itself naturally to formalist experiment.)

‘One of the striking things about the still lifes of early-20th-century Italy is their diversity,’ says Roberta Cremoncini, director of the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art in London. ‘They appeared in many different styles [courtesy of] artists taking the genre in many different directions.’

A glance at the collection coming to auction supports that view. Bruno Cassinari brought a Cubist touch to Le poisson noire (‘The Black Fish’), below; Ennio Morlotti’s thick impasto rendered his Natura morta (‘Still Life’), above, quasi-abstract; while Felice Carena’s Uva e pere (‘Grapes and Pears’) is positively Cezanne-esque.

Filippo de Pisis’s Capriccio metafisico (‘Metaphysical Capriccio’), below, featuring a cockerel next to a pair of cherries, is an example of the Metaphysical Painting style, which saw objects juxtaposed in unlikely combinations. And Francesco Trombadori’s Natura morta (‘Still Life’) reflected the call of the Novecento movement for an end to all avant-gardism and a return to classical values.

‘There was certainly a renaissance for still-life painting at the start of the 20th century, but it was a renaissance of great variety,’ says Cremoncini. Even a handful of the artists associated with Futurism embraced the genre.

Launched in 1909, this was a modernist movement which lauded ‘the beauty of speed’ and the energy of the machine age — not an obvious environment in which to paint still-life pictures, but but Giacomo Balla and Gino Severini are two examples of Futurists who did. The former produced several exuberantly colourful paintings of flowers; the latter is represented in the upcoming sale by Natura morta con uva e pere (‘Still Life with Grapes and Pears’), below — although he had moved on from Futurism by the time he painted it.

The period under consideration was dominated, politically, by the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, who led Italy for more than two decades after assuming power in 1922. Might one suggest that the boom in the still life — an ostensibly uncontroversial genre — was a response to demands on artists from a conservative state?

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Cremoncini isn’t convinced. ‘Italy was different from Germany,’ she says. ‘Where Hitler sought to suppress radical artistic tendencies, Mussolini’s regime, by contrast, never issued directives concerning aesthetic matters. I suppose you might say that some artists retreated into still-life scenes as an act of introspection at a time of political complexity, but that certainly wasn’t the motivation for all of them.’

It’s worth adding that numerous still lifes were painted in Italy in the years before Mussolini’s rise, and numerous others were painted in the years after his fall. In other words, one perhaps shouldn’t look for too much of a correlation between politics and art. Better just to enjoy the fruits of a genre whose artists brought plenty to the table.

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