|“Norma Mascellani”, 1987, Grafis Edizioni, Bologna, pp. 191-225
In opening these critical notes on Norma Mascellani’s work I would like to quote from a text I wrote to accompany the large-scale anthological exhibition dedicated to the artist by the Bologna City Council in November 1985. I referred on that occasion to a finesse “deep-rooted in the artist’s character, in the almost desperate tenderness matched with the impetuosity of a personality in which fragility and strength, severity and extreme sensitivity to emotion unite in extraordinary harmony. These are the qualities reflected in her works which, however, never fail from certain established formal limits even when the atmospheric mood, an impalpable veil created by reflections of land and water or an unexpected explosion of colour seems to cleave away the image or threaten its subtle harmony. I do not share common opinion sustaining Norma Mascellani as a painter of delicate sensitivity”.
This is not however a denial that the accent placed by others on her lyricism charmed with images tracable to the early lines of Italian chiarismo and anti-novecentismo be justifiable or admissable. On the basis of indications by Francesco Arcangeli I myself have upheld the existence of a situation of chiarismo in Bologna during the thirties, in which Norma Mascellani played an important role, not forgetting that this situation had its foundation in the solid traditions of realism and verism – Pizzirani and Garzia Fioresi spring to mind – translated by Nino Bertocchi into terms of vaguely restless naturalism and by Lea Colliva with almost expressionistic impulse. What has remained of this in Norma Mascellani’s work? A steady, persistent, inescapable structural proportion without which the most important paintings of this Bolognese artist would risk being pure re-takes of the toned-down post-impressionism of Giovanni Romagnoli or else in a lateral position of chiarismo with respect to the Lombardic painters, Del Bon, De’ Rocchi, Lilloni and Spilimbergo. Such is not the case, however, since Bologna never really considered itself represented by Romagnoli, who was too “French” for local tastes, and neither did it have an Edoardo Persico able to re-propose Venturi’s post-impressionism against the rampant novecento.
At the most it was able to give life to a rebel movement such as the one expressed by the group of artists gathered around the magazine L’Orto, amongst whom Poggeschi was the most adventurous exponent of that pro-French culture which found its literary expression in the Florentine magazine Il Frontespizio and of whom Corrado Corazza was an irreverent, caustic painter/writer of effronteries meant to please orthodox members of the chauvenisticstrapaese literary movement, which instead fell short.
Mascellani was probably unaware of the confusion of political manoeuvres intent on creating a similar group of artists in Bologna, obedient to fascist dictates. She was too immersed in academic studies and experiences with the techniques of portrait, landscape and still-life painting, all too hastily defined as eclectic and which instead correspond to anxious, open searching, correctly identified and evaluated by an attentive critic such as Carlo Savoia as the convergence of instinctive force with cultivated studies of Giotto, Piero della Francesca, fourteenth century Sienese painters and the recently discovered decorations of Villa dei Misteri: observations I will try to analyse more deeply in the following pages, although certainly not the only points of reference. Indeed, ample critical material exists on Mascellani’s work, both on her painting and on her etchings, to which I doubt I can add much, except perhaps for a few indications of a philological nature, aimed at verifying the details of a story which has already been exhaustively told in important monographic studies such as the one written by Marcello Azzolini. Worthy of closer analysis, however, is that internal structural force I mentioned previously in relation to even the more apparently vaporous of Mascellani’s compositions. Here it should be remembered that she was a pupil of Giorgio Morandi and acquired the master’s sense of the inherent metaphysical character in everyday objects as well as an awareness of detachment from the “real”, felt even in her moments of more voracious apprehending and greater seizure of the image.
The period of Bolognese history which coincided with Mascellani’s debut has not been subject to much study, and a tendency exists to hastily define it in disparaging terms as “provincialism”, quite forgetting that Morandi, venerated or opposed as might have been the case, was an undoubted exponent of this same provincial culture. Indeed his lesson in restraint, also in the moral sense, greatly contributed to the pride and modern conscience of those who were unfulfilled by verism, naturalism and a return to 17th century style in a search for specific glorious traits of Bolognese tradition: almost a re-dimensioning of the demands of severity imposed by Plastic Values and of the revolutionary traditionalism of Margherita Sarfatti and her novecento to more level, provincial proportions.
There is also a certain forgetfulness or unawareness of the influence which Catholic culture exerted in Bologna in the thirties, filtered through the pages of L’Orto and resounding in the paintings of the already mentioned Poggeschi and Corrado Corazza, as well as in the writings of this latter in the daily L’Avvenire d’Italia. Papini, Lisi, Bargellini and Bertocchi were recurrent names and Mascellani must have in some way felt participant in a culture in which spiritualistic inspiration coincided with an opening towards the voices of Europe, well beyond the limits of the narrow-minded nationalism preached by orthodox members of the chauvenistic strapaese literary movement and taken up, if ever so elegantly, by L’Italiano, founded by Longanesi in 1926. As a common reference point, in fact, the magazine was somewhat ephemeral, even though it numbered Cardarelli, Barilli and Cecchi among its collaborators and an assiduous Giorgio Morandi and Giuseppe Raimondi among its editorial staff.
More committed and combattive was young Carlo Savoia in his criticism launched from the pages of L’Assalto and directed at an environment unable to keep up with new happenings on the national scene. Practically the only thing he considered positive was the liberty conceded by Augusto Majani, his assistent, Ferruccio Giacomelli, and Alfredo Protti to students on the painting course in which Mascellani enrolled at the onset of the thirties. Indeed the occasion which drew the first substantial critical note on the young Bolognese painter, Mascellani, was an exhibition of trial work by the pupils of the various schools of painting, etching, sculpture, architecture and scenography.
