Alberto Martini, The “Maudit” of Italian Art

Those who live in dream are superior beings;
those who live in reality are unhappy slaves.
Alberto Martini, 1940

Alberto Giacomo Spiridione Martini (1876-1954) was one of the most extraordinary Italian artists of the first half of the twentieth century.
He was the author of a vast graphic production which includes engravings, lithographs, ex libris, watercolors, business cards, postcards, illustrations for books and novels of various kinds (from Dante to D’Annunzio, from Shakespeare to Victor Hugo, from Tassoni to Nerval).

Born in Oderzo, he studied drawing and painting under the guidance of his father Giorgio, a professor of design at the Technical Institute of Treviso. Initially influenced by the German sixteenth-century mannerism of Dürer and Baldung, he then moved towards an increasingly personal and refined symbolism, supported by his exceptional knowledge of iconography. At only 21 he exhibited for the first time at the Venice Biennale; from then on, his works will be featured there for 14 consecutive years.
The following year, 1898, while he was in Munich to collaborate with some magazines, he met the famous Neapolitan art critic Vittorio Pica who, impressed by his style, will forever be his most convinced supporter. Pica remembers him like this:

This man, barely past twenty, […] immediately came across as likable in his distinguished, albeit a bit cold, discretion […], in the subtle elegance of his person, in the paleness of his face, where the sensual freshness of his red lips contrasted with that strange look, both piercing and abstract, mocking and disdainful.

(in Alberto Martini: la vita e le opere 1876-1906, Oderzo Cultura)

After drawing 22 plates for the historical edition of the Divine Comedy printed in 1902 by the Alinari brothers in Florence, starting from 1905 he devoted himself to the cycle of Indian ink illustrations for Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories, which remains one of the peaks of his art.
In this series, Martini shows a strong visionary talent, moving away from the meticulous realistic observation of his first works, and at the same time developing a cruel and aesthetic vein reminiscent of Rops, Beardsley and Redon.

During the First World War he published five series of postcards entitled Danza Macabra Europea: these consist of 54 lithographs meant as satirical propaganda against the Austro-Hungarian empire, and were distributed among the allies. Once again Martini proves to possess a grotesque boundless fantasy, and it is also by virtue of these works that he is today considered a precursor of Surrealism.

Disheartened by how little consideration he was ebjoying in Italy, he moved to Paris in 1928. “They swore — he wrote in his autobiography — to remove me as a painter from the memory of Italians, preventing me from attending exhibitions and entering the Italian market […] I know very well that my original way of painting can annoy the myopic little draftsman and paltry critics“.
In Paris he met the Surrealist group and developed a series of “black” paintings, before moving on to a more intense use of color (what he called his “clear” manner) to grasp the ecstatic visions that possessed him.

The large window of my studio is open onto the night. In that black rectangle, I see my ghosts pass and with them I love to converse. They incite me to be strong, indomitable, heroic, and they tell me secrets and mysteries that I shall perhaps reveal you. Many will not believe and I am sorry for them, because those who have no imagination vegetate in their slippers: comfortable life, but not an artist’s life. Once upon a starless night, I saw myself in that black rectangle as in a mirror. I saw myself pale, impassive. It is my soul, I thought, that is now mirroring my face in the infinite and that once mirrored who knows what other appearance, because if the soul is eternal it has neither beginning nor end, and what we are now is nothing but one of its several episodes. And this revealing thought troubled me […]. As I was absorbed in these intricate thoughts, I started to feel a strange caress on the hand I had laid on a book open under a lamp. […] I turned my head and saw a large nocturnal butterfly sitting next to my hand, looking at me, flapping its wings. You too, I thought, are dreaming; and the spell of your dull eyes of dust sees me as a ghost. Yes, nocturnal and beautiful visitor, I am a dreamer who believes in immortality, or perhaps a phantom of the eternal dream that we call life.

(A. Martini, Vita d’artista, manoscritto, 1939-1940)

In economic hardship, Martini returned to Milan in 1934. He continued his incessant and multiform artistic work during the last twenty years of his life, without ever obtaining the desired success. He died on November 8, 1954. Today his remains lie together with those of his wife Maria Petringa in the cemetery of Oderzo.

The fact that Martini never gained the recognition he deserved within Italian early-twentieth-century art can be perhaps attributed to his preference for grotesque themes and gloomy atmospheres (in our country, fantasy always had a bad reputation). The eclectic nature of his production, which wilfully avoided labels or easy categorization, did not help him either: his originality, which he rightly considered an asset, was paradoxically what forced him to remain “a peripheral and occult artist, doomed to roam, like a damned soul, the unexplored areas of art history” (Barbara Meletto, Alberto Martini: L’anima nera dell’arte).

