Since the turn of the new millennium, Paris has hosted exhibitions of Italian Modernism with surprising frequency.

By Adrian Duran

Since the turn of the new millennium, Paris has hosted exhibitions of Italian Modernism with surprising frequency. Earlier examples such as Italies: L’art italien à l’èpreuve de la modernité 1880-1910, Italia Nova: une aventure de l’art italien 1900-1950, Les macchiaioli: des impressionistes italien?, and the 2014 Lucio Fontana retrospective have been augmented by two shows this summer, Dolce Vita? Du Liberty au design italien (1900-1940), on view through 15 September, and a retrospective of sculptor Adolfo Wildt, closed 13 July, both of which behoove us to look more closely and deeply at how we construct this volatile yet endlessly exciting period. 

Despite its cliché and indeed temporally misleading title, Dolce Vita? at the Orsay, reminds us that Italy merged innovative design and modern ideals as vibrantly as any other locale, something often forgotten given the canonical dominance of Vienna, Barcelona, Paris, and New York in the history of modernism. Nonetheless, the Italian example is rich throughout, from the florid arabesques of the Stile Liberty through Futurism and Metafisica into the politically fraught years of the Novecento group and Fascism which prove more varied and in need of reconsideration than simplistic conceptions of the regime often allow. Carlo Bugatti’s exoticism, the functional work of Galileo Chini, the Futurist geometries (and glazes!) of Giacomo Balla and Fillia, the endless collaborations of Gio Ponti and the Ginori ceramic works, and the bizarre classicism of Guido Andlovitz do not find themselves within many canons of Italian Modernism.  Even more remarkably, some of the show’s most arresting works are paintings, which are hung on the walls as backdrop for the design works, a valuable reminder that they should be viewed together.  The Divisionists are particularly well represented, both in quantity and quality, as are the Futurists and Metaphysical painters, but the greatest thrills come courtesy of Felice Casorati and the Muranese painter, mosaicist, and designer Vittorio Zecchin who, frankly, gives Klimt and his peers a run for their money in every way.

Similarly impressive was the Orangerie’s retrospective of adolfo Wildt, best known for his Fascist-era sculptures yet only superficially understood. Certainly, Wildt made more than a few works celebrating the regime and its leading figures including Mussolini himself and Margherita Sarfatti, better known as the organizer of the Novecento Italiano group (and Il Duce’s mistress), but the earlier work, which interweaves all of the delicacy and meandering of Art Nouveau with the moody volatility of Symbolism, shows Wildt to be much more than a Fascist sympathizer. His line is sinuously alluring and the undercutting and light manipulation of his sculptures are nearly as exciting as those of Baroque star Gianlorenzo Bernini. That Wildt consistently carries this potency across decades and into commissions for book illustrations, commemorative medals, wedding invitations, and funeral monuments only redoubles the surprise of exploring his long career. As he was Lucio Fontana’s professor in Milan, the show offers great insight into what the student learned from his teacher. 

These two exhibitions, following on their predecessors, are revelatory, important reminders that though we are in a wonderful period for the study of Italian Modernism, there is much more work to do—a notion nearly as exciting as the works themselves.

Galileo Chini Vaso a penne di pavone e piccole sfere 1910 ceramic Bottegone (Pistoia), Private Collection

Vittorio Zecchin Le Mille e una notte ca. 1914 oil on canvas Paris, Musée D’Orsay

Adolfo Wildt Vir temporis Acti 1913 marble Parma, Collezione Franco Maria Ricci

Felice Casorati Preghiera 1914 oil on rag Verona, Galleria d’Arte Moderna Achille Forti

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