Carlo Savoia had evidently been following Mascellani for some time to warrant his comment that the artist, barely twenty, “has come through a winter and spring of tormented, explorative work done mainly outside the school, subject to our perhaps excessively severe but necessary imposition. Wrongly taught, she has been obliged to re-assimilate the concept of painting all over again”. The “wrong teaching” to which Savoia referred was that which Mascellani received within the in many ways fascinating environment of the Regazzi Academy, which was also frequented by sculptors Luciano Minguzzi and Giorgio Giordani as well as by painters Mandelli and Gagliardi. A few of these became her companions at the School of Fine Arts and at the numerous exhibitions in which she participated with considerable success, obtaining the unreserved acknowledgement of even the most attentive critics, including, apart from Carlo Savoia, the rather more provincial tones of the likes of Giacomelli and Buscaroli, never quite pardoned by younger artists for the fact that they in their turn were somewhat lagging painters. There was no such spirit of revolt or contestation in Bologna in the thirties as existed in Rome and Milan, however.
Cultural life took its tranquil course and basic respectability, love for the profession, respect for its values and for academic knowledge prevailed, untouched even by the goliardic anti-conformity innocently manifested at annual freshmen celebrations but absent from the real or feigned solemnity of the cultural lictorian contests of the fascist period: active instrument in creating an otherwise impossible awareness of national problems. One can today imagine what Norma Mascellani’s generation felt under the fascist regime: severe signs of restraint, a lack of information on international art and a longing for much more liberty than was permitted. Gianni Granzotto, who together with some of the more daring lads of the period – Minguzzi, Carlo Doglio and Guido Fassò – was one of the more disrespectful towards fascist rhetoric, wrote an important paper on the condition of young intellectuals of the period: “in Bologna, we lived in a society of totally fascist character, surrounded by the image of a regime which had survived ten years without any sign of public opposition whatsoever the opposition had been hopelessly defeated a long time ago as far as we could ascertain. The anti-fascists were reduced to an obstinate handful, part of which was abroad, another part in prison or in forced residence nobody really helped us to understand, we just had to get on with it by ourselves”.
Whatever the case, the artistic lictorian contests were an important occasion for many, and the exhibitions organized by fascist groups were important enough to open up prospects for young Bolognese artists which went as far as the Quadrennial Exhibition in Rome and the Biennial International Exhibition of Modem Art in Venice. In a city deprived of private galleries, the exhibitions of the Associazione Francesco Francia, the Circolo Artistico and the fascist groups were obligatory meeting points and functioned as testing grounds of a certain importance for the young artists admitted therein. The local fascist headquarters, which published the magazine Vita Nova, also opened their rooms to artists of various extraction, without imposing any particular line of expression, and practised a kind of aesthetic pluralism in contrast, as was also in contrast the politics of the same founder party official Arpinati, with the official directives of the regime. So these were the places in which the tireless and esteemed worker, Mascellani, made her first public appearances as an artist for whom a sure future was unanimously predicted, even though with the customary caution and hesitation reserved for women painters.
This attitude of stubborn, paternalistic suspicion explains many of the difficulties which Mascellani had to overcome as a young artist, and the bitterness she sometimes expressed. It did not, however, stop her from competing and emerging at a professional and qualitative level: confirmed by the numerous awards she obtained both in and out of the Academy, by her participation at the Rome Quadrennial, and by her consistent presence in local, regional and national exhibitions. Her inherent predisposition for painting must certainly have pleased even the more dignified critics, and if the young critic Carlo Savoia allowed himself somewhat biting tones and mildly severe reprimands, it was only on the basis of his undoubted acknowledgement of her ability and quality.
Mascellani formed intense, friendly working relationships with professors and students alike at the Regazzi Academy, at art school and at the School of Fine Arts. Cleto Tomba and the promising young sculptor Giorgio Giordani exchanged works with the young Bolognese painter who, even though she could not frequent the School of Fine Arts and University student gatherings, worked tirelessly at her relationships with the masters she most admired, from Romagnoli to Giacomelli, as well as with her favourite student companions. When the exhibition of student’s trial work was put on by the Academy in 1931, the young artist had already acquired considerable experience.
She had already painted a series of paesaggi (landscapes) and ritratti (portraits), indicating a meditation of the real, obviously fruit of the Regazzi Academy’s teaching, but already showing a structuring which finds its origins in Italian cézannismo, which passed from the severity of Plastic Values to Soffici and Carrà’s more domestic proportions of the same years. Her stays in Versilia, where she recalls having met Lorenzo Viani, may have facilitated these deviant openings with respect to the criteria of her masters, Romagnoli and Giacomelli, and even Protti who was still attached to the cordially corruptive magnificence of his famous female figures.
Norma Mascellani appeared closer to Nino Bertocchi’s choice of refined naturalism, and in harmony, as some of her critics pointed out, with Corrado Corazza’s contemporary landscape experiences. In those days, this was not something to be treated lightly, so the appearance of the new “hope” of Bolognese painting was greeted with polite affability and undisguised paternalism by the professors, who were only acknowledging the good results of their teaching. This may not have been enough for Mascellani who collected both praise and chiding whilst continuing to work as never before, and when faced with a problem she certainly tackled it full force.
When rebuked by Carlo Savoia for limiting herself to painting portraits and still-lifes of no more than a few centimeters and turning her back on any effort to “do big”, Mascellani, who had painted Autoritratto (Self portrait), the small Veduta di San Luca (View of San Luca) andTetti (Roofs), ventured into greater dimensions and took on the theme of a figure with sure grasp, as demonstrates Studio di nudo (Nude study) of 1931 which repeats the theme, so dear to Romagnoli and Saetti, of a woman at her bath, but with more earthy, realistic style. Perhaps she has not overcome the Spadini influence in this unusually strong work which in any case does not respond to the colouristic grace credited to the young Norma Mascellani.
It is certainly not novecento in style but neither can it be catalogued in any category of post-impressionism. It appears rather anomalous, like others such as the large Natura morta(still-life) done in the same year, which combines suggestions of ottocento with certain solid, plastic structuring particularly evident in the background detail of the bottles which form a singular contrast with the naturalistic disorder of the fruit and vegetables in the foreground. A certain suggestion of Cézanne re-emerges and persists here.
