Alberto Savinio

New York

at Center for Italian Modern Art

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Despite the vast scope of Alberto Savinio’s career—as poet, novelist, dramaturge, painter, musician, and essayist—he lingers (outside Italy, at least) in the proverbial shadow of his more famous brother, Giorgio de Chirico. Born to Italian parents in Greece, Savinio (1891–1952) changed his name in 1913 and left an enduring mark on the European avant-garde, even as he regularly collaborated with his older sibling. Theirs was a profoundly intellectual partnership, anchored firmly in myth while it engaged—by turns disdainfully and playfully—with modern life. Their father, an engineer responsible for the railway between Athens and Thessaly, settled in Volos, whence Jason’s Argo had set sail in search of the Golden Fleece. Savinio and de Chirico styled themselves as latter-day Argonauts, privileged with mythical insight in an otherwise secular and profane modern world.

For his part, Savinio performed music at the same venues as Arnold Schönberg in Munich, collaborated on a script with Francis Picabia and Guillaume Apollinaire in Paris before World War I, and painted in the French capital at the height of Surrealism—a movement he had influenced in no small degree. As only the second exhibition of Savinio’s work ever staged in the United States, the Center for Italian Modern Art’s show affords an in-depth look at this last phase: a prolific foray into painting that took place between the late 1920s and the early 1930s. If Savinio had established himself in the century’s first two decades chiefly as a composer and writer, his return to Paris in 1926 saw him take up the brush for several fruitful years. Considering the range of his iconography from this period, the exhibition wisely focuses on two salient motifs: fanciful landscapes inhabited by equally bizarre, often hybrid beings, and stylized renderings of the artist’s family and of himself.

With figures and objects set in shallow rooms or placed on expansive horizons, the paintings take cues from de Chirico’s metaphysical and neoclassical imagery. Yet the morphological warping of bodies—the striking merging of humans, animals, and Greco-Roman gods—is all Savinio’s. In these vivid, often hallucinatory canvases, familial lore and literary myth are often interchanged. I genitori (The Parents, 1931) pictures a duck-billed bourgeoise resting alongside her deer-headed husband. The artist’s father appears more recognizable in Famille de lions (Family of Lions, 1927), set against a telltale locomotive. Yet the pair undergo further metamorphosis in a 1945 lithograph that fuses their bodies with armchairs. Adapted from a painting of the same subject, the print displays poetic texts in diminutive script in place of shadows cast by mother and father. For Savinio, myth was not simply a set of discrete tales, but rather “an iridescent vapor” that could transform—like Ovid’s poetry—even the most familiar entities.

To be sure, Savinio did ply a consistently literary imagination in paint. A cloaked, microcephalic Prometheus stares out the window at a hovering cluster of colored shapes in one 1929 painting, while a prone Achilles dreams of similar forms in another. A good number of Savinio’s paintings feature such objects: stacked, floating, and often striated or marked with patterns. These toylike clusters derive in part from the fragments that fill his brother’s celebrated interior scenes from Ferrara, in which immobile objects belie a sense of metaphysical adventure. Savinio’s Le navire perdu (The Lost Ship, 1928) literalizes that metaphor, with a strange assembly of brightly colored baubles set adrift with mast and sails.

CIMA’s airy spaces lend the works all the breathing room they could require, while the white walls set into relief the pastel and piebald chromatics of several works, like Monumento ai giocatoli (Monument to Toys, 1930) and I re magi (The Wise Men, 1929). A shrewd hanging produces some productive iconographic rhymes, as between the dreaming Achilles and the tiger-headed beast posed similarly in a work hung just around the corner. In keeping with CIMA’s practice of incorporating pieces by contemporary artists into the central exhibition, a few works by Louise Bourgeois appear alongside Savinio’s. While not all of them seem quite apposite, her bronze Nature Study (1984)—a clawed sphynx or hippogryph with multiple breasts lining its belly—appears plucked from Savinio’s imagination, impishly magical and eerily teratological in equal measure.