Guy Cogeval has been Director of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts since 1997, and during his tenure he has been responsible for several outstanding art exhibitions, including last year's spectacular display of the art treasures assembled by Empress Catherine the Great of Russia. His latest achievement is Il Modo Italiano which highlights a century of modern Italian art and design.
Forme uniche di continuità nello spazio, 1913; Umberto Boccioni.
The show's intention is to offer an "alternate vision" of the visual and cultural revolution known as "Modernity" - one not necessarily tied to Paris, Berlin or Vienna. The show does indeed prove that twentieth century Italy, while influenced by goings on in other European capitals, was nevertheless producing its own unique perspective on the modern world. This vision is revealed to us in the work of over two hundred artists and designers, and more than three hundred and sixty marvellous examples of art drawn from many public and private collections from around the world. From paintings and sculptures to coffeemakers and sofa chairs, we are presented with a generous, clever and immensely satisfying overview of modern Italy.
Italian professor and architect Giampiero Bosoni, as guest chief curator, guided the conceptual thrust of the show and worked closely with local museum curators Diane Charbonneau and Rosalind Pepall. The Museum collaborated with Museo di Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto, an institution that is well-known for its collection of Futurist and late twentieth century art. The three city tour, which began in Montreal, will next travel to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and will conclude in Trento, Italy. The show is accompanied by a 400-page, well-illustrated catalogue that includes eight substantial essays on a range of related topics.
In keeping with other blockbuster shows at the MMFA, the exhibition provides visitors with a broad cultural and historical context within which to contemplate the artworks. Guided by didactic panels and other types of media displays, the show as a whole strives to dispel the notion that modern Italian art consists mostly of consumer products. Instead we are supplied with a wide variety of objects - from the utilitarian to the purely aesthetic, representing all styles and time periods of the twentieth century. There are mass-produced items as well as limited edition and one-of-a kind objects intended for private collectors and museums.
There are, of course, abundant examples of the sort of consumer goods viewers expect to see - Dalisi's gleaming, stainless steal cafettiera, Levanti's lozenge-shaped chaise longue, and Novembre's whimsical coffee table. There are their 1960s stylistic predecessors: Pesce's witty, sensual armchair, Pucci dresses, and Fini's impractical but alluring wall lamp. Among this convincing display of the wit, elegance, and novelty that characterizes Italian design there are many fine examples by Ettore Sottsass, leader of the Memphis group - from colourful glass and ceramic creations to furniture pieces. Several of his works, as well as those by many other designers, are from the MMFA's own outstanding collection of decorative arts.
While the names of many of the designers may not be familiar to most, others will be. The postwar functional beauties by Olivetti, Vespa and Fiat are world renowned. In this exhibition devoted to the best of modern Italian art, a Fiat 500 manages to triumphantly claim its own share of the limelight.
But as the exhibition endeavours to explain, modern Italian art is not restricted to industrial functionalism. Rather, innovative products, destined for the general public, were part of a broader movement in the arts. As chief curator Bosoni points out, novelty in design was due to the independent thinking of individuals working outside industry and the marketplace. In fact, many ground-breaking pieces were produced by artists and architects rather than designers working in industry.
Thus, in the exhibition we see fine art objects, such as paintings, next to mass-produced items; and experimental forms next to familiar ones. The show includes recently produced postmodern artworks of the Transavanguardia by artists such as Chia and Clemente, and 60s Arte Povera works by Manzoni, Merz and others. In keeping with its historical mandate, the exhibition begins with the early avant-guardists of the 1890s. The important 1895 socialist painting Fiumana by Pelizza da Volpedo is an example of Divisionismo, Italy's late-impressionist style.
This early-modern period is followed by impressive examples of Stile Liberty, Italy's version of Art Nouveau, of which perhaps the most well-known designer was Carlo Bugatti, who was admired both for his luxurious furniture and his car designs. Early Avanguardia is present in the Metafisica art of Di Chirico, as in the large sampling of works by the Futuristi. There are sculptures, posters and textiles by Depero and Balla, as well as Boccioni's famous 1913 bronze figure "Forme uniche di continuità nello spazio."
The Art Deco period (1920s-30s) presents visitors with the most controversial part of the exhibition because of the ideological challenge it presents. With archival film footage of Mussolini as a backdrop to the artworks, we are asked to consider the relationship between political power and art. The art of Novecento member Sironi, "official artist" of the Fascist regime, and others of this period such as Scarpa and Prampolini, demonstrates surprising creativity and bold originality in a time known for its social and political oppression. Teragni's design for a Casa del Fascio forces us to contemplate Italian Fascism's complex sense of historical identity and its confounding relationship to modernity.
This rare display of art cannot fail to tantalize and surprise lovers of Italian design and modern art. While it is not the first on the subject, it is, nevertheless, the most ambitious so far in Canada. One is impressed by its enormous and varied scope, the meticulous research it represents, and the pleasing layout of the show itself. Most intriguing is its conceptual thesis, which seeks to draw a continuity across aesthetic and historical periods and integrate the decorative and fine arts within a global understanding of Italian modernity.
There are, nevertheless, some problems with the exhibition's theoretical underpinnings. While ambiguities and contradictions of social and political realities are addressed - such as modern art's role in Italian Fascist visual culture, others are overlooked. Why, for example, do women make up less than 2% of the artists in the show? What does this say about "modern Italy"? Questioning the intellectual frame of the exhibition will not hamper a visitor's enjoyment of the show, but it can certainly generate intriguing musings. For example, Italian Canadians may ask themselves what the art and culture of modern Italy means to Italian immigrants and vice versa. Is there a shared cultural identity or are there real and significant differences? Il Modo Italiano provides an opportunity for discussing this controversial and sorely needed debate about the nature of italianismo in the Italian diaspora. Let's hope we take up the challenge.
Il Modo Italiano will be at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, October 21, 2006 to January 7, 2007, and at Museo di Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Trento, Italy, March 3 to June 3, 2007
Anna Carlevaris is an art historian who lives and works in Montreal. She teaches at Concordia University in Montreal.