Straight away, however, the painter frees herself of nature’s weight, and in her probable fascination for Giovanni Romagnoli and Protti, she composes a series of portraits of quite clear post-mpressionist stamp. These works are of sizable dimensions, demonstrating that Mascellani had profitted by the criticism directed at her by Carlo Savoia. Her fondness for smaller dimensions was not however a means of avoiding the difficulties of composition or, as Savoia literally wrote, of “dodging the hardest work in painting”. Grouping was congenial to the painter, both in painting and etching. The etchings of minimum dimensions, carried out in accordance with Giorgio Morandi’s lessons at the Academy, are dated 1931.
It is probable that the advice Morandi usually gave to his pupils not to let themselves be rushed into composing and controlling every centimeter of paper, canvas or plate had produced its effect. The example set by the great master himself, whose works certainly did not satisfy any theory of “doing big”, must have reassured Mascellani, at least as regards the size of her engravings. In those days there was much discussion on the supremacy of one genre over another. Venturi had condemned still-life and even the professors forming the commissions for the Baruzzi and Curlandese Prizes were quite convinced that a large figure-painting well sustained in all its parts was the highest expression reserved for the select few.
Whilst a certain indulgence could be reserved for the landscapists and still-life exponents (Mascellani was to entitle one of her paintings Natura ferma) the real honours and acknowledgements due to a master were reserved for whoever showed his ability to compose large, officially approved figure-paintings. Unthinkable, of course, that Mascellani does not accept the challenge. The works she was to present in exhibitions in Bologna, Ferrara, Genoa and Cesena up until the Rome Quadrennial Exhibition in 1935 revealed an intention of amplifying the compositive space and accompanying her basic lyricism with strong, plastic structuring.
When Virgilio Guidi, newly arrived in Bologna to teach at the School of Fine Arts, presented an exhibition of artists of the Young Fascist University Student Group, he defined Mascellani a “typically Bolognese” painter and more specifically “close to a certain style showing a taste for painting and immerging objects in rather heavy yellow-brownish atmospheres”, noting, however, her “exquisite tonal sensitivity”. In the same exhibition, alongside painters Luigi Bianchi, Arturo Cussigh, Pompilio Mandelli, Mario Bonazzi, Gino Morandi, Renato Degidi and Luciano Gaspari and sculptors Rito Valla and Vittorio Morelli, as well as engravers Giuseppe Natali and Angeli Prudenzia, Mascellani presented four paesaggi (landscapes): Camugnano,Il Reno, L’Osservanza and Studio dall’alto, as well as a painting of flowers, Fiori, which could certainly have justified Virgilio Guidi’s words. However, it should be remembered that at that date she had already composed Autoritratto (Self portrait) of 1931 and above all her extraordinary, luminous Autoritratto done in pastels in 1933, as well as Viareggio of 1932 and In Versilia of 1933: works in which Marcello Azzolini rightly saw the influence of Carrà. Who knows if Guidi had seen her extremely audacious Viale Aldini, defined by Rezio Buscaroli as “among the strongest achievements of young Bolognese painting, which it is sad not to see in a place – read Municipal Gallery – where it can be preserved as a testimony of the tastes of our time”.
The production and history of Norma Mascellani was, in other words, already much more complex than appeared to Virgilio Guidi at the time, in 1936. Her history also included a few views of interiors of post-Spadini influence, such as her works composed for the competition “A Mother’s Dreams”, held in Genoa on a theme chosen by H.R.H. The Princess of Piedmont: Cucitrice (Seamstress) and La Lezione (The Lesson). Here, as in Il Balilla, exhibited in 1935 at the Rome Quadrennial Exhibition together with the composition Fiori(Flowers), Mascellani payed her domestic tribute to themes proposed by political competitions and circumstances, just as did almost all her young companions, from Ilario Rossi to Minguzzi.
Meanwhile, Carlo Savoia, who had also been to visit Morandi, had somewhat changed his ideas on the necessity of “painting big” in order to be modern, and his reprimands to the young painter were no longer so forthcoming. Mascellani felt free to follow her own various inclinations as far as can be seen from the Rome Quadrennial. This may well justify the critical judgement of eclecticism occasionally expressed, but taking care to note that in the Bologna of those times, young painters were obedient to the rules of the local school, and Norma Mascellani was no exception.
Lorenzo Viani was probably aware of this in his appreciation of the Versilia paintings of the young artist, as results from an article by Thais Bertini appearing in Il Telegrafo of 10 October 1936 describing a day spent in the company of Mascellani and Viani, the master, who praised her “strong paintings”. An alternation of discordant criticism was voiced on the work of the young painter who stubbornly went about building her own image and in 1937 attempted an initial account of herself when she was allocated the Mussolini Room at theCircolo della Stampa for a one-man exhibition.
A few photographs remain to document this exhibition and clearly show a complete absence of emphasis on any choice of language or line of poetics in putting together the works, illustrating the artist’s intention expressed in her brief presentation: to exhibit and be exhibited for what her work was worth. Mascellani intended to avoid, she said, “that this collection of works be considered a final stance”. One is prompted to ask in the face of what or whom, since no recognizable formations existed in Bologna in that year of 1939. Naturalists and verists, expressionists like Corazza and young Borgonzoni, symbolists such as the dramatic and unfortunate Cuppini, futurists like Caviglioni, young artists suspended between Guidi and Morandi, such as Rossi and Mandelli, and extraordinarily isolated painters such as Mario Pozzati all co-existed, but is was indeed difficult to talk of definite tendencies. So the “final stance” that Mascellani proclaimed she wanted to avoid was that of an artist who intended giving up all possible experimentation and fixing herself on any one manner. Nothing more.
