Exposition au musée

Dolce Vita? From the Liberty to Italian Design (1900-1940)

From April 14th to September 13th, 2015
Antonio Donghi
Circo equestre (Cirque équestre), 1927
Collection particulière
© Droits réservés © Luca Carrà fotografo / DR

Dolce vita ?

Dolce vita ?

Carlo Bugatti-Psyché
Carlo Bugatti
Psyché, 1902
Paris, musée d'Orsay
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt

In Italy in the early 20th century, the decorative arts simultaneously benefitted from the legacy of a major arts and crafts and artistic tradition and interpreted the recently unified nation’s desire for progress. Cabinetmakers, ceramicists and master glassmakers worked together with major artists to create an “Italian style”, which would influence the birth of modern design.
This rich, complex creative process, powerfully steeped in enthusiasm, took place against a very dark and difficult historical backdrop, culminating in the tragedy of Mussolini’s regime.
It is therefore necessary to ask questions about the value of this experience, and this is reflected in the title of the exhibition. How can exceptional creativity exist in a country heading for disaster? Did a “dolce vita” come into being before the expression was immortalised by Frederico Fellini in the 1960s?
The decorative arts in this era, ranging from the eccentric furniture of Carlo Bugatti to Marcello Piacentini’s unusual red chairs and the extravagant objects produced by the Futurists, exuded joyful creativity, a limitless capacity for invention and, above all, defined that quintessential Italian style which is still a distinctive feature of design, fashion and art.

The season of liberty

The season of liberty

Eugenio Quarti-Guéridon circulaire
Eugenio Quarti
Guéridon circulaire, vers 1900
Paris, musée d'Orsay
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / DR

Liberty was the name adopted by Art Nouveau in Italy, a country that had only recently been unified (1861). In the early twentieth century, the young kingdom was still culturally and economically divided into multiple regional realities.It was in the north of the country – where the process of industrialization had begun, consolidating an entrepreneurial middle class – that artists and craftsmen began to touch upon modernity.
In a climate of optimism, with liberal Prime Minister Giolitti in power, the First International Exhibition of Modern Decorative Arts was inaugurated in 1902 in Turin. Carlo Bugatti presented furniture covered with parchment, fantastically shaped and zoomorphic; Eugenio Quarti stood out for the lightness of his furniture inlaid with mother of pearl and metal wires; the blacksmith Alessandro Mazzucotelli exposed wrought iron works inspired by nature.

Giovanni Segantini-L'amore alla fonte della vita (L'amour aux sources de la vie)
Giovanni Segantini
L'amore alla fonte della vita (L'amour aux sources de la vie), 1896
Milano, Galleria d'Arte Moderna, Inv. GAM 7597
© Galleria d'Arte Moderna Milano

These exponents of various artistic disciplines had many points of contact with each other: the painter Giovanni Segantini, Bugatti’s brother-in-law, was one of the leading figures of Divisionism, a movement that came to the fore in the last decade of the 19th century. Like Gaetano Previati and Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo, he used the new technique to represent content inspired by international symbolism, often tinged with social concerns.

Strong regional identities

Strong regional identities

Vittorio Zecchin-Le Mille e una notte (Les Mille et une nuits)
Vittorio Zecchin
Le Mille e una notte (Les Mille et une nuits), vers 1914
Musée d'Orsay
© Musée d'Orsay / Sophie Crépy
See the notice of the artwork

Italy is a country of isolated sources of excellence creating original styles, often inspired by different regional traditions.
Venice, thanks to its geographical position, has always been a crossroads of cultures. Since 1895 it is the seat of the Biennale, the leading venue for international exhibitions. The art of glass, practised in the island of Murano, has for centuries been a local specialty.
It was as a master glassmaker that Vittorio Zecchin began his work as an artist-craftsman from 1910 onward. An eclectic personality, he devoted himself to painting, but also to the creation of furniture, tapestries, mosaics, in a fablesque style that mixed Byzantine influences and secessionist suggestions. In 1914, he produced a sumptuous decorative cycle on the theme of the Arabian Nights for the Hotel Terminus, a masterpiece of the Venetian Liberty style.

