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Monday, October 12, 2015

Telemaco Signorini

Oxen to Pietramala, 1890, Telemaco Signorini
Landscape painters come in two varieties. All too often we tend to lump them all together as one. People have a habit of thinking that all landscape paintings feature wooded scenes, mountains, meadows, country roads, rural homesteads, and the occasional quaint village. That's all fine, but those scenes constitute only one type of landscape. The second type is often dubbed the urban landscape, that is, when it's dubbed at all. Mostly such work is not considered a landscape at all, but a street scene, or sometimes a cityscape. Yet in the broadest sense, rural or urban, they both depict our outdoor environment as it is, or as we'd like to think it is (or could be). Though these two types can and should both be considered landscapes, obviously they are quite different and demand very different skills on the part of the artist. The rural landscape artist is basically a camouflage painter, disguising a blank surface to replicate mostly untouched nature. In general such works require minimal drawing skills but a highly refined sense of color. Such works often allow a relatively loose, painterly handling of brush and paint (above). They're ideal for beginning artists. The urban landscape, on the other hand, requires much more in the way of technical skills, including an advanced understanding of linear perspective, at least a rudimentary ability to handle the human figure (the element that makes a city a city) and a far greater ability to handle details (reflections, signage, lighting etc.). Even accomplished artists often shrink from such pictorial demands.

Old Market in Florence, 1882-83, Telemaco Signorini
Ghetto of Florence, 1882,
Telemaco Signorini
The Italian painter, Telemaco Signorini painted landscapes, but primarily those of the second type--the urban landscape during the second half of the 19th-century. It was a time when the contrast between urban vistas and those from the countryside had never been greater. In general, the countryside was much like that of Signorini's Oxen to Pietramala (top) painted in 1890. Roads were unpaved; mechanization had yet to raise it's ugly head; that may be a small village in the background with a few wisps of smoky air pollution; but still, it was a scene of comforting beauty. Now, compare Signorini's rural landscape to his urban landscape, his Old Market in Florence (above) from 1882-83. Yes, that's the Duomo peeking and peaking over the turbulent hustle and bustle of goods being exchanged for lira and florins. Yet the Old Market in Florence is a sheer visual delight compared to the sheer visual ugliness of Signorini's Ghetto of Florence (left) from 1882. Signorini even finds himself having to abandon the traditional, horizontal format of the landscape in favor of the cramped, claustrophobic vertical in which the open sky is reduced to a narrow slit barely penetrating the harsh reality of 19th-century urban life.
The Way of Fire, 1881, Telemaco Signorini
Telemaco Signorini
Telemaco Signorini knew the urban landscape well. He was born in the Santa Croce area of Florence. His father, Giovanni Signorini, was a court painter for the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Almost from the time of his birth in 1835, the young boy showed great interest in literature and the arts. Probably due in no small part to the fact that his father was a painter, young Telemaco decided to study painting. In 1852 he enrolled at the Florentine Academy, and by 1854 he was painting landscapes. The following year he exhibited for the first time, showing paintings at the Florentine Promotrice. Sometime the following year, Signorini began to hang out at the Caffè Michelangiolo in Florence. There he met Giovanni Fattori, Silvestro Lega, Saverio Altamura and several other Tuscan artists. Together they formed a group called the Macchiaioli. The Macchiaioli, rebelled against the antiquated conventions taught by the Italian academies. They began painting outdoors in an attempt to capture natural light, shade, and color. One might consider them Italian Impressionists not unlike their friends in France a few years later.

Bath for Prisoners in Portoferraio, 1890, Telemaco Signorini
Leith, 1881, Telemaco Signorini
After service in the Second Italian War of Independence during which time he painted military scenes, Signorini's Macchiaioli sense of rebellion found its way into content few other painters had ever considered appropriate, as seen in his Bath for Prisoners in Portoferraio (above) from 1890. Even the French Impressionists didn't paint from inside prisons. Signorini visited Paris where he communed with Degas and others of his ilk, giving his work an international flavor. Later he also visited London. His Leith (right) from 1881 depicts a thoroughly British corner grocery sporting what may be the first painting of a billboard in the history of art--a surprisingly modern looking broadside for Rob Roy Whiskey. The noted art historian, Norma Broude, has written of Leith: "What permitted and encouraged Signorini's experimentation in this remarkably precocious and unprecedented manner was unquestionably the experience of photography. For with his vision conditioned by that experience, he could accept—-as the eye of the camera accepts—-what artists before him would normally have pruned or screened out of their interpretations of such a scene."

The photo of Riomaggiore (lower, right) was taken from the foreground
 terrace depicted in Signorini's 1892-94 painting (upper, left).
Signorini began visiting the village of Riomaggiore (above) in 1881, returning there often during the next fifteen years. Perched on a steep cliff running down to the sea, the village is the southernmost of the Cinque Terre, the five rugged coastal settlements in the Italian region of Liguria, which extends along the Italian Riviera from Monaco to La Spezia. The region and its inhabitants provided, not only the subject for an important series of paintings, but also a book about the village and the villagers, written by Signorini and published by his brother, Paolo after Signorini's death in 1901.

A Little Girl Writes, 1885-90, Telemaco Signorini.


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