A somewhat confused alignment of certain works which will remain fundamental in Mascellani’s history appeared on the walls of the Circolo della Stampa: Mia madre (My mother) painted in 1934, whose dryness and structural solidity are enough to believe those who saw a follower of post-impressionism in the young painter; her Natura ferma, responding to the same criteria of compositive force and correcting the imbalance of the already mentioned Natura morta with bottles; Porto di Rimini (Port of Rimini), a work already exhibited at the Exhibition of Bolognese Artists organized in September 1936 for the IV Settimana Cesenale celebrations and at the Fifth Interprovincial Fascist Group Exhibition of Fine Arts in Emilia Romagna, organized in Bologna at the Palazzo del Podestà in November-December of the same year; Il Violinista (The Violinist), one of the painter’s large-scale works, reminiscent of the manner of Pippo, a painting which I consider reflects a knowledge of the works of Luigi Bartolini, an ample documentation of whom the Bolognese painter was able to see at the Rome Quadrennial in 1935.
Numerous portraits were exhibited at the Circolo della Stampa exhibition, amongst which the highly appreciated Figura in bianco (Figure in white) (which was reproduced in Marcello Azzolini’s monograph under the title Il Cappello giallo – The Yellow hat) and the severeRitratto di Claudia (Portrait of Claudia) of the same year. Viale Aldini, which had obtained the gold medal at the IV National Biennial Exhibition of Landscapes in 1934, was also exhibited. It is a classic view from above which Mascellani probably carried out according to Carlo Savoia’s indications. The same perspective can be found in Trieste and in a few other landscapes, including In Versilia. Carrà’s influence comes through here quite clearly, but also a certain compositive liberty perhaps attributable to the irregular Osvaldo Licini.
If we consider the Circolo della Stampa exhibition as it was seen by both Mascellani and the Bolognese critics who drew on it as a pretext for quite involved critical analysis, we can take it as a point of reference in an attempt to sum up the introductory years of the not quite thirty-year-old painter who was however already established at regional level. It is unclear what Rezio Buscaroli meant in his critical account of the exhibition when he wrote that Mascellani “has had to suffer a certain amount of bitterness” and continued: “but bitterness is the official seal of a true conscience. And in the context of a temperament such as Mascellani’s – calm, conducive to meditation and silence, dedicated to work and solitude – instead of determining moments of perplexity and pause it multiplies her energies…”.
Perhaps being a woman and at the same time having to compete created a few problems for the young artist, although it is difficult to imagine that she had any real enemies, considering her openness towards everybody, and her modesty and humility in her work. Mascellani’s desire was to establish herself exclusively through her work, avoiding the polemics so common among artists.
Buscaroli not only analysed the person but the artist and the course she had travelled up to that moment: “the fruits she gathered in such a short work-span of only five or six years are evident here. In Figura in bianco (Figure in white) of 1933 there is such a finely representative, delicate harmony of attentive observation of the outside world that the total embrace of her expression becomes tonal synthesis. This expression is tinged with a certain silence, sadness and dumbfoundedness in Barche e barconi a Viareggio (Boats and barges in Viareggio) of 1936 and in Studio di figura (Figure study) of the same year; whilst the synthetic values rise to something more demanding and explicit towards a transcendent poetical language”. Buscaroli evidently does not want to use the term “metaphysical”, for the added reason that this would contradict the substantial positive evaluation of naturalism which to a certain degree formed her works, reaching – wrote the critic – a resultant “passionality immediately communicated in a warm effusion of colour, in a softness and almost disintegration of the modelling, in the folded rhythm of the pose of the figures, themselves so emotional and solemn”. The critic falls into an obvious contradiction when he puts forward explicit reservation on “the danger of the deliberately finite study, or rather of a concept of finiteness, which is already reflection on a perfection of sign external in relation to the act of intuition”.
Buscaroli senses the presence of an “ideal” (which we shall call metaphysical) structure external to the act of naturalistic apprehension. On that score he is certainly right, even though his advice is directed at bringing the young artist back to more everyday proportions and to forms of sensitivism peculiar to Bolognese culture. Her “exquisitely feminine, chromatic pleasantness” to which Ferruccio Giacomelli alludes in an articles in L’Assaltodedicated to the same exhibition is given attention precisely out of homage to the values of her immediate sensitivity in the face of nature and the real. Giacomelli gets around to denying these structural elements criticised by Buscaroli but at the same time acknowledging them. The result is a terribly sweetened image of the woman painter: “It would be vain to search for the masculine decisiveness of more rigorous definition, or the presence of more organic plastic complexes, in the style of this fluid, instinctive painting.
There is an absence of structural elements and architectural conception in the work. In compensation it gives the sense of a watchful, measured instinct, a grace and distinction of line, today confined within the limits of good taste and education but which tomorrow could quite easily take on a more aristocratic expression and a more definitive meaning. The artist acknowledges her womanhood and in such desires to preserve her way of seeing the world and its objects. Faithful to her femininity she is therefore loath to falsify her own self.
Such fidelity has of course good reason to exist and prevail, also in terms of aesthetic evaluation, in that it reveals a correct sense of proportion which in this case is identified in a prudent adoption of easy schemes of expression and in a modest, intelligent use of the artist’s forces. Far removed from theoretical intrusions or complicated problems of aesthetics, Norma Mascellani entrusts the resolution of her emotions in painting to instinct alone. Hence the purely visual character of a painting which is all improvisation, which abandons itself to please an impressionistic taste in which every form is composed, disintegrates and is resolved to the point of sometimes assuming the appearance of a happy coincidence”. And so Norma Mascellani was tossed lo the margins of any cultural exploration and confined to the ghetto of female painting.
