This post is also available in: Italian
In the long history of painting of the twentieth century many great minds have gone lost to the knowledge not only of the public but also of experts. A first method of research to regain these ‘minds’ is to rely not only on the recognition of values of those who practiced painting and sculpture in a professional way, but also to seek works of those who, although having practiced a profession that has granted them the means to live, have also worked with dignity and value in the field of the artistic creativity, often obtaining better results then professional artists, of whom we generally tend to consider. The correct method is to open with disenchantment, with less irony as possible, to the continue instances of revaluation. A bad habit is to rely on any form, setting a ‘castle of words’ adjustable to any expression. Since prehistory, man apposed his handprint on caves walls to exorcise his fears. This is not yet an artistic act that’s worth considering as such, although today to be considered an artist, it suffices to expose a bowl with iron pieces in a respectful art gallery.
With this premise I have approached Giovanni Balilla Magistri, a person who managed to conquer a good fame during the fifties as graphic illustrator being part of the prestigious team of the Saggiatore of my good friend Alberto Mondadori. I was immediately impressed by the individuality expressed in his early life designs, when at the time, mid twenties, he attended the Liceo Artistico of Brera. He was born in Milan on the 2nd of June 1909. From this spontaneous vivacity, Magistri, was admitted to the Brera Accademy, where he begins to formulate his vision of things, coming closer, with love, to nature lived not in silent contemplation but in its plentiful action. Magistri is also attracted by the building activities for the new railway station of Milan, Stacchini’s old project, which occurred during that period (1928-29), the livelihood of a seaside harbor. Magistris is already painter as others, although not many, of the same period. You need only to look at the synthetic essentiality of his ‘Porto di mare’ of 1929, a watercolor fresco of an excellent post-impressionist school.
When Magistri approaches figure, in the mid thirties, difficulties soon turn out. These are shared by all his generation. In fact it is sufficient to consult the ‘Biennale Veneziana’ catalogue of 1934, the first one that I had the chance to see, opening for sure in an exhortative way with an international exhibition on the Portraits of the nineteenth century. The main principles on which Appiani ‘portraits’ relied on, Hayez one’s were already mainly abandoned at the end of the century by the worldwide artistic idol such as Harnold Boecklin and Habs Thoma. The year after during the 40th anniversary of the ‘Biennale’ it could be ascertained that few painters, as Lino Selvatico from Padua, had maintained that narrow ambience, typical of the middle class portraits, main principal of the art of the nineteenth century. The new ‘recruits’, in the mid Nineteenth century after the change of the century, from Boldino to Novello, preferred to set figures in a lively contest, where the society entourage could be felt, being either high or low class. This was obviously stirred by the French art, from Manet to Vuillard. How could then a young painter who wanted to approach figures and composition design could be placed at that time? The nineteenth century in Milan was in full sway, but expressed contradictions soon played an important role from a historical point of view: by a group of abstractionist close to the gallery of the ‘Millione’ and a Twentieth century movement from the review ‘Corrente’ that will come to light on the 1st of January 1938, from Sassu and Birolli to Borlotti and Cassinari.
When in 1935 Magistri paints his ambitious ‘Resurrezione’ he grounds an idea, that may be defined as expressionist, common to other ex-students of Brera who measured themselves with fascist symbols of the period very well known by me, Donadelli, for example, still acid, brutal if you want, that will then be picked up by Morlotti. It will be not correct to ground the discussion on Magistri painting, that will come out after the tragic war period and the imprisonment in a Anglo-American camp, by relying on his past years of training revealed to our knowledge only through some ‘figures’ and by the mentioned ‘Resurrezione’. But is due to remember that still the uncertain attempts of a new and different art was counter trend of the period, dominated by a nine hundred that the only one loose cannon tolerated was the Second Futurism, left aside within large exhibitions such as the ‘Biennale di Venezia’ where Futurists enjoyed a separate location. For certain it is advisable to ponder on Magistri youthfulness to understand the sense of his after war painting, when Magistri dedicated himself firstly to a commercial activity, print on glass for goggles for the selection of the frequency radio and later to graphic editorial at Mondadori. At the time we may think that Magistri practiced painting as amateur. But with no offence to the ‘amateur painters’ we must immediately recognize that, within his expressionist talent, Magistri right away demonstrated good professionalism. The big compositions of 1970, starting from the ‘Ratto delle Sabine’ , intended to break the myth of ‘Nice’ cultured by the neo-classicism in the nine hundred, collocating himself within the bristly and disturbing running through the art of the twentieth century.
