Occupying a townhouse on Park Avenue, the Italian Cultural Institute has filled its rooms with 19th century “Neapolitan School” paintings. Artworks from regions across Southern Italy (the Mezzogiorno) range in style and subject but inoffensive landscapes of attractive coastline predominate.
Art dealer Marco Bertoli has curated this show with works drawn from private collections and the pieces on display are for sale.
Giuseppe Laezza’s and Attilo Pratella’s painterly plein-air canvases of the Gulf of Naples use cast shadows at the base of the pictures to lead the viewer’s eye into compositions featuring fishing boats parked on beaches.
In Sicilian artist Francesco Lojacono’s painting of boats bobbing in the Gulf of Palermo, the rocky form of Mount Pellegrino is softened with atmospheric perspective. Waves on the surface of the sea in the foreground add depth to the painting while a few pink clouds around Mount Pellegrino convey warm light.
But the most interesting artworks here are not picturesque. Mr. Bertoli describes painter Antonio Mancini as “important” and “very modern,” and the curator is not alone in his praise. John Singer Sargent once called Mancini “the best living painter.” (A portrait of Mancini dashed off by Sargent was included at the Metropolitan Museum’s recent exhibit “Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends.”)
Mancini has two canvases here, a still life and a portrait, and both works show off the artist’s feel for the materiality of paint. In “Sorriso” (Smile), 1919, a mysterious female figure with deep-set eyes wears an amused expression. The paint in this portrait is so thick in places it is sculpted on. Heavy dabs of white paint, meant to convey gloved hands, look skeletal.
In “Natura Morta” (Still Life), a wine bottle and some fruit on a tablecloth was painted wet-into-wet with a palette knife, imparting a gauzy look to the picture. The bottle is askew, animating the unremarkable subject matter.
Mancini would sometimes paint over a string perspective grid to measure proportions as he worked from observation or mix bits of glass and tinfoil into paint to add luminosity to his canvases.
Bertoli says he was “a little out of his head.” And, in fact, the artist was hospitalized for mental illness in the early 1880s. Mixed-media canvases by contemporary painters like Chris Martin and John Lees (currently exhibiting new works at Betty Cuningham Gallery) seem indebted to Mancini’s innovative approach.
A visitor to Mancini’s studio, Augusto Jandolo, recalled the eccentric painter’s process this way:
“Mancini, in shirt sleeves, extremely nervous, bustled about delivering brush strokes, that resembled blows of a whip, onto a canvas supported on the back of a chair. He snorted, he muttered to himself, he cursed at the model who wasn’t able to remain still, then he quickly distanced himself from the subject and bent down on his knees. Plump and not too flexible as he was, he stooped down and withdrew from his pocket binoculars, which he used to view her in reverse. All of this while panting out of breath, and raving like someone obsessed.”
Mancini’s father, in the corner of the studio, interrupted the painter again and again, repeating, "Anto, let's go to dinner."
The Light of Southern Italy, on view through November 5, 2016, Italian Cultural Institute of New York, 686 Park Avenue, New York, NY, 212-879-4242, www.iicnewyork.esteri.it.
More information about Xico Greenwald's work can be found at xicogreenwald.com