But how can this be reconciled with the meditative character hinted at by Buscaroli and with a tendency towards that “concept of finiteness external to the act of intuition” ascribed to the young artist’s works whose “synthetic values rise to something more demanding and explicit towards a transcendent poetical language”? The same words could apply to Morandi or Guidi, and perhaps even to the cézannismo of Bertocchi and Colliva to whom Mascellani authoritatively responded in so many paesaggi, including one particularly extraordinary example done in 1935 with a central tree theme. With regard to her series of paesaggi composed for the Premio Moi the year before, Buscaroli wrote of “positive experiences which stop at the plastic life of landscape forms”, finding this “interesting to discover in a woman”.
With less thought to circumstances, therefore, it could be considered that at this point in her career as a painter Norma Mascellani had already identified the main lines of her work which, without denying its peculiarity and originality, encompassed the various different components of the Bolognese climate, put, however, in relation to what was happening at a national level so as to result even incomprehensible to the local critics. The critics were bent on pursuing naturalistic-sensitive objectives, and took refuge not just from the theory but from the implication that art necessarily revealed having with the new ideas on aesthetics, including those preached by Margherita Sarfatti which were well accepted even in Bologna, but which probably met with some diffidence in the case of Norma Mascellani who found herself not in a negative position but in one of expectation in what for her was a difficult moment, full of ferment.
There is no doubt that the artist practised her own form of humility, although this should not always be confused with modesty. Mascellani seemed to be well aware of her own worth, as can be told by the opening words of the catalogue of her exhibition. The fact that Lipparini publicly presented her at the opening of the exhibition was probably of no help to her. As a scholar he was already confined to the edges of cultural debate and apt to appear a conservative if not reactionary figure. In all probability, neither did it please Carlo Savoia, by then thrown into enthusiasm over architectural rationalism but also over a firmly convinced acknowledgement of Morandi’s great worth. Indeed a certain Morandi line of expression was also present in young Mascellani’s work, perhaps even as far back as 1932 in Natura morta (Still-life) with vase and coffee-pot, now housed at the Bologna Gallery of Modern Art, which was a direct product of the Plastic Values line translated by Giorgio Morandi with accents of everyday metaphysics. Alongside Morandi were Romagnoli and Guidi as her remaining points of reference and this was enough to remove any trace of dialect or any hint of provincialism from her work. Had she vindicated this diversity with respect to the local environment which she did not – the artist would have had no difficulty whatsoever in gaining recognition as representative of the new currents of rebellion crossing artistic Italian culture and to which her works and those of her contemporaries such as Ilario Rossi, Aldo Borgonzoni, Pompilio Mandelli and Carlo Savoia could quite easily be traced.
New tension matured in Italy in those years. The young viewed the ritual apparatus of the regime with critical spirit and began to doubt many official truths. The same corrosive action of the strapaese artists, represented in Bologna by Longanesi and Corrado Corazza who convincedly repeated the rebelliousness of Mino Maccari, served to create restlessness in an environment whose torpor was heavily shaken by the enigmatic presence of Giorgio Morandi: a solitary artist but imposing enough for the students of the Academy to dedicate a float in the freshmen processions to the “bottle painter”. When Virgilio Guidi arrived from Venice, the Academy changed overnight, at least as regards the behaviour of the young students. The new university arrival, Roberto Longhi, author of an inaugural lecture which threw everyone into a quandary over its explicit homage to Morandi, added fuel to the crisis of certainties in an artistic environment already shaken by political events – the African and Spanish wars – which had seriously perturbed youthful and not so youthful consciences.
The institution of cultural lictorians, specifically destined to respond to the demands of new generations, gave artists among their young recruits the opportunity to enter into contact with different environments and to debate their problems at once unimaginable levels. Young Fascist University Student newspapers grew up whose collaborators, working under the protective enough banner of “make way for the young” were the most promising minds of the period.
The pages of the Bologna Architrave, for example, carried articles by Mario De Micheli, Francesco Arcangeli, Gianni Granzotto, Agostino Bignardi and other intellectuals destined for fame. Giovanni Ciangottini opened the first private gallery in Bologna with an almost devastating exhibition dedicated to the various masters. The gallery in via Zamboni exhibited works by Carrà, Morandi, Guidi, De Pisis, De Chirico, Rodai, Severini, Sironi and Tosi. This was in 1942 when many changes had come about in a city already caught up in the climate of war. Before that, racial fascist politics, condemnation of degenerate art, internal conflict in fascist hierarchies and the young rebel movement, which became such a decisive opposition force as to constrain the fascists to suppress Architrave and censure whatever enterprises promoted by the young, were facts which fired lively debate.
So it was indeed a moment of civil passion which Mascellani lived and suffered as much as the others, insisting however on her explorative work which reflected the climate of the Italian novecento revisited through the works of its best artists. She carried out numerousRitratti (Portraits) of extraordinary expressive force, also recording an expressionistic deviation in Piccolo montanaro (Small mountain-dweller) of 1936 and in her very free, unexpected composition of Bimba con gatto (Child with cat) of 1942.
It is evident that Mascellani felt every minimum vibration of situations and prepared herself to respond with specific methods, afterwards returning to her vocation which remained that of a still, structured lyricism of light and tone in which nature’s image found limpid sublimation in highly tense, hallucinated atmospheres. In greater depths, this exploration led to the terse Veduta di Venezia (View of Venice) of the initial post-war period, but began to bear considerable fruit when Mascellani reached her goal at the Biennial Exhibition of Modem Art in Venice in 1940.
She exhibited a single work only, San Giorgio, chosen from those participant in thePaesaggio veneziano competition by a commission which included Felice Carena, Ferruccio Ferrazzi, Alberto Salietti, Vincenzo Ciardo and Antonio Maraini. During the same period she participated in an exhibition for female painters put on by the Bologna branch of the Women Artists and Graduates Association in the club rooms of the Artists and Professional Workers Recreational Organization in Via Castiglione. It was an intense period for Mascellani who was preparing for a second important one-man exhibition to be held in Viareggio in June 1942 in which some of her works marking important stages in her career were to be exhibited, such as Violinista (Violinist) and Il piccolo montanaro (Small mountain-dweller), together with landscapes, flower paintings, a still-life, two “impressions” of Rome and Venice and a series of fourteen engravings.
