In 1901, a young man from Livorno wrote to “my very dear Oscar”, a fellow aspiring painter from his hometown. He looked up to Oscar because the older man had already been selected for the prestigious Venice Biennale. But “Dedo”, as he signed himself, still felt able to offer advice: cultivate “everything which can exult and excite your intelligence. Seek to provoke it, to perpetrate it, these fertile stimuli, because they alone can push the intelligence to its maximum creative power. For these we must fight.”
The young man was Amedeo Modigliani; his fame would eclipse the reputation of his best friend, Oscar Ghiglia, and many more of his contemporaries. So, the current exhibition at Palazzo Medici Riccardi takes a fresh look at Ghiglia and asks what excited him about the world around him and for what did he fight?
Unlike Modigliani, who was raised in a highly cultured and affluent family, Oscar Ghiglia’s beginnings lay in poverty. His youth, he recounted later, was “spent between sickness and misery, the liveliest, the blackest and the saddest, and among poor people who risked their lives to live”. As an adolescent, he worked as a blacksmith, a shop assistant and a travelling salesman. He also taught himself about art.
His fortunes improved at age 25 after that first success in Venice. But perhaps his earliest experiences were formative. Still lives recurred as a subject throughout his career of over 40 years. One reason is that he quickly specialised in technical effects. Shape and surface fascinated him. The elements of his Natura morta (1925) are carefully arranged over a white cloth draping a tabletop. The artist’s attention concentrates on each object separately, describing their physical properties that he envelops in circular rhythms modelled by light. The eye is led around red, green and yellow apples, a decorated ceramic pot and a copper dish, and then across the pitted skins of oranges sitting in a white stem bowl. While they do not signify a world of material plenty, his still life paintings project an image of stability and style. In poverty, he might only have dreamed of that variety and order. Elsewhere, Ghiglia added other kinds of nourishment: a book, newspapers and the print of a Rembrandt painting feature alongside the fruit and bowls in La Voce (1911). In later examples, a violin appears as well as a guitar, reflecting the cultural milieu he found vital to his existence. Instruments also supplied interesting contours.
His paintings of women at first appear similarly detached from feeling. They are often viewed from behind, as if spied upon as the women brush their hair, play the piano or, as in Donna allo specchio (1923), examine their own reflections. Yet these unfussy, intimate studies are not unsettling. Instead they are as tender as his work gets. His model was often his wife, Isa, and the images reflect a striking truthfulness that softens their technical severity. Nonetheless, they also project a life of bourgeois leisure. That may have been their appeal to patrons. Certainly, the loyal support of the enlightened collector Gustavo Sforni, who acquired a large part of what he produced, ensured an adequate standard of living. Yet, apparent in this exhibition is the commitment Ghiglia gave to the integrity of painting. In the best possible sense, his images portray creativity as labour.
Although defined by refined simplicity, elegance and good taste, his compositions posed sophisticated perspectival problems that the artist resolved with acute observation and the rational assembly of components. While Ghiglia would never have abandoned figuration, his concerns were as much the abstract building blocks of representation—line, colour and space—as registering reality. His paintings were devoted as much to form as to their material subject matter, whether it was a nude or a landscape, a flower in full bloom or, for instance, the portrait of Ugo Ojetti nello studio (1908-09).
Ojetti was a journalist with Corriere della Sera and a promoter of Italy’s architectural heritage, which he sought to defend from modern interventions. Ghiglia places him behind a desk laden with objects—a vase containing colourful blooms, a silver ink stand, books, ceramics and a clock, essential for a writer obeying deadlines—and in front of shelves lined with books and artefacts. Ojetti is shown in command of his surroundings, engaging the viewer with eyes lifted from work and dressed in a bold blue jacket, the most colourful presence in the room.
Friendship with Ojetti gave Ghiglia access to this well-known intellectual’s extensive library. Similarly, Ghiglia saw work by Cézanne before most in Italy because Sforni was possibly the first in the country to buy the artist’s radical paintings. Cézanne’s influence on Ghiglia is evident when he paints his son Paulo al cutter (1919). Colour gradations and constructive diagonal brushstrokes build form and establish the three-dimensional quality of the figure.
Professional relationships were as importance to Ghiglia’s development as an artist as his education had been. In 1901, he had moved to Florence to attend the atelier of fellow Livornese Giovanni Fattori, star painter of the Macchiaioli. He also joined a group of intellectuals that included Giovanni Papini, a remarkable radical who proclaimed the death of philosophy and the demolition of thinking itself, and Giuseppe Prezzolini. Both briefly flirted with futurism and later supported Mussolini, directions that Ghiglia, who had no time for politics, refused to follow. Although he exhibited with Margherita Sarfatti’s Novecento group in 1926, it was their “return to [artistic] order” (a Europe-wide phenomenon) and revival of classical tradition that attracted him and not their allegiance to fascism.
This absorbing exhibition attempts to revive Ghiglia’s reputation as a leading proponent of those values in 20th-century painting. Even in life he kept a low profile, admired by fellow artists and, assisted by Sforni, not dependent on sales and showing. Nearly 80 years on from his death, he comes across as by no means an original voice but as a master of the suspended, almost metaphysical moment who deserves the place he occupies in Italy’s modern art history. Ultimately, Ghiglia’s name survives through his student friendship with Modigliani. After leaving Livorno, they shared lodgings in 1902 in via San Gallo. From Florence, their paths diverged. Modigliani went to bohemian Paris and amorous adventures, where he memorably probed the depths of art. He invited Ghiglia to join him, but his friend declined and lived out his days respectably in Florence. What might have happened had he gone?
About Oscar Ghiglia: Gli Anni di Novecento
Palazzo Medici Riccardi
Until September 13, 2022
Information + reservations:
Tel. +39 055 2760552