The Drunken Gentleman (1916) by Carlo
The Drunken Gentleman (1916)
Carra had a great impact on Italian art as both a painter and writer. Like many avant-garde artists of his generation, he explored both Italian Divisionism and Futurism prior to the First World War. Then after the war he emerged as an active figure in the so-called school of Metaphysical painting founded by Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978), and went on to champion the Classical Revival of interest in the values of early Renaissance art (1400-90). His adoption of an archaic style after 1919 brought him much criticism, and his defence of this change in his work throws fascinating light on the ideas of the classical 'Return to Order'.
Carra came from an artisan family, and as a young man he supported himself as a decorator while learning about art through private study and trips to the great museums of Milan, Paris and London. In 1910 he met Marinetti (1876-1944) and became involved with the Milanese group of Futurist painters. He visited Paris several times and came to know the leading representatives of the Ecole de Paris. During these years, as he later wrote in his autobiography, he wanted to do something new, to knock down the old edifice of bourgeois culture, with its outdated ideas that stifled the free development of art. However, on the outbreak of the war in 1914, Carra already felt impelled to distance himself from avant-garde art, and therefore began studying the Italian Pre-Renaissance Painting (c.1300-1400) of Giotto (1267-1337), and the Florentine Renaissance art of Paolo Uccello (1397-1475) and Masaccio (1401-1428). He wanted to associate his work, he wrote, with the great tradition of art, especially in Italy, although as he later explained, he did not repudiate his earlier avant-garde work. During the war Carra's Futurist works gave way to a magical stillness, and a new focus on everyday objects painted in simple style. His search in these years for a spiritual dimension to art was made apparent in an article on Giotto, published in La Voce in 1916, in which he wrote: "In the magic silence of Giotto's forms, our contemplation can rest; a sense of ecstasy begins to grow, and spreads gradually through the enlightened soul".
For a brief but crucial period of his life, Carra turned to metaphysical painting. In the spring of 1917 he was posted to Ferrara, where he met de Chirico and Savinio. De Chirico's strange, philosophical vision of reality echoed for Carra the spirituality he had detected in the works of the Trecento, and the two men painted together in the military hospital in the spring and summer of that year. Carra adopted de Chirico's imagery of mannequins set in claustrophobic spaces, but his works lacked de Chirico's sense of irony and enigma, and he always retained a correct perspective, a point of contact with his beloved Renaissance art of the golden past. Ironically, and to de Chirico's mild annoyance, it was Carra's paintings, exhibited at a one-man show in Milan in December 1917, that gave rise to public discussion of a 'Scuola metafisica' in which de Chirico's pioneering role was overlooked. As was often the case, Carra's thoughts ran in parallel, or ahead of, his own work, and in the catalogue of that exhibition he described his vision of metaphysical painting in terms which were to be the touchstones of his later classical works.
Over the next few years Carra elaborated these ideas in important articles in Valori Plastici, an art journal in which metaphysical painting, the 'return to order', and the distinctive qualities of Italian art (above all when compared to contemporary French work) were analysed and debated. Carra reverted to his earlier conviction of the artistic/spiritual value of early Renaissance painting, and in such works as The Daughters of Lot (1919, Museum Ludwig, Cologne) he adopted an overt archaicism inspired directly by Giotto.
For Carra, 1920 was a year of crisis in which he devoted little time to painting, and more to meditating on the future path he should follow. The critic Ugo Ojetti, writing in March 1920, criticised Carra's vision of the 'Italianness' of Italian art and what he felt to be the latter's vague definition of classicism, but he was none the less sympathetic to Carra's moral seriousness:
Carra retreated for some months to the coast of Liguria where he painted Pine-tree by the Sea (1921), a work he later described as a "mythical representation of nature" and the key to his future development. In the following years he adopted a softer style, inspired by nineteenth-century Lombard naturalism, and concentrated on landscapes which symbolised for him the eternal values he had previously sought in pictorial form and composition.