A text of self-presentation exists to illuminate us as regards the idea the artist had of herself and her work in 1942. Putting forward the date of her first paintings, for some unknown reason, Mascellani wrote: “I began painting in 1932 and threw myself into it wholeheartedly, in a kind of furore. While I was studying I used to go to the Academy several hours before the start of lessons and haggle with the janitors until they let me in; they swept and I painted. When studies were over I never let up: I covered kilometers of canvas; I fell in love with everything I saw; I never slept. I think I must be gifted with a certain intuition, a great blessing and a great curse, which in the past has led me to paint for the sake of painting, for the sheer joy of painting.
Now, after almost ten years of hard work and experience, I am trying to dampen the furore and put my ideas in order: I am trying, in other words, to supervise myself, which is anything but easy when you have a temperament like mine…”. Not a word on matters of poetics, of linguistic tendency, of classification with respect to a situation which in Bologna was interesting for its chaos and turmoil. Artists such as Duilio Barnabé, Aldo Borgonzoni, Ilario Rossi, Guelfo Gherlinzoni, Pompilio Mandelli, Giulia Rizzoli Marangoni, Giuseppe Gagliardi, Giovanni Ciangottini and Mario Brasa, with whom she was familiar, together constituted the young hopefuls of Italian painting, with varying results. Of course they were anything but a homogenous group. A few of them with kindred ideas got together in the same year of 1942 in an exhibition presented by Francesco Arcangeli: a kind of preview of what was to be the post-war group associated with Cronache.
Morandi, Guidi, Carlo Corsi, and, according to certain opinion, Mario Pozzati, were the masters which represented a point of reference for the young artists, without this causing any polemic or exceptional debate on the state or fortunes of contemporary art. This was to come about at the end of the war. Meanwhile, however, Bologna seemed content with the presence of so much talent, further enhanced by sculptors such as Minguzzi, Biancini, Giordani, Farpi Vignoli, Rito Valla, Bortolotti, Venanzio Baccilieri and, among the younger artists, Quinto Ghermandi and Enzo Pasqualini, who rapidly rose to national fame. The restlessness which overcame Mascellani, therefore, was somewhat prevalent all round, and it would be naive to imagine that the distinctions we make today between artists and between one work and another were made with the same criteria during that period.
A new generation of Bolognese painters had been established whose kindred companions among the older generation were the likes of Lea Colliva, Corrado Corazza, Giovanni Poggeschi, Carlo Corsi and Mario Pozzati. They were all there to represent the new Bolognese and Emilian reality in the national exhibition organized by the Association of Artists and Professional Workers in May-June 1941 at the Palazzo dell’Arte in Milan. Mascellani was present with Bozzetto (Sketch) and Fiori (Flowers). Fellow exhibitors included Gherlinzoni, Mandelli, Rossi, Corsi, Gagliardi, Borgonzoni and, among the sculptors, the master Cleto Tomba, Minguzzi, Biancini and young Pasqualini.
Her participation at the Third Rome Quadrennial Exhibition in 1939 with Bozzetto and Fiori(Bozzetto was the title of the work which was to be cited as Piccolo montanaro), at the Biennial International Exhibition of Modem Art in Venice in 1940, as well as the critical and commercial success she obtained in a singular exhibition organized by Adriana Apolloni at the Galleria di Roma, had paved the way for greater things. At the Roman exhibition reserved for woman painters and organized along similar lines to the one held in Bologna, the critics acknowledged Mascellani’s privileged position. As wrote Giulio Peironi inQuadrivio, few of the artists exhibited reached even a minimum level of professional dignity. The exhibition drew polite irony from the critics who viewed it as a triumph of the mentality of after-hours social and recreational activity.
In analysing the five works of the Bolognese Mascellani, Giulio Peironi dwelt on Autoritratto(Self-portrait) and Fiori (Flowers), which was later to be acquired by the National Gallery of Modem Art, commenting on the latter that “difficult problems have been set and solved in this painting. There is an exquisite feeling in the deep, delicate tones of these coarse wild flowers on their shadowy background. Mascellani’s colour effects are anything but flippant. They are painstakingly elaborated to enhance the value and sensitivity of her painting”. This is far removed from the generic appreciation which Mascellani encountered on the Bologna scene. Only with her off-the-scene critics, unencumbered by local schematics, was a more precise critical judgement reached: one more adherent to the reality of those images whose softness concealed a “savage” force and which were never reduced to being simply “pleasant”. The art critic of Giornale d’Italia confirms this: “She is a painter who shies from showiness and decorative facility… Her small portrait Bimba con gatto is not easy to forget”. This was another of her works acquired by the Fascist Organization of Artists and Professional Workers for the price of two thousand lire. The Ministry for Popular Culture instead acquired Venezia.
Strengthened by such acclaim, Mascellani held her already mentioned exhibition at the Bottega dei Vageri in Viareggio, during which Giorgio Casini held a conference on the theme “Giorgio Morandi and the young”, justifying it in a press announcement proclaiming Mascellani as “one of this great Bolognese painter’s favourite pupils”. This is probably the first attempt at such a pertinent critical analysis of Norma Mascellani’s work. Casini terminated his conference on the note that if the painter “has elected Morandi as her master, we owe her praise and acknowledgement, because apart from demonstrating sound instinct, as a young painter in such circumstances she shows precocious signs of the potential qualities of taste, common sense, will, richness of mind and poetic exaction: all gifts without which any approach to painting today would incur the risk of stumbling and confusing a human adventure, destined for delusion right from the start, with true artistic vocation. Prompted by this exhibition of Norma Mascellani, we have sought, with these notes on Morandi, to anticipate the consideration of her painting and illustrate the climate and environment in which her sensitivity has been nurtured. Hopefully they serve to clarify her problems and explorative experience to the observer. Morandi has been a good master in her engraving, but just as much so in her painting”.
