VAT rate of 5% is payable on hammer price and at 15% on the buyer's premium
La natura morta italiana
For any Italian artist of the last century, a colossal dilemma was presented: how was one to reconcile the age of modernity, of machines, of science, with more than two millennia of history of figurative art? Visiting Rome, Florence, Venice, Naples, Palermo, Genoa, Milan and so forth, one is constantly aware of the intense visual and cultural heritage that both inspires and weighs down upon the developing artist. From Etruscan tombs to Roman grottoes to Romanesque churches to the Scrovegni Chapel, to say nothing of the Renaissance... The endemic nature of the pictorial culture in Italy is both boon and burden. It is intriguing, then, to find that so many Italian artists of the last hundred years have nonetheless or because of this turned to the highly traditional-seeming motif of the still life.
While the still life had previously not enjoyed the same favour in Italy as it had in the more Northern, and especially Netherlandish, schools, it was nonetheless a consistent feature, as seen in the Roman frescoes and earlier. The secular nature of Northern Renaissance-period art meant that such subjects necessarily replaced some of the religious art of the Catholic nations, which naturally continued to thrive in Italy. However, the very fact that similar domestic objects and foodstuffs surrounded the artists and people of countries, regardless of religious preference, meant that they appeared in artistic representations. Sometimes still life painting mimicked reality in two dimensions, and sometimes the objects of the everyday world were used as hooks to anchor a painting to the viewer, to convey a meaning.
It is in this context, perhaps, that the sense of bounty that is invoked by Andrea Mantegna's garlands should be seen, and more so Carlo Crivelli's idiosyncratic religious paintings, which are replete with overspilling fruit and vegetables. In Caravaggio's paintings a century later, the still life broke free of narrative tradition with his depiction of a basket of fruit standing alone, essentially a novelty in artistic terms at the time with only a few scattered precedents in Italian painting. But Caravaggio also used still life elements to convey a bounty more sensual than that of Crivelli, for instance in his classical- and secular-themed pictures of strangely eroticised youths, be they Bacchus (healthy or depleted) or a boy bitten by a lizard. This is only natural, one assumes: painters are bound to present the viewer with items from the world around, and likewise to appeal to a domestic, even democratic, iconography of common objects. This is used in another way in the marquetry of the celebrated Studiolo in the palace of Urbino, where the instruments of science and literature, worship and warmongering alike are all represented, some of them arcane in their uses and meanings, others clearly displaying for all to see the interests, beliefs, skills, achievements and intentions of the room's owner, Federico da Montefeltro. The hermetic and hieratic aspects of these various examples of the Italian still life in the work and time of the Old Masters provided elements that would be touched upon again and again by their Twentieth Century descendents.
Working within the constraints of this genre, many artists over the past hundred years have managed to bridge the gap between their cultural inheritance and the need to present the modern world in a modern way, and this is clearly demonstrated through the cross-section of paintings that comprise the discerningly-assembled private collection which is being offered here. These pictures show that in many ways the still life, formerly a sideline of Italian art, in fact came into its own in the Twentieth Century. It was traditional enough that Italian artists could confront or embrace their cultural legacy, yet secular enough that they could do so in their own terms and with modern means.
Paradoxically, some of the painters represented in this collection have navigated this divide between the old and the new, the traditional and the current, by avoiding any overbearing modernity, any stylisation that would distract the viewer and detract from the painting. This is clearly the case in the timeless still life paintings of Morandi and in the 'classical' paintings of de Chirico. Where Morandi was tapping into a timeless sense of beauty and order through the simple, Spartan means of the dusty objects in his studio, de Chirico actively and overtly linked himself to the artistic traditions of the past in order to harness and convey the atmosphere - the Nietzschean Stimmung - that forces our awareness of the concurrent existence of all times, of the cyclical nature of history and its constant presence in our lives. This tied into his statement, his motto: 'PICTOR CLASSICUS SUM.' Indeed, the fruit in his 1915 still life appear to be the cousins of those that featured in the paintings of predecessors as diverse as Crivelli and Caravaggio. While de Chirico's painted fruit do not appear to contain specific codified meanings, they are potently packed with meaningfulness.
Meaning in the still life genre has often taken the form of the vanitas or memento mori, a factor that was often exploited in the pictures of the Twentieth Century Italian artists. Certainly, this awareness appears to inform de Chirico's still life, but also lurks behind many of the others. However, the point of such content has changed: it is no longer necessarily a warning to the viewer, but is instead a reflection by the artists, and this became especially true during the troubles and tensions of the 1930s and 1940s, with the rise of Fascism, the increasing difficulty this provided for avant-garde artists, and finally the outbreak of war. With the changing attitudes to and of artists during the Twentieth Century, it is unsurprising to note that the still life became the premise for this manner of increasingly intense and intimate introspection. However, these were not limited to death: in Pirandello's paintings, a uniquely expressive realism is channelled into his pulpy canvases, conveying an intense subjectivity as a corner of his existence appears to be spilled onto the picture surface. Meanwhile in Mafai's painting, the studio and the role of the painter are explored and celebrated, showing an awareness of his vocation and an expressionistic urge to convey something of his own situation. The arrangement of the still life objects enacts a strange scene in its own right. The still life, selected as a genre by many artists in part because of its traditional associations, was perfectly suited for such an exploration of art about art. This would also be the case, albeit in a less anguished or autobiographical way, for Alberto Magnelli, who often during the early, formative part of his career used still life motifs not so much for explorations of his own soul, but instead as the pretexts for explorations of an increasingly codified form of representation involving bold colour fields and increasingly abstracted, geometric forms. It was in works such as the still life in this collection by Magnelli that the artist studiously but relentlessly pursued his path towards full abstraction.
It is as a witty coda to this collection that Michelangelo Pistoletto's Il cordone appears in this group. Superficially, this would seem to be the simplest of the still life paintings, representing only a simple rope. And yet in the polished surface is reflected the world of the viewer, meaning that, like so many of the still life paintings in this collection, the boundaries of the genre have been stretched and broken as the traditional has been tackled and toppled by the artists of the modern era.
THE PROPERTY OF A GENTLEMAN