Although Carra withdrew somewhat from the company of other artists, he remained engaged in the artistic debates of the day through his job as a critic for L'Ambrosiano, a post he held from 1922 to 1939. He exhibited in the Venice Biennale of 1922 and had an important one-man show in the Rome Quadriennale in 1925. Without in any way adhering to the movement, he participated in the first and second Novecento Italiano exhibitions in 1926 and 1929. In the 1930s, following the example of the Mexican Muralism Movement of the 1920s, he, along with other leading artists of the period, became interested in the social and artistic possibilities of large-scale mural painting. In 1933 he signed Mario Sironi's Manifesto della Pittura Murale, which argued that this form of art was the ideal vehicle for the new values of the Fascist state, and that same year he executed murals for the fifth Triennale in Milan. In 1941 he became a professor of painting at the Accademia di Brera. In the remaining years of his life he concentrated on landscape painting, always seeking to refine the balance between reality and its transfiguration in art.
At the time of painting The Drunken Gentleman, Carra had already distanced himself from the Futurist group and begun to reflect on the relationship between modernity and tradition. He went on styling himself a Futurist - he exhibited as such in his one-man exhibition in Milan in December 1917, and signed this painting "Carra-futurista" - but this sprang more from a sense of his radical ambitions than from any continuing commitment to the ideas of Marinetti or Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916). In late 1915, inspired partly by the French naif painter Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) and by Art Brut, he began to paint stylistically simple works of figures and still-life elements (or what he called "concrete forms"), through which he sought to convey a sense of the reality of ordinary things. This was a period of great experimentation for Carra, and in a letter of September 1916 to his close friend, the artist and writer Ardengo Soffici, he said he was abandoning himself "like a medium to psychic currents", with no clear idea of where he was going. "I am not concerned with dynamism or any other theories," he wrote. "I would like simply to arrive at a synthesis that suits me. I believe that modernity will appear of its own accord, if there is any modernity in my soul after it has finally been freed from all its prejudices about the future. Simplicity in tonal and linear relations - that is all that really concerns me now."
Carra had already begun to meditate on the formal and spiritual qualities of Proto-Renaissance art (1300-1400). As early as the summer of 1915 he told the writer Giovanni Papini, "I am going back to primitive, concrete forms. I feel myself to be a Giotto of my times." In March of the following year he published an article in the Florentine journal La Voce entitled 'Parlata su Giotto'. In this article he attacked the viewpoint that Giotto's work had been surpassed by High Renaissance painting, and linked the formal qualities of Giotto's work to the contemporary interest in classical values. "Today people speak of constructing pure values. I admire these values, and consign all else to the realms of fortune telling and aesthetics. In Giotto, I admire the cubistic structure of his paintings, which I consider as formal units." Equally, if not more, important to Carra was what he termed the "plastic transcendentalism" of Giotto's treatment of reality.
The Drunken Gentleman demonstrates Carra's concern with the tactile quality of form, its three dimensionality and its disposition in space. At the same time, the combination of the precariously balanced plaster head, the cup, the bottle, part of a child's toy and the frame, is unexplained and mysterious, and the painting exudes the quality of 'magic silence' that Carra identified in the works of Giotto. The direct influence of Giotto can be detected in the stylised features of the plaster head, echoed later in The Daughters of Lot. It seems likely that Carra saw this work as a modern interpretation of the pictorial concerns of early Renaissance artists. In a letter to Papini dated May 1916, he wrote, "I believe firmly in the principle that we must rediscover our rhythm, and return to the spiritual strength that made Italy the first country in the world for plastic values." He mentioned in the same letter that he was working on this particular painting, saying that he was convinced that in it he had solved important formal problems.
This work was first reproduced in 1918, along with two drawings in a similar style, in a small pamphlet on Carra by Giuseppe Raimondi. Carra sent this booklet to friends in Paris. The influential critic Apollinaire (1880-1918) wrote back saying that he was very interested in Carra's new work; while the former Fauvist Andre Derain (1880-1954), whose own pre-war paintings (partly inspired by the Sienese school of painting) Carra greatly admired, wrote: "I like your work very much, and the reproductions I have in front of me have interested me greatly. In the present horrible times it is a great comfort to think that an artist of your standing still remembers my work. I hope that soon, and in happier times, we shall be able to see each other again."
The Large Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses) (1894-1905) National Gallery, London; Museum of Art, Philadelphia; Barnes Foundation, Merion, PA.
Italian Woman Leaning on her Elbow (1900)
Sleeping Gypsy (1897)
GIORGIO de CHIRICO
Song of Love
Mystery and Melancholy of a Street (1914)
Women Running on the Beach (The Race) (1922)
Three Women (Le
Grand Dejeuner) (1921)
For the meaning of other modernist paintings, see: Homepage.
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