‘We were all so impatient to show our presence to the world and to transplant our old country at the heart of the spiritual modern movement’
(Aldo Palazzeschi, describing his trip to Paris with Alberto Magnelli in 1914, quoted in Magnelli, exh. cat., Paris, 1989, p. 174)
La Cafetière is a bold, radically innovative work by Alberto Magnelli. Painted in 1914, the picture dates from a crucial period in the career of the artist, at the time when, having returned from Paris, where he had occasion to experience the spirit and breakthroughs of the Avant-garde, he gave a strong new emphasis to his work that would eventually lead to the characteristic abstraction of his later works. La Cafetière belongs to a series of still lives depicting domestic objects against brightly coloured geometric backgrounds which the artist executed around 1914. In the present work, a coffee maker and a flask of wine are cloistered into a composition of coloured fields. The contrast between the stylised realism of the objects and the abstract space they inhabit engenders an unusual tension, for which these two modes of representations compete, one against the other: the round contour of the purple section wanting to become the edge of a table and the forms of the coffee marker appearing all the more geometrical.
La Cafetière represents a radical departure from Magnelli’s earlier works. The artist’s first pictures displayed a simplified realism which in 1910 started showing the influence of Gustave Klimt, whose works Magnelli saw at the 1910 Venice Biennale, where he exhibited his own paintings. It was, however, between 1913 and 1914 that Magnelli – a self-taught painter – was exposed to the influence of the Avant-garde more significantly. Several times in 1913, the artist visited the Futurist exhibition, organised at the library Gonelli in Florence. The experience of dynamic, complex Futurist painting may have led Magnelli towards Cubism; that same year the artist bought Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger’s book Du Cubisme and Guillaume Apollinaire’s Les Peintres cubistes. He also personally acquired Carlo Carrà’s La galleria di Milano, one of the most cubist works to have been produced by the Italian Avant-garde, for the collection of his uncle. By 1913, Magnelli was thus aware of the radical changes which Cubism and Futurism had brought to figurative paintings and he was eager to explore a new language himself.
In 1914, Magnelli went to Paris, where he encountered the work of artists which would prove fundamental in the developing of his own art. The occasion for the trip – although fervently welcomed – came by chance. The Futurist poet Aldo Palazzeschi remembered its fortuitous beginnings: ‘On one of the early days of March 1914, one morning, I was hastily walking down via Tornabuoni (…) Thus I met the painter Alberto Magnelli, whom I had know since childhood (…). “I am going to Paris. My train is today at 3 pm”. I was indeed going to join my friends Papini and Soffici (…) Carrà was also there and it would not be long before Boccioni join us too (…) Magnelli looked at me right in the eyes, all beaming, and speaking with his feet firmly on the ground as though he wanted to plant himself in it, he declared with resolution: “I am coming too”. “But how are you going to get ready for the trip? I am already prepared…”, “Don’t worry, I will take care of it. See you at three at the train station”’ (Aldo Palazzeschi, describing his trip to Paris with Alberto Magnelli in 1914, in Magnelli, exh. cat., Paris, 1989, p. 174). And so, in 1914, through the Italian Futurists, Magnelli arrived in Paris. There he was to discover Avant-garde art that would bear a resolute influence on his career and, more specifically, on the creation of works such as La Cafetière.
In a sketch, which Magnelli made around 1914 of himself in his atelier in Florence, visible on the easel, is a picture similar to La Cafetière (illustrated in Magnelli, exh. cat., Paris, 1989, p. 176). It has been argued in fact that the series to which La Cafetière belongs was executed once Magnelli returned to Florence, at a time when the revelatory experience of Paris was still fresh in his mind (D. Abadie, ‘Alberto Magnelli: les annés cruciales’, pp. 11-16, in Magnelli, exh. cat., Paris, 1989, p.13). The art world in Paris in 1914 was teeming with Fauvism, Cubism and Abstraction, which all left their traces in La Cafetière. While in Paris, Magnelli directly manifested his enthusiasm for those daring, new paintings buying on behalf of his uncle works by Picasso, Juan Gris and Alexander Archipenko. He also visited the Salon des Indépendants, where he would have seen the experiments of Robert and Sonia Delaunay and early works by Giorgio de Chirico. In La Cafetière, Magnelli adopted a genre that was dear to the Cubists, yet the objects in the still life display a hallucinatory clarity reminiscent of de Chirico’s early work, combined with the bright colours and geometrical lines of the Delaunays’ works.
While the trip to Paris may have stimulated Magnelli with exciting cues, the ultimate originality of La Cafetière suggests that the artist was at the time searching for his own, personal response to the artistic changes of the time. It has been argued that – once in Florence – Magnelli’s main two guiding lights were Henri Matisse and Archipenko (D. Abadie, ‘Alberto Magnelli: les annés cruciales’, pp. 11-16, Ibid., p. 13). In Paris, Magnelli had the chance to visit Matisse’s studio, where the stunning Atelier rouge was still located. The striking juxtaposition of the coffee maker and flask of wine to colour fields in La Cafetière resonates with the way Matisse had, a few years earlier, dissolved space into pure colour. Yet, while adopting the daring bright colours of Matisse, with La Cafetière Magnelli seems to have moved forward, resorting to flat areas of paint, thus eliminating modulation – the last remnant of academic painting. The picture’s division of the space into colourful geometrical forms recalls to mind the dynamic works of Archipenko, yet Magnelli’s surrender to flatness in La Cafetière set him apart from the works of the Cubist painter and sculptor.
Executed at the break of the First World War, La Cafetière retrospectively appears as a surprising forebear of Pop Art. Impenetrably flat and vividly stylised, La Cafetière has the direct appeal of those 1960s advertising images Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein would use in their works. Yet, while Pop Art would embrace the icons and products of consumerist society, in La Cafetière Magnelli seems to be celebrating two of the most common, emblematic objects of the humble living in pre-industrialised Italy. A year after executing La Cafetière, Magnelli would turn to pure abstraction. Capturing a turning point in the artist’s career and creating a dialogue with the Avant-garde art of its time, La Cafetière is a significant work from Magnelli’s early career, which establishes a fascinating precedent to the stark flatness of Pop Art.