Yet his figure is strongly emblematic of the cultural transition between nineteenth-century romantic decadentism and the new, darker urgencies which erupted with the First World War. Like his contemporary Alfred Kubin, with whom he shared the unreal imagery and the macabre trait, Martini gave voice to those existential tensions that would then lead to surrealism and metaphysical art.

An interpretation of some of the satirical allegories in the European Macabre Dance can be found here and here.
The Civic Art Gallery of Oderzo is dedicated to Alberto Martini and promotes the study of his work.

Alfred Kubin

Alfred Kubin (1877-1959) è uno dei più inquietanti e misteriosi illustratori del Novecento. Espressionista e simbolista, dopo gli anni della formazione presso l’Accademia delle belle arti di Monaco di Baviera decise di ritirarsi nel suo piccolo castello austriaco proprio al confine con la Germania, a Zwickledt. Abbandonò quasi subito la pittura ad olio per dedicarsi alle matite, ai disegni ad inchiostro, agli acquarelli e alle litografie.

I disegni di Kubin sono incubi grotteschi popolati da figure simboliche, demoniache, fantastiche; ci fanno entrare in un mondo in cui le proporzioni sono continuamente deformate, una sorta di teatro dell’anima in cui paurosi giganti si aggirano per i deserti aridi, in cui l’animale ha sempre in sé il germe del mostruoso, in cui le pulsioni sessuali si tingono di nero e di sangue.

Non sempre l’artista ha bisogno di scenari apocalittici per instillare un sentimento d’angoscia: talvolta bastano dei piccoli tocchi surreali e spiazzanti, direttamente provenienti dalla parte più scura dell’inconscio.

La figura umana è continuamente martoriata, stirata, strappata in una rappresentazione allegorica del tormento e del dolore; ma è soprattutto mentale il disagio che si prova di fronte alle sue opere. I disegni di Kubin sono una perfetta e ineguagliata rappresentazione del perturbante freudiano.

Dichiarata “arte degenere” dal regime nazista, la sua straordinaria opera gli valse nel dopoguerra diversi prestigiosi riconoscimenti. Ma è con il passare del tempo e dei decenni che ci rendiamo conto sempre di più di quanto i suoi disegni fossero in anticipo rispetto ai tempi, e quanto abbiano influito sull’immaginario collettivo. Ancora oggi moderni, geniali, e squisitamente inquietanti.

(Grazie, Norma!)

José Guadalupe Posada

José Posada è uno dei più celebri fra gli incisori messicani, e certamente precursore dei movimenti artistici e grafici nati dopo la rivoluzione del 1910. Nato ad Aguascalientes nel 1852, divenne presto maestro incisore e litografo, dapprima nella sua città natale, poi a Léon, e infine a Città del Messico.

Le sue prime opere sono praticamente impossibili da trovare, poiché vennero stampate sulla povera carta dei giornaletti sensazionalistici dell’epoca; le uniche copie rimanenti sono di proprietà di collezionisti privati, o esposte nei maggiori musei nazionali del Messico.

José Posada è celebre principalmente per le sue calaveras, icone prese a “prestito” dall’immaginario religioso e folkloristico messicano. “Reclutando” questi allegri e vitali scheletri per i suoi intenti satirici, Posada crea un originale affresco sociale, alla maniera dei famosi Capricci di Goya. Questa ironica danza macabra che non risparmia niente e nessuno è stata presa come vero e proprio manifesto da molti degli artisti messicani del ‘900.

L’innovazione posadiana è più complessa di quanto potrebbe sembrare a una prima occhiata. Da una parte, opera un connubio fra i teschi e gli scheletri che già erano presenti nell’iconografia precolombiana, e le rappresentazioni occidentali della morte di matrice cristiana (memento mori, danza macabra, ars moriendi, ecc.). Dall’altra, utilizza questi elementi per prendersi gioco, in maniera grottesca, dei valori borghesi, del progresso, delle differenze di classe. E, infine, pare ricordare comunque che, ricchi o poveri, potenti o sfruttati, non siamo nient’altro che ossa che camminano.

L’opera più famosa di José Posada è senza dubbio la Calavera Catrina. Questa nobildonna dall’imponente cappello all’ultima moda (ma ovviamente destinata, come tutti, a ritrovarsi scheletro) è divenuta nel tempo una delle più riconoscibili figure dell’immaginario messicano. Nel Giorno dei Morti vengono costruiti altari e dolci a forma di Calavera Catrina, e indossati costumi che ne ricordano le fattezze.

Posada, oltre che incisore, era anche vignettista; ancora oggi, il primo premio dell’Encuentro Internacional de Caricatura e Historieta (Incontro Internazionale di Cartoon e Fumetti) è chiamato “La Catrina”.