Galileo Chini-Vaso a penne di pavone e piccole sfere (Vase à plûmes de paon et petites sphères)
Galileo Chini
Vaso a penne di pavone e piccole sfere (Vase à plûmes de paon et petites sphères), vers 1910
Bottegone (Pistoia), collection particulière
© DR

In Florence, Galileo Chini, a painter and ceramist, although influenced by the Renaissance legacy, reached an independent and original Liberty style through innovative forms and techniques.
In Faenza, Domenico Baccarini added a poetic touch to this new language in his ceramics.
At the beginning of the century, Rome, the traditionalist capital, closed behind its ancient walls, was surrounded by an unspoilt countryside that artists were exploring, drawing their inspiration from nature. Duilio Cambellotti, like his student Alberto Gerardi, transformed the archaic landscape populated by buffalo, sheep and shepherds into modern objects.
The Sicilian architect Ernesto Basile, assisted by Vittorio Ducrot, combined his island’s Arab-Norman legacy with the international Art Nouveau.

Futuristic reconstruction of the universe

Futuristic reconstruction of the universe

Umberto Boccioni-Visioni simultanee (Visions simultanées)
Umberto Boccioni
Visioni simultanee (Visions simultanées), 1912
Wuppertal, Von der Heydt-Museum
© Medienzentrum Wuppertal / antje zeis-loi

An avant-garde movement founded by the poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in 1909, Futurism was opposed to the “traditionalism” of bourgeois, academic and museum culture. It expressed the desire for renewal then prevalent among younger artists, proposing a new aesthetic based on the exaltation of progress and speed.
Responding to Marinetti’s call, Giacomo Balla, Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo and Gino Severini in February 1910 signed the Manifesto of Futurist Painters and the following April, the Technical Manifesto. They translated into painting the desire to “render and magnify” the “miracles of contemporary life”, to represent the “dynamic sensation” of metropolises undergoing constant transformation.
Dynamism was the essence of the new painting: it was no longer a case of capturing a moment of life, but “the eternal, omnipresent speed”. The result was a revolutionary language that, through “simultaneity of vision” translated into a dynamic interpenetration of colours and shapes, intended to “put the viewer at the centre of the painting”.

Fortunato Depero-Cavalcata Fantastica (Chevauchée fantastique)
Fortunato Depero
Cavalcata Fantastica (Chevauchée fantastique), 1920
Genève, collection particulière
© ADAGP, Paris 2015 © Photo Vitorio Calore

“We Futurists, Balla and Depero, wish to achieve a total fusion to reconstruct the universe and render it more joyful, that is to say undertake a complete re-creation.” With these words, Balla and Depero launched the manifesto for The Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe in March 1915. It inaugurated a second season of Futurism that would last until the beginning of the 1940s, during which time the futurist aesthetic extended into all fields of art and life.
In Rome, the house where Balla lived and worked was a virtual trade fair, where everything was for sale, from tablecloths to lamps. His dining room, designed in 1918 and built with plain wood, had eccentric, dynamic, colourful shapes. Depero, in Rovereto, opened his «House of the Magician» where he created tapestries, advertising posters, and toys, inspired by a fantastic mechanical humanity. Following in their footsteps, many futurists in the twenties opened «art houses» in various Italian cities.

Metafisica, a dream disguised as ancient

Metafisica, a dream disguised as ancient

Giorgio de Chirico-Mobili nella valle (Meubles dans la vallée)
Giorgio de Chirico
Mobili nella valle (Meubles dans la vallée), 1927
Mart, Museo di arte moderna e contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto ?R collection LF"
MART
© ADAGP, Paris 2015 © MART ?R Emanuele Tonoli" / emanuele tonoli

In 1917, Giorgio de Chirico, a painter of Greek origin who had always been far from the avant-garde world, met Filippo de Pisis and Carlo Carrà at the military hospital in Ferrara. Out of this encounter was born, in the midst of World War I, the Metafisica movement, that art critic Fritz Neugass would later describe as “a dream disguised as ancient”. For a short time, Giorgio Morandi was also involved in the movement.
With Metafisica, Italian painting rediscovered a dialogue with classical art that would fully mature during the 1920s: references to the classical myth, which since 1910 were already present in paintings anticipating the new aesthetics (such as L'ennemie du poète), became a central element in the work of the two “dioscuri”, the brothers Giorgio and Andrea de Chirico (known by the pseudonym Alberto Savinio).

