Trying to impose a narrative on Primo Conti’s work is a little like cutting a path through a dense, overgrown forest. Born in Florence in 1900, the enfant prodige of Tuscan art was inspired throughout his life by the hills and rivers, piazze and trattorie of his home region. His paintings, though, stand square in the face of mere provincialism.
This autumn’s retrospective, which is spread over three venues, Villa Bardini, the Fondazione Primo Conti di Fiesole and the nearby Sala del Basolato—strives to capture Conti’s cosmopolitan fire as well as his competing, often contradictory influences and impulses. These collections, best viewed together, in a single day, are a fitting testimony to one of Italy’s great 20th century artists. More than this, the careful curation brings many new insights into the psychology and practice of the avant-garde, of which Conti was a vocal participant, and sporadically, a leader.
La Cugina Pia
Taken as a whole the exhibitions are heavily weighted towards the artist’s early work. Even before he started painting in earnest at 13, Conti was an accomplished violinist and poet, and was in touch with some of the best-known radicals of the previous generation, most famously the enigmatic Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. “An idiot with a few nuggets of genius” as Conti himself would put it in later years. The Villa Bardini show, Fanfare e silenzi: Viaggio nella pittura di Primo Conti, usefully contextualises his initial formation amidst a cacophony of influences. One early work, Ortolano (1915), shows an old, bearded man, surrounded by bright, blocky colours. The real focus, though, is on the produce in front of him, on the peppers, tomatoes and lettuce that seem to jump out of the frame. This is not the tried and tested pastoral Tuscany of the 19th century, but a Fauvist, Cézanne-like rendering in which the sun’s light is universal, metaphorical, and charged with philosophical intent.This autumn’s retrospective, which is spread over three venues..Villa Bardini, the Fondazione Primo Conti di Fiesole and the nearby Sala del Basolato—strives to capture Conti’s cosmopolitan fire as well as his competing, often contradictory influences and impulses. These collections, best viewed together, in a single day, are a fitting testimony to one of Italy’s great 20th century artists. More than this, the careful curation brings many new insights into the psychology and practice of the avant-garde, of which Conti was a vocal participant, and sporadically, a leader.
Conti’s thoughtfulness and technical ability are arguably even more evident in the earlier Allegoria (1914), which shows three dancing figures, immersed in ritual. This is a more studied work, a response to the Orientalist trends of the time, but which also demonstrates the artist’s early mastering of Renaissance triptych geometry.
Ritratto della moglie
The first few rooms at the Bardini are best seen as a prelude to the four-room display in the artist’s studio in Fiesole, Primo Conti, gli anni del futurismo. At first these pieces might seem underwhelming, and are, in some respects, less accomplished than his earlier work. Conti’s adolescent Cubist experiments do pale in comparison to the works gathered by other artists in this same space: Quarto ritratto della zia Ester (1918), by Mario Nannini, for example, is an object of refined beauty, based around a matrix of thin, disciplined, geometric lines. Conti’s Profughe alla stazione (1918), by immediate contrast, is heavy-handed, opaque and blotchy. Nonetheless something warm and vital seeps outwards to the viewer from even these works: Futurism is a movement so often associated with war and violence, with militarism and, ultimately, Fascism. Most often its subjects are disfigured by the transcendental forces of technology and speed. Conti’s work, on the other hand, fuses the utopianism of that modern movement with a romantic, humanistic spirit. His bar scenes, peasants and street vendors are occasionally crude, but rendered with an obvious affection for these peoples’ essences as he immortalises them in art.
This sensitivity to the everyday was one reason that the artist’s Futurist phase proved so fleeting. The Fiesole exhibition concludes by cataloguing Conti’s immediate surpassing of his own teenage anger, through a controlled dissolution of form via Surrealism and the grotesque. This is also picked up in the final rooms at the Bardini, which guide the viewer through the young man’s struggle to find his own definite style amidst the personal and political chaos of Mussolini’s Italy. Conti’s self-portrait of 1914 is bold and confident, inspired to the point of homage by Cézanne’s iconic depiction of the French poet, Rimbaud. The parallel piece from 1921 could hardly be more different. Here the eyes are hollow, the colours muted in favour of shadow and the glint of mirrored surfaces.
The next rooms are curated to emphasise the artist’s explosive, nomadic experimentation. Cartoonish portraits, like La Cugina Pia (1920), are positioned opposite photorealist pieces like Siao Tai Tai (1925). There are symbolic paintings, tortured metaphors from the unconscious that recall the ritualism of those youthful works like Allegoria. By the time of Crocifissione (1924) and Il ratto delle Sabine (1925), these take an explicitly religious form.
La bella ignuda
The exhibition closes with two portraits, both of women, positioned on either side of a fireplace next to the exit. On the right, Ritratto della moglie (1934), shows Conti’s wife, the Englishwoman Elena Croon, in an austere, domestic dress. On closer inspection, though, her expression is stoic and fiery in a quiet, but unmistakable, protest against the indignities of life under regime. On the left is one of the artist’s most famous, and more explicitly defiant, works, La bella ignuda (1934), which shows a bare-breasted Roma gypsy with an accordion hanging from her wrist. Conti re-painted this piece several times, fearful of criticism from the Fascist censors. Yes, this young woman is objectified. But in an ambiguous twist she is not only ‘gazed-upon’, but stares back, clearly refusing to submit before the viewer who, one presumes somehow from the posture, is male. Whatever questions it may raise, the painting is rightly recognised as one of the artist’s most notable achievements and is an undeniable masterpiece of Tuscan modernism. If nothing else, this piece alone merits a visit to the exhibition.