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Giovanni Balilla Magistri was born in Milan on June 1909, son of Raffaele, esteemed roman theater scenographer, and of Stamura Villa, third born child of Enea, dentist in the city of Bologne. From the early years of school, Magistri artistic bias was already spoken through design, and at the time of high school studies, he was soon inclined to attend the ‘Liceo Artistico di Brera’ (Brera high school of arts) at Milan. We may understand from a postcard sent in 1926 by Magistri to his parents’, how the family did not entirely share young Magistri intentions: “Thank you for the given consent, don’t doubt for colors, I’ll do my best in order not to waist money.”
Attending his favorite studies, Magistri, with natural ease, was promptly lead to look into great depth to light as a primary source of vision and perception of the objects to be reproduced both as perspective, as well as contest. The drawing “Il verone di Giulietta”, stands as a statement of this period, where the meticulous use of basic concepts and techniques are quite evident.
After high school his training continues at the ‘Accedemia di Brera ’ (Brera Accademy) where he meets and shares with Giacomo Mazù, Bruno Munari, Luigi Filocamo his first experiences of independent depiction. A text published in 1934 by the Società Anonima Periodica Italiana, entitled “Latteria di Tripoli”, shows a colored table with caricatures accomplished by Magistri of all the artwork authors: Bassano Erba. Berto Andreoli, Carlo Manzoni, Angelo Uglietti, Pino Donizzatti, Bruno Munari, Waletr Molino. This is the time when Magistri attains to combine both needs: a remunerative working activity as well as his faithful passion for paint. Of this period two watercolors still exist representing the building site activity of Milan’s new railway station, and a sea harbor not better identified and the photos of three oil works: “self portrait”, “the model”, “the resurrection”. With Italy entry to war, Magistri was soon enlisted at the Sicilian front where he’ll remain until he is made prisoner by the American’s at the time of their disembark. Nevertheless his imprisonment did not put to an end his ‘life motive’, painting. In fact, he soon finds a way to ease hard times by realizing portrays to the American colonel (and his wife) who at the time headed the division to whom Magistri surrendered. Once war was over, Magistri went back to Milan, where he started some purely commercial activities, but yet related to painting. In partnership he starts a ground-breaking activity for the time: print on goggles glass used for the selection of radiofrequency, M&M in via Cardinal Mezzofanti. But due to Magistri relative attention to business, he soon found himself left out by his partners, once these had managed to ‘seize’ the know how of the activity. Magistri feelings’ at the time were bind to Diana Liguori, met few years before. She will be her companion for all his timelife giving light to three children: Anna Maria, Giovanni Paolo, Eugenia Elisabetta. The need to look after the family leads Magistri to new working frontiers: as graphic collaborator at the newly born editing house “Il Saggiatore” of Alberto Mondadori 1957-1961. The renown editorial house of today at the time proposed innovative cultural issues with the collaboration and consultation of outstanding personalities such as Giacomo Debenedetti, literature editor in chief, Ernesto de Martino, Luigi Rognoni, Fedele D’Amico, Guido Aristarco, Enzo Paci, Remo Cantoni, Rosario Romeo e Maria Teresa Giannelli.
Seven series were published among which the ‘Biblioteche delle Silerchie’, over a 100 paper board volumes with colored covers, of which 64 illustrated by Magistri. The graphic-editorial experience takes him at the head of the Vatican typography “La Cittadella” moving so to Mede Lomellina at Pavia, where he spends five year during which, besides his main activity he produces a vast number of oil paintings and designs. Back to Milan, although during this period he has some difficulties making ends meet, he will not let down his passion for painting: placing his painting easel in the living room he soon finds a way out to his economical problems by opening the Gallery Paracelso 10, where he gives hospitality to some contemporary painters, whom the friend Umberto Pettinicchio. At this time he reaches the zenith of creativity, committing much of his time to figurative design and realizing art works recognized then by art critics assigning them most merits. Concerned also by social issues, these instants were lived by Magistri as interior moments of expression and creativity, never conducted on the wave of emotions coupled in a conventional way to that or other political drifts. Giovanni Balilla Magistri by taking his distances from benevolent and complying critics, he will not have the chance to meet and be known by the public, he loves to discuss on his beloved painting in the concreteness of every canvas, representing always a pathway that each time expresses the overcome of the limits reached. He considers painting as a way to grow inside and meditate on the mystery of life.
Magistri will paint till his very end. The Santa Margherita Ligure harbour was the subject of his last artwork, 17 December 1972. The civic authority of Milan commemorated Magistri with an exhibition posthumous at the Arengario 1975, an exhibition with over 200 artworks open to the public. A saying will be part of him for all his life:” Time will judge my artwork, maybe one day it will be noticed. To show his firm and back dated friendship to Luigi Filocamo, friend to Magistri during his studies at the Accademia of Brera, he portrayed him as Apostle in the Last Supper, fresco painted in 1949 by Filocamo himself for the Sanctuary of S. Rita in Cascia. A weird destiny: his portrait exposed in the public eye, almost a reward to a lifetime lead according to a sever and discreet style.