Giorgio Morandi-Natura morta (metafisica) (Nature morte (métaphysique))
Giorgio Morandi
Natura morta (metafisica) (Nature morte (métaphysique)), 1918
Parme, Fondazione Magnani Rocca
© ADAGP, Paris 2015 © Fondazione Magnani Rocca, Parma (Italie) ?R Foto Amoretti"

It was reinterpreted into representations that sought to investigate the deep and hidden meaning of things through unexpected associations, poetic conversations between objects having no logical connection between them. Busts, plasters, ancient fragments coexisted in an alienating continuity with everyday objects.
Though Metafisica was an exclusively pictorial movement, a similar sensibility developed in parallel in the decorative arts. An enchanted

gaze, suspended somewhere between classical inspiration and Deco taste, distinguishes Gio Ponti’s ceramics, while a sense of disorientation is found

in the ironic and surprising glass creations by Buzzi and Martinuzzi for Venini.
In 1918, Felice Casorati had just settled in Turin. The industrialist Riccardo Gualino, a collector and patron, commissioned him to refurbish his house and create a small theatre in 1924.
Casorati also designed furniture for his own home. The use of black polished wood with pared down lines devoid of any ornamentation helped to create the frozen, timeless atmosphere which is also typical of his paintings. Ahead of their time, the simplified shapes drew their inspiration from the style of the Primitive masters of the Italian Trecento and Quattrocento.

Novecento, modern classicism

Novecento, modern classicism

Felice Casorati-Silvana Cenni
Felice Casorati
Silvana Cenni, 1922
Turin, collection particulière
© ADAGP, Paris 2015 © Photo Pino Dell'Aquila

Half way into the first decade of the 20th century, many artists, in opposition to the language of avant-garde, began to rediscover the values of tradition and the lessons of the ancient masters, from Giotto to Piero della Francesca.
The painting Silvana Cenni by Felice Casorati stands as a fascinating testimony of this “return to order” that was spreading across the whole of Europe.
1922 saw the birth of the Novecento Italiano movement, supported by influential art critic Margherita Sarfatti. Among the first to join were Sironi, Funi and Oppi, who, looking back into the past, gave rise to a “modern classicism” founded on purity of forms and harmony of composition.
In the decorative arts, the dominant figure was that of architect Gio Ponti, who, in the 1920s, reinterpreted for the porcelain manufacturing firm Richard-Ginori archaic types such as urns and cists and invented hundreds of decorations, ironic reinterpretations of classical mythology.
In Murano, Paolo Venini entrusted the management of his glassworks to artists and architects such as Zecchin, Martinuzzi, and Scarpa, who created pure forms, with a classical inspiration but drawing on innovative processing techniques.

Napoleone Martinuzzi-Amfora pulegosa (Amphore pulegosa)
Napoleone Martinuzzi
Amfora pulegosa (Amphore "pulegosa"), 1925-1927
Gardone Riviera, Fondazione Il Vittoriale degli Italiani
© DR © Fondazione Il Vittoriale degli Italiani, fotografia di Augusto Rizza

Aligning with the artistic Novecento, which would become the “official” expression of the fascist regime, the production of furniture took on robust and simplified forms (by Portaluppi furniture for the Corbellini home), sometimes with more grandiloquent accents.
The “solid, concrete and definitive” language of the Novecento movement was flanked in the 1920s by Magical Realism, a current that was proposing an original interpretation of the widespread climate of a return to classicism. The lesson of the masters of the 15th century could be seen through the deep concerns of contemporary perception: the result, according to Massimo Bontempelli, was “an atmosphere of lucid astonishment (...), almost another dimension into which our life is projected”.
Among the leading interpreters of this current are Felice Casorati and Antonio Donghi, an author of bourgeois scenes set in a motionless and alienating dimension.

Abstraction and rationalism, towards industrial design

Abstraction and rationalism, towards industrial design

Franco Albini-Mobile radio
Franco Albini
Mobile radio, 1938
Milan, Fondazione Franco Albini
© DR © Fondazione Franco Albini, www.fondazionefrancoalbini.com

In 1926, a group of young architects in Lombardy, including Giuseppe Terragni, influenced by the theories of Gropius and Le Corbusier, for whom the shapes of buildings and objects are determined by their function, founded “Gruppo 7”, giving life to the Italian rationalist movement. Soon architects from all over Italy became members.
They created furniture with pure lines, devoid of any decoration, using innovative materials such as metal tubing, leading to the integration of the arts with the world of industry and production.

Gio Ponti-Lampe Bilia
Gio Ponti
Lampe "Bilia", 1931
Corsico, FontanaArte
© DR © FontanaArte

In Como, Terragni designed a building symbolising the Modern movement, the Casa del Fasciowith the abstract artists Manlio Rho and Mario Radice contributing to the decoration. Abstract art and rationalist architecture were thus laying the foundations of industrial design.
Among the most significant examples of this transition period are innovative objects such as Franco Albini’s Radio and Gio Ponti’s Bilia Lamp, designed in 1931, judged far too avant-garde at the time, and only put into production many years later.