Our art critics have always undervalued this artistic Italian pathway that concerns all our country, from Milan to Calabria. Recently, a painter from Calabria, Andrea Alfano, has been revaluated. In 1922 he composed big canvas paintings for the Government Palace of Reggio Calabria. A sense of rebellion against the codified form can be read, an unconventional disruption in the design of the human body in action, is by chance reconsidered fifty years later by a painter as Magistri, who for sure did not have knowledge of Alfano’s artworks. Why then, devoted as we all are in examining the international panorama of expressionism to surrealism we do not advise the richness of such proposals so close to us? And I only refer to paint, made from colors, without considering that ‘mined field’, the employ of margarine, felt and wood of which Joseph Bueys has been leader. Magistri proposes the composition of figures in frontal procession, very colored, as if they were in devotion to angels in rebellion. Such figures in pose with no faces, lighted up by flare and bluish value tones in the background, they are set side by side as in a altarpiece of the four hundred, referring to sensations that the painter had long time ago, white as back dated memories, reinvented in the present. Some of these artworks are inferred from every day life as: ‘La donna che affetta le angurie’ (women cutting watermelons). But generally they belong to that category of figurative reflecting the people’s history living at the time through emblematic images of state of mind, war, desperation, a cloistered life, wrath, anxiousness.
Painters depicting saints symbolized the rituality of the objects and attitudes, today expressed through colors and the disruption of shapes. It is a method that takes its distances from the descriptive naturalism of the eight hundred, but just realistic as it refers to existential values, not abstract ones and it is remarkable how this derives from a personality, such as Magistri, who dedicated himself also to illustrative graphic. I take my distance from the critic mannerism, that fixes on forms independently from its meaning and moreover it is not concerned of the original reasons that brought the painter to depict in such way. Magistri compositions are not ‘still life’ of dismantled figures, spotted with colors, without half tones, absent of veiling. Although escaping from the impasto painting, Magistri gives brightness also when the tones are kept low and playing with shadows as in ‘Figure sedute’. In the painting ‘Nudo rosso con figure’ we feel a sensibility recalling a Matisse style in the nobility of a structure where the chiaroscuro effect is fully colored, moving away from the paintings of the Nine hundred period.
Magistri for sure has been a figurative painter, graphic expert and illustrator. This is demonstrated in a beautiful collection of ‘portraits’ set on main tones, blue and yellow. These are real characterized physiognomic portraits. We may infer quite well that Magistri was also skilled for art craft and when painting figures with no face he did it intentionally, in order not to trivialize his fantasy. Magistri is a painter that always felt the need to refer to the human figure, even when he let himself go to the fantasy of colors. The figure in Magistri paintings is never considered as element, a spot in the environment, it takes up in a triumphal way all space, dressed or nude, as a whole or head and shoulders, or a simply head. Magistri is also a landscape painter, he frees his mind, and his nightmares as well, by depicting airy landscape at the Garda’s Lake, in Venice and elsewhere. A concert of unfurled sails to the wind, the silent presence of trees in a upland plain to city views such as San Babila Square in Milan. These are all sceneries inspired by a deep love of nature extending to the still life, felt not much as decorative image, a grouping of peaches, a set of cups, but as an aspect of nature, a constant completion of his own vision of the living world. The confirmation of how much Magistri counted among the artists of our time is well represented through his graphic production, multiform, and skilled, a real study and not as a simple amateur. By employing with prestigious variability pen and pencil, watercolor and tempera, Magistri enjoys his graphic works. There is no straining research, it is a natural talent, well understood, it derives from childhood.
In Magistri design, referring both to landscape sketches or figure compositions, we are aware of a spontaneous feeling when approaching things, a frank sincerity without go betweens of frontal schemes, without worrying of fashion life styles of the time. Giovanni Balilla Magistri had quite a short life, born in 1909, died in 1972 at Santa Margherita Ligure, a hard worker till the very end. Coming from an excellent school, averse to praise, his many existential interests and also his well-undertaken family responsibilities never gave him the chance to acquire a real achievement in art, in a difficult period as the one he lived in. I’m quite sure that his professionalism, that allowed him to keep up his constant poetic inspiration, confide Magistri to the art history of the twentieth century.