Viewed from without, I think Mascellani’s painting was able to be appreciated for what it really was: fruit of an environment on which Morandi’s formally attractive example as well as his sense of relationship with the objects and phantoms of living had weighed heavily even to a point of determining phenomena of rejection. In Mascellani’s case, however, there was a slow process of assimulation of basic tonal values and a progressive exploration of the problems of structuring the work which had to respond not so much to conceptual requirements as to the, in some ways secret, specific balances of painting. What Morandi was able to reach through spatial values, Virgilio Guidi conveyed in terms of light. In neither of these masters was a sense of the material ever lacking and it was only in this fedelity to a model which as time went on became ever more ideal – landscape, flower, portrait or whatever – that Mascellani remained tied to a tradition of lyrical naturalism which really had little to do with that of Bolognese verism. It was probably the mediation of Giovanni Romagnoli which facilitated her link with the refined, almost unfrequentable atmospheres of Morandi and Guidi. Certainly she appears in this particular moment to be more involved in the transfiguration of the subject than in the objective rendering. The dust of antique, dead suns falls over her works, and the light is filled with the reflections of shadows and earth, creating, softly fleeting yet firmly synthetic images, almost as though the process of distancing, of lyrical transfiguration retraced itself to find concreteness in the reality of the image instead of in the realism of portrayal.
This interior firmness of the work is not however without bases. Her bases came from the proportions of Plastic Values and from that insistence of structural-metaphysical insinuation which reached certain heights in the Bolognese painter, Bruno Saetti, whose style, if we really must make a comparison, she comes close to in the composition entitled Dopo la gara(After the race): an authoritative response to whatever compels young artists to tackle athletic themes. In Bologna, the case of Farpi Vignoli whose Guidatore di Sulki had won a cultural prize at the Berlin olympics, convinced sculptors in particular to make bold attempts at the same genre. Minguzzi’s Acrobati caused considerable perplexity. The painters had even less luck. However, Dopo la gara confirms that even in narrative attempts Mascellani’s references were to images anything but heroic and certainly not rhetoric. Was it not Rezio Buscaroli who wrote in his committed treatise on the problems of feminine art that Norma Mascellani has “a threat on her heels: the de-materialization of reality”? It would have perhaps been more accurate to say that in the face of impending disaster, the artist created her own reality, something in which it was still worthwhile believing. A subtle melancholy now pervades images which should ring with resounding light. It is no coincidence that in a comparison with the works of Dina Pagan de’ Paganis, with whom Mascellani held a combined exhibition in June 1943, that her works appeared almost mute, singularly strong and heavy. Romagnoli’s warm light had been substituted by the severe, daily atmospheres of the more reserved and reluctant Morandi: effects of a “Morandian tendency of which she would be wise to rid herself”, wrote the columnist of Il Resto del Carlino in the edition of the 5th of June 1943.
War-time events, the Nazi occupation and the difficult years of the fight for liberation dispersed artists and intellectuals alike. Even the more antique balances crumbled. Institutions collapsed under the impact and the life of art was either discontinued or else continued in the solitude of study. Mascellani was not particularly productive between 1943 and 1945: worth mentioning of that period is her precious little painting with donkey, Tapai, which I have always considered a highly refined, pleasant and almost unexpected work for those moments of reflection on the obscured destinies of man. Pain had its effects on Mascellani’s work, consciously or otherwise.
In Gian Carlo Cavalli’s review, in Il Giornale dell’Emilia of September 1945, of an exhibition uniting the works of painters Angiola Cassanello, Giuliana Mazzarocchi and Norma Mascellani at the headquarters of the Fine Arts Association at Palazzo Re Enzo, he is unable to avoid acknowledging a new and at the same time antique composure and severity in the art of the Bolognese painter. “We recalled her obscure, mysterious style” wrote the critic “to which certain cuts were suited, and an ease of expression uncommon in young painters. Today her range has widened, her study has deepened, at the same time preserving that antique base which after all is the mark of her personality: a studious, thoughtful feeling absorbed in things and people; that low-key lyricism peculiar to Bolognese tradition in painting… Free from any obligatory preoccupation to re-do French painters, Mascellani has understood, by trying her own strength, the sufficiency of remaining in the wake already created by Romagnoli up to Morandi: she has studied these painters, she feels and understands them, but she has not repeated them. If we had to choose only two of her paintings, we would opt for n. 15 (Fiori) and n. 25 (Bimba con gatto): of 1935 and 1945. They are ten years apart. Sufficient to prove that Mascellani’s painting has remained coherent with itself”.
Coherent, but anything but the same, since in that same exhibition we find signs of a new vibration of light, a subdued but steady, constant luminosity which cannot help but lead us back to Virgilio Guidi, but which above all confirms a vocation for the transcendental and incomprehensible in this painter so instinctively enamoured with daily objects and their simple existence. A subtle sadness touches her works of this period, reaching tones of desperation and anguish in two paintings which the artist was to compose in Venice a few years later. It is strange that the critics showed unawareness of how much even the more apparently harmonious of Mascellani’s works were imbued with a sense of solitude and pain. Perhaps it was her vivacity, her extraordinary desire for life and work which convinced others that the artist, and the woman, did not feel the trials she was forced to undergo and did not personally pay a hefty price to be able to continue her work with dignity. She seemed to need nothing at that stage. She was no longer alone, wedded to a man who loved and understood her.
Cesare Zavattini seems to have summed it up in a letter recalling a visit to the house of the painter and her husband, and writes that Norma did not even need good wishes for her work: “because I have rarely seen such decisive passion for one’s art in a woman”. It was November 1946. Zavattini had chosen for his famous collection of mini-portraits anAutoritratto, which he had admired at the painter’s house, and a view of San Giorgio. Yet her painting revealed obscure tremor and even torment.
