A forgotten postwar Italian artist comes to the fore.
There are over 100 paintings by Leonardo Cremonini in the collection of William Louis-Dreyfus. The collector and businessman, who recently died, was known for purchasing works by the artists who appealed to him in large quantities. It was during a tour of the Louis-Dreyfus collection’s Mount Kisco, N.Y., warehouse—a space that holds over 3,000 pieces of art collected throughout a 50-year period—two years ago that Linda Wolk-Simon first encountered Cremonini’s work. Wolk-Simon, the Frank and Clara Meditz Director and Chief Curator at the Fairfield University Art Museum in Fairfield, Conn., and the curator of the institution’s current exhibition “Leonardo Cremonini: Timeless Monumentality” (through March 3) was struck by how Cremonini, a postwar Italian artist, seemed to express elements of Italian Renaissance painting—her specialty—in his work. “Cremonini was clearly looking back to Italian Renaissance art—the geometric clarity and lucidity, the spaces, the perspective grid,” says Wolk-Simon, “and as a non-specialist in the postwar period, I thought technically he was a great artist, and the competence with which he manipulated his medium on the canvas really struck me.” Enamored by Louis-Dreyfus’ many Cremonini canvases, Wolk-Simon asked herself “Who is this artist?” and “What’s the entry point into his work?”
“Timeless Monumentality” puts 35 canvases from Louis-Dreyfus’ collection on view. The collector, who knew Cremonini personally and kept correspondence with the artist in his archives, was instrumental in causing the exhibition to come to pass (the show is dedicated to his memory). But Cremonini, though no longer a big name in the United States, is not simply the pet favorite of a single stalwart collector. The artist, who was born in Bologna in 1925 but lived and worked for much of his life in Paris, was a critical darling of postwar Italy. He was admired by Francis Bacon and W.H. Auden and appreciated—in writing—by Umberto Eco, Italo Calvino, and Alberto Moravia. He exhibited at the 1964 Venice Biennale, and his work is in the collections of many major museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “He’s in the collections, but not necessarily on view,” says Wolk-Simon. “He doesn’t fit into the narrative of conceptual or modern art, and so for the last 20 years or so the conversation about him went quiet.”
A renewed interest in 20th-century Italian art has jump-started a lot of long-cooled conversations. In New York in the last few years, major museums and galleries have staged shows by less-known names such as Giosetta Fioroni, Mario Schifano, and Salvatore Scarpitta, as well as perennial favorites like Alighiero Boetti, Alberto Burri, Giorgio Morandi, and Giorgio de Chirico (many of which have been written about in this publication). As a result, American audiences have been able to expand their understanding of 20th-century Italian art beyond Arte Povera—which has long been the art world’s major postwar Italian cultural touchstone—and beyond Italy’s fascist history, which, not surprisingly, creates a certain discomfort among American viewers. Wolk-Simon says that this new awareness helps to work through certain biases: “For a long time, abstraction was modern art’s preeminent triumph, and artists working in the figurative tradition were not seen as modern, but now with a renewed interest in Italian modern art comes a renewed interest in figurative art.” Wolk-Simon is quick to note, as well, that a cycle of acclaim followed by a period of obscurity is nothing new in the art world: “Even Caravaggio went through it.”
Centuries of the Italian figurative tradition can be found in Cremonini’s canvases. Wolk-Simon finds the geometric rigor of his perspective to be akin to that of Piero della Francesca and other artists of the Italian Renaissance. She also sees a kinship with Morandi. Like Morandi, Cremonini’s sharp geometric forms and their shadows—even when there are human figures in the picture—bear an introspective gravitas. Objects, doorknobs, the corners of rooms—much like Morandi’s bottles—seem to be communicating something deeply human. Cremonini has similarities to de Chirico, as well. Both artists’ fathers worked in the Italian railway system, and trains make frequent appearances in their canvases. “Trains were a symbol of Italy’s modernism after World War I, even though Italian trains are kind of slow” says Wolk-Simon. “Their presence in Cremonini’s work adds an element of mystery—it’s impossible to tell if the trains are coming or going.”
Like de Chirico’s, Cremonini’s scenes bear a certain surrealistic quality. But where de Chirico used anachronism and proto-postmodernist combinations of art-historical imagery to create a sense of dreamlike placelessness, Cremonini uses extreme—almost perverse—banality to suggest that there must be something more, something hidden, within his tableaux. His scenes, which picture shirts draped on the backs of chairs, sheets rumpled on beds, pairs of glasses left on tables, showcase the detritus of everyday life. There is a crudeness, perhaps even a violence, to the way objects are strewn about in Cremonini’s paintings, as if they were surrogates living in place of the people who own them. At times shadows or hands of human figures that are otherwise unseen in the canvases seem to loom around the objects. In Italy’s pagan and Christian traditions, and thus in centuries’ worth of its art, objects were given power to communicate religious or individualistic significance; in Cremonini’s work they are used as a placeholder for the human spirit and a conductor charged with the bizarre mystery of existence.
Cremonini’s career has two phases. Throughout the ’50s, when he first gained a foothold in the art world, his palette was more muted and his subjects were more aggressive. I cavalli che urlano (Screaming Horses), for instance, a canvas from 1954–55 that is in the exhibition, depicts a group of horses on a black background. Their greenish-grey bodies are huddled together as if together they formed some strange multi-headed beast from a Homeric epic. This canvas, as well as others from the period, such as Donne fra le rocce (Women among the Rocks) (1954–1955) bear what Wolk-Simon describes as a “lithic” quality. “They look like they are carved out of stone,” says the curator. “In Women among the Rocks specifically, the figures are sitting in rock and appear to be made of rock themselves.” During the ’50s, many of Cremonini’s canvases bore images of butchered animal carcasses—a subject which, Wolk-Simon notes, has a long tradition in European art, with many of the best examples having been produced in Cremonini’s native Bologna in the later 16th century.
Around 1960, Cremonini’s work changed and stayed, for the most part, stylistically consistent until his death in 2010. He adopted a palette of pastel and citrus hues (streams of blue and purple light through open windows bring Edward Hopper to mind), and his human figures, once hulking, become shriveled, almost anemic. “His figures begin to have an introspective quality,” says Wolk-Simon. “Even when they are cohabitating in the same spaces they seem isolated from each other, as if they’re frozen in their own reverie.”
These canvases, which make up the bulk of Cremonini’s oeuvre, seem almost like scenes from one long seaside holiday. Paintings such as La fin de l’été (The End of Summer) (1969–70), Obstacles, parcours et reflets (Obstacles, Routes, and Reflections) (1975–76), and La mise à nu du pére (The Laying Bare of the Father) (1980–82) are set on the beach or on a veranda. Others like Giochi senza regole (Games without Rules) (1962) and Da una stanza al balcone (From a Room on the Balcony) (1962) capture scenes inside hotel rooms. Though set decades later, Cremonini’s tableaux bring to mind Luchino Visconti’s filmic adaptation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1971), in which the decadent leisure of European seaside travel sets the stage for mystery, longing and obsession. Cremonini’s figures seem somehow to be resting physically but
Cremonini’s technique mirrored the languid quality of his subject matter. He worked very slowly. He applied layers of paint, scraped them away, and then added more. This process gives his canvases what Wolk-Simon describes as a “tissue paper-like surface.” There are passages in which Cremonini employs a sort of painterly abstraction—in Au dos de l’ombre (In the Back of the Shadow) (1988–90), for instance, there are a few portions in which paint seems to drip as if washed by rain. He always quickly snapped out of it, however, and returned to being a realist. He was on his own trip.
By Sarah E. Fensom