CAGNACCIO DI SAN PIETRO
The appeal of New Objectivity
From May 6 to September 27, 2015
Venice, Ca’ Pesaro – International Gallery of Modern Art
Twenty-four years after the retrospective at the Museo Correr, Cagnaccio di San Pietro (1897-1946) is returning home: to his Venice and to the same museum – Ca’ Pesaro – in which he took the first official steps in his career.
The small but intense tribute by the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia to a major and now internationally recognised champion of Magic Realism and the return to classicism between the 1920s and 1930s, links up specifically with the Neue Sachlichkeit exhibition in progress at the Museo Correr (New objectivity – Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic 1919 – 1933, until August, 30), given that “the hyperrealistic vision of Cagnaccio di San Pietro is perhaps the closest in form to the framework and manner of the German New Objectivity”, as wrote Claudia Gian Ferrari, one of the main artificers of his revival.
A selection of masterpieces curated by Dario Biagi, with the collaboration of Elizabeth Barisoni, illustrates the thematic range of this shy and passionate artist, who died prematurely at the age of forty-nine. From the bold nude of Primo denaro, part of a “scandalous” trilogy of 1928, to a powerful series of portraits of men, women and children, including the unpublished Portrait of Giuseppina Dalla Pasqua; from some dazzling examples of still-lifes to religious and allegorical subjects like La tempesta and La furia which, almost overlapping, mark the beginning and end of his intense career.
Rebel, nonconformist, intentionally over the top, Cagnaccio felt himself an outsider and behaved as such, appreciated and loved more by colleagues than by critics who, in life, could not understand his work. La Tempesta, dated 1920, marks “the reconquest of classical beauty by Cagnaccio” after a youthful Futurist infatuation and the recovery of the cornerstones of the pictorial tradition; but it also reveals his approach to the faith – in the face of a family drama – and the rediscovery of the humble and simple values of his fellow villagers of San Pietro in Volta, a hamlet on the island of Pellestrina.
His “return to order” did not, however, lead him to Sarfatti’s Novecento bandwagon, both for “environmental” reasons – in a Venice that still harked back to the colouring tradition of the 16th and 17th centuries – and for Cagnaccio’s systematic refusal to join in manifestos and movements and, finally, for his aversion to fascism: a visceral dislike even more than an ideological one.
At the 1928 Biennale, whose committee included Margherita Sarfatti, he offered a provocative work, Dopo l’orgia – which was obviously rejected – in which he castigated the moral drift of the regime, and a few years later blatantly rejected a Fascist Party card; at times he had to pretend to be unbalanced and accept a day or two of hospitalisation in San Servolo, the Venetians’ mental asylum, in order not to pay for his statements against the regime will a jail term, or be admitted to the hospital on the Lido.
During the Resistance, he offered refuge to wanted partisans and other anti-fascists in his beloved home in Calle del Zucchero, including brothers Armando and Danilo Gavagnin and Gigetto Tito, the son of Ettore and his close friend. However individualist and reluctant to be a member of any group of artists, Cagnaccio was nevertheless a recognised member of a grouping – the magic realists – few in number but appreciated.
Casorati, who not surprisingly indicated the direction Cagnaccio should take in passing “from the symbolist and Liberty stage, under Klimt’s Secessionist banner to modern classicism”, was – as Biagi has written – the first of his models. The reference to his works appears throughout the entire range of Cagnaccio’s work, often appearing as explicit quotes, as in two paintings in this exhibition: Natura morta con uova and Maternità I.
Virgilio Guidi’s “In Tram”, admired in his first Biennale, that of 1924, also deeply impressed Cagnaccio, who was already close in manner to the most Nordic and avant-garde representatives of Novecento, the “hard core”, as Renato Barilli dubbed them: Dudreville and Oppi, one Venetian, the other influenced by Klimt, who not surprisingly were drawn before him to the German New Objectivity. And also Antonio Donghi. In his glassy paintings, full of chiaroscuro and radically linear, there is also a direct link with the 15th-century painters of the lagoon: the “roughest” ones – Bartolomeo Vivarini, Carlo Crivelli, Jacopo da Valenza, Andrea da Murano – and equally evident are the references (especially in religious paintings) to Bellini, Mantegna and Dürer.
With De Maria, Sacchi and Dino Martens, Cagnaccio therefore represents the Venetian branch of New Objectivity. De Maria was actually German by blood (his mother was from Bremen) and the son of a symbolist painter; Sacchi was trained at the Academy of Munich. Both from the outset were prone to a dreamlike manner, in parallel or derived from the magic realism that would become more prominent in the 1940s, attracting the late Cagnaccio too.
Yet there is in Cagnaccio a substantial distance from the Germans: a feeling of closeness, if not declared belonging to the humanity depicted, which makes him a compassionate participant. In his eyes there is no desire to distort, to caricature. His subjects of choice (although there are also upper middle class portraits) are the people, the fishermen of his Pellestrina, the last, the dispossessed. Nor does one sense in him an attraction for the morbid and sick, which is instead characteristic of Schad.
“Cagnaccio”, writes Biagi, “is the most objective of the magic realists and, when moved by sympathy-empathy towards his models, is able to show them, even when frozen in an unreal atmosphere, with some aspects of freshness and spontaneity” as in the Portrait of Giuseppina Dalla Pasqua, a “real and surprising scoop for this exhibition“: perhaps the only smiling portrait in all of Cagnaccio’s production. And even where, as in the case of some celebrated female figures in the mirror, he painted melancholy or alienated faces and absent looks, it is because he tended towards metaphor.
Only in the depiction of childhood does his realism seem ruthless. From the portrait of Liliana, exhibited here, to the last babies, depicted as disjointed dolls in their hospital cots: always faithful to the truth. Compassion and empathy toward his subjects, together with populism all intensified after his 32nd-33rd year, with the onset of the sickness that would lead to an early grave: a recurrent ulcer that would degenerate into a neoplasm. He underwent various operations and his life became an ordeal.
Whereas before he would lash out at the corruption of society without considering the dangers, and had been the first to use the radical nude to deride bourgeois customs, now, alongside images of the derelict and the underclass, of old people and children absorbed in their trivial daily pursuits, he dedicated himself to still-lifes painted with virtuoso skill. The sinful nudes disappeared, while scenes of domestic, family and popular life took on a more spiritual connotation, to the limit of being edifying.
It is no coincidence that Hitler, who was soon to launch his tirade against the paintings of New Objectivity as being degenerate art, should fall in love with a portrait of a young vagabond by Cagnaccio called “Il randagio”, and demand to buy it at the 1934 Biennale . And not for nothing did the Osservatore Romano praise him in 1936, writing of “his healed past, his new intentions, his act of faith in Almighty God”.
This growing religious fervour in Cagnaccio was embodied in his last years by a series of sorrowful and nocturnal Madonnas, of phosphorescent Christs and metaphors of the Eucharist and the Passion, not without reference to his own life.
Curated by Dario Biagi
With the collaboration of Elisabetta Barisoni
Scientific direction: Gabriella Belli
Layout design: Daniela Ferretti