The first decade of the 20th century brought the emergence of the avant-garde, a global phenomenon which proposed radical experimentation, social commentary, and artistic versatility. Each country had one or more artists who decided to ride this sweeping wave, while some states were basically cradles of new movements. Such is the case with Italy, where around almost the same time Futurism was born, the Metaphysical painting appeared as well as.
The similarities and differences between the two will be mentioned further in the text; however, although this particular artistic style practically emerged in 1910/11 with the activity of Giorgio de Chirico, other artists such as Alberto Savinio, and Carlo Carrà embraced it during the First World War. The specific dreamy and often eerie aesthetic was characterized by the appliance of sharp contrasts of light and shadow, surrealistic figures and simple yet enigmatic scenery.
The Center for Italian Modern Art is currently hosting an astonishing exhibition titled Metaphysical masterpieces 1916 – 1920: Morandi, Sironi, and Carra. As the title suggests, by focusing on these three leading artists, as well as works by the mentioned de Chirico, it tends to dissect their impact and the influence it made on a generation of upcoming artists.
As the other movements of the times, the Metaphysical painting was also a form of articulation of the nature and role of art and a reaction to the First World War. One year prior to the end of the war, Giorgio de Chirico and his brother Alberto Savinio were sent by the military command to Ferrara, where they met Carlo Carrà and Filippo de Pisis.
On the other hand, Giorgio Morandi was discharged from the army after two months due to severe illness; he returned to work and started practicing Metaphysical painting in 1918. The other significant figure was Mario Sironi who came back from the front at the end of the war, established himself in Milan, abandoned Futurism and embraced Metaphysical painting. During the 1920s, along with several other artists, Sironi founded the Novecento Italiano movement.
Finally, by focusing on early works by Giorgio Morandi and paintings by Carlo Carrà and Mario Sironi, the exhibition offers a thorough overview of pittura metafisica. CIMA President Laura Mattioli explains further:
Thanks to André Breton’s enthusiastic promotion of his work, Giorgio de Chirico is viewed as standing virtually alone in the creation and practice of metaphysical art. Yet metaphysical art was much richer, more complex, and longer-lived than that view would imply. For example, as this exhibition will show, both Sironi and Morandi were profoundly influenced by the poetics of this new avant-garde art and developed a personal version of the metaphysical painting that would prove to be hugely important in the subsequent decades. We are delighted to shed new light on this visionary painting style, which has not received the attention it deserves.
The selection at CIMA gathers the works produced in the short period of 1916–1920 when the first phase of both Cubism and Futurism ended, and when the first impulses of Surrealism and “return to order” (ritorno all’ordine) appeared in the early 1920s.
A small painting called Interno metafisico (con piccolo officinal) / Metaphysical Interior (with Small Factory) made by de Chirico in 1917 welcomes the audience; it is the masterpiece which embodies the ideals of metaphysical art since its palette, theme, and use of perspective became a referential point for other artists in the exhibition.
Following up are works by Carlo Carrà, one of the leading proponents of Futurism until he discovered the Metaphysical painting style. A dominating figure on his paintings is a depersonalized mannequin located in a simplified, yet surrealist surrounding, a signature feature of Metaphysical art. Carrà’s paintings reflect the sense of quiet and stillness, which makes the in opposition with his earlier Futurist works. Another work in this display, L’amante dell’ingegnere (The Engineer’s Mistress) from 1921 is slightly different and it can be interpreted as more Surrealist; the head of a female figure is apparently in a dreamy state accompanied by a compass and other tools of geometry.
The central gallery features Giorgio Morandi’s works. Most of his compositions are reminiscent of metaphysical paintings by Carrà and de Chirico, with mysterious scenes, populated by mannequins and abstract forms. A good example is a still life produced by the artist in 1918 which depicts the bust of a mannequin, viewed from behind, along with a bottle, a rod.
Finally, the works of Mario Sironi are shown at CIMA’s south gallery space. This fascinating figure was also a practitioner of Futurism, a good friend of Boccioni, a designer, sculptor, and illustrator. Sironi didn’t stop producing futurist artworks during and after the WWI, however, he embraced the Metaphysical style as well. The painting La Venere dei porti (Venus of the Ports) from 1919 depicts mannequins, solid and motionless, while La lampada (The Lamp) made during the same year depicts on a similarly expressionless mannequin-woman in a domestic interior.
The exhibition is curated by James Bradburne, the director of Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, an institution from which majority of the works are loaned, some of them being on display in The States for the first time.
Metaphysical Masterpieces 1916–1920: Morandi, Sironi, and Carrà will be on display at the Center for Italian Modern Art in New York until 15 June 2019.
Featured images: Installation views of Metaphysical Masterpieces: Morandi, Sironi, and Carrà at the Center for Italian Modern Art. Photo: Dario Lasagni