Emilio Pettoruti (1892-1971)
Emilio Pettoruti (1892-1971)
Emilio Pettoruti (1892-1971)
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Emilio Pettoruti (1892-1971)

Testa di donna

Emilio Pettoruti (1892-1971)
Testa di donna
signed and dated 'Pettoruti 1920' (lower left), signed and dated again (on the reverse)
oil on board
25 x 15 in. (64 x 38.1cm.)
Painted in 1920.
Primo Conti collection.
Private collection, Forte dei Marmi.
By descent from the above.
Anon. sale; Christie's, New York, 19 November 2007, lot 26.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.

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Lot Essay

Emilio Pettoruti departed the port of Buenos Aires for Italy on August 7, 1913, setting out on what would be a deeply stimulating, eleven-year encounter with the European avant-garde. Leaving the “land of my parents and of all of my ancestors,” he reminisced in his autobiography, he sailed first to Rio de Janeiro—where he “went from one surprise to another, as someone opening his eyes to a magical world”—and then on to Dakar before disembarking at Genoa a month later (Un pintor ante el espejo, Buenos Aires, 2004, p. 27, 29). Pettoruti settled first in Florence, where he stayed until 1917, and then sojourned briefly in Rome before establishing himself in Milan, which became his primary base until he returned to Argentina in July 1924. He was able to travel more easily within Europe after the war ended, and in the latter years of his stay he journeyed to Austria, Germany, and France, exhibiting at Berlin’s prestigious Der Sturm gallery in 1923 and meeting the Salon Cubists in Paris the following year. Pettoruti’s early engagement with Cubism and Futurism yielded rich dividends in works such as Testa di donna, and by the end of his time abroad he had cultivated an inventive language of expressionism characterized by geometric rigor and spatial and dynamic color.

The Milan that Pettoruti met in the fall of 1917 was a shadow of the anarchic Futurist city of 1910, and its retrenchment from the bellicose nihilism of the recent past coincided with a revaluation of its earlier avant-garde. Pettoruti arrived just before the disaster of Caporetto, a moment in which the specter of war loomed unnervingly near, as he acknowledged in his memoir; but he delighted in the artistic ambience of the city and was quickly adopted by the Milanese intelligentsia, who welcomed him into their café culture and exhibition circle. Milan emerged as the seat of a classicizing movement known as the Novecento, and Pettoruti’s friendship with many of the group’s principals—among them Raffaello Giolli, Margherita Sarfatti, and particularly Piero Marussig—resulted in his admission as socio pittore into the Famiglia Artistica, a cultural society to which many of the future Novecentisti belonged. The group’s reaffirmation of traditional artistic values resonated with the classicizing interests of Pettoruti’s own work and interests at the time, particularly in his handling of light and space.

“The needs of composition led him to a greater emphasis on volume and values, to the freeing of color, to an architectonic balance rare in nature, complex but extremely rich,” wrote Pettoruti’s great friend and occasional travel companion, Xul Solar, in 1924. “Poetic necessity, in the end, demanded that he base the entire canvas on his chosen subject, and adjust all the elements and means in his employ. . . . We will see some arrays of color, some cubes, some cylinders, and planes piled up: and a portrait will result.” Among the portraits that ensued is Testa di donna, a striking image of a modern woman, her eyes peering out from under a fashionable cloche. Tonal swaths of ocher give dimension to her face; ruddy, geometric colors describe the design of her dress in rhythmically overlapping planes, conveying energy and movement. The painting’s chromatic radiance, balanced between warm and cool colors and strong contrasts of value, animates the portrait, lending its subject an air of stylish sophistication and modernity. “There exists a well-defined tendency toward simplicity of means, toward clear and solid architecture, toward the pure plastic sense that protects and accents the abstract meanings of line, mass, and color, all within a complete liberty of subject and composition,” Solar concluded. “Because the wars of independence for our America are not yet over. In art, one of the strongest warriors is Emilio Pettoruti” (“Emilio Pettoruti,” trans. Patrick Frank, Readings in Latin American Modern Art, New Haven, 2004, pp. 20-21).

Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park

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