Carlo Ciappei, in presenting a one-man exhibition inaugurated by Mascellani in March 1946 at the Circolo Artistico, sensed this torment: neither was it so secret if that painting appeared “heavily marked by a painful feeling for life, by a secret melancholy, by an almost desperate love wanting to snatch everything from its desperate destiny of death”. In reviewing the exhibition, Gian Carlo Cavalli reiterated what he had written for the exhibition of the previous year: “her happier moments contain a disconsolate, at times painful consideration”. It comes across in Autoritratto and Bimba con coniglio (Child with rabbit) as well as in Fiori and Cardi (Thistles) which Norma Mascellani Samorini composed, according to Corrado Corazza, by rummaging amidst the lower octaves of the music of colour. The juicy paste of I Baracconi (Booths) is distended in tones of old honey, and reverberations fill the splendid painting Fiori of 1945 which anticipates the solutions of San Giorgio of 1946 andIl Redentore of 1947. As is her paintings of flowers, her views of Venezia now alternate between flat spreading surface transparency and curling of the painting material which thickens almost into ottocento accents. This occurs in Margherite (Daisies) of 1945 and again in La Chiesa del Redentore, in Ritratto di Carlo Leoni (Portrait of Carlo Leoni) of 1950 and in Ritratto di Mamma Samorini (Portrait of Mamma Samorini) of 1952. The painter abandons herself in this game of almost sumptuous effects when she entrusts herself to the vibrations and suggestions of the material, constructing her image in relief, as though emergent from heavy layers of plaster.
An important stage in Norma Mascellani’s artistic life was certainly the Premio Modena exhibition organized in the gardens of the Palazzo Ducale in April-May 1947. Few people even in Emilia have any recollection of this exhibition, but if any direct information existed at all on what was happening in Italy at that point in time, it was thanks to this same exhibition which could be said to be representative of every national area, through the work of leading artists. Merit for such wide adhesion was undoubtedly due to the commission composed of Roberto Longhi, Giorgio Morandi and Guglielmo Pacchioni.
Selection was severe, illustrated by the acceptance of only 195 of the 970 works presented. Norma Mascellani exhibited Burano, a painting well allocated in section II which comprised works by Francesco Trombadori, Lucio Venna and Orfeo Tamburi. One can imagine that Morandi’s judgement had been determinant on this occasion. Whatever the case, Mascellani was able to verify the current tendencies, still confusedly tied to the last few years of the thirties as regards Roman, Milanese and Torino artists. There was no sign of the lacerations which were shortly to divide these artists into groups of opposing tendencies, but the restlessness of “doing modern” reigned sovereign in the “figurative” works of Afro, Capogrossi, Birolli, Cassinari, Mandelli, Menzio, Morlotti, Omiccioli, Paolucci and Pizzinato. The basis of the exhibition was, however, the quality in painting; there could have been no doubts in question, since Longhi and Morandi could not have in any way transgressed on that score. I am convinced that Mascellani drew further incentive from that experience to go deeper into painting for its own sake as opposed to those who had set out to favour choice of language. The neo-cubist wave, Venturi’s abstract-concrete, the latest geometric abstraction (not represented in Modena in spite of its credentials; neither were the futurists), engagé neo-realism and Roman formalism were the other side of coming. The exhibition in Modena was perhaps the last act prior to the tumult of the same 1947 and 1948. The accent was mainly on the quality of painting and, as already hinted, Giorgio Morandi’s presence on the commission had influenced the admission of Mascellani who continued to work and exhibit without paying much heed to the formation of avant-gardegroups. The artists who recognized they had a certain amount in common were those ofCronache.
Although Mascellani had frequent contact with them she was not a follower and remained apart in what could seem an unpardonable romantic-twilight dimension. Her only concession to “modernity” was to put on an exhibition together with Marantonio who at that time was playing the role of “decorative”. From this point of view she was not helped by collective exhibitions which placed her alongside, even though in a position critically recognized as important, the more intransigent exponents of Bolognese traditionalism. Indeed, in an exhibition in Pretoria, uniting artists from Italy, France and Hungary, Mascellani found herself amongst the “conservatives”, Francesco Bagharesi, Rezio Buscaroli, Luigi Cervellati, Guelfo Gherlinzoni, Gino Marzocchi, Antonio Maria Nardi, Aldo Finzi and Antonio Zambrini.
In 1949, in a collective exhibition of Bolognese painters organized at the Circolo Artistico in Florence at the Casa di Dante, Mascellani’s companions in adventure were again Gherlinzoni and Marzocchi, with the addition of the water-colourist Gino Brighi and the painter-critic Italo Cinti, lost in his symbolic mysticism. In one way or another, these names, including that of Mascellani, were considered representative of a reactionary current with respect to the generous ventures of revival into which young painters had launched themselves. Paris was an obligatory trip. The name most mentioned was Picasso. Matisse enchanted the lovers of colour and Braque’s Interiors fascinated just about everybody. Mascellani drew precious teaching from all this and did not stand alone in the corner to wrestle with shadow, as Corazza had written. Compositions such as Viale Aldini of 1948, La Giudecca, Chiesa della Salute, Porto Corsini, Amicizia (Friendship), and La Dogana (Customs), all of the same year, represent a new conquest of light for the painter. Her material is warm, fermenting with luminosity and glow. The chromatic and tonal scale is limited but the effects obtained by the fusion and mixture of materials are strangely soft and only apparently in contrast with the plasticity “suggested” by the forms which construct the actual order of the painting. Morandi’s teaching, the more “romantic”, tonal Morandi, comes out here in highly limpid form, re-read in the solid light of Luigi Bertelli.
There is no doubt that in 1949 when Mascellani painted Il Navile in tones of suffused romanticism, or when she composed the swift tracts of material mixed with light inL’Imbarcadero (The Jetty), the memory of Luigi and perhaps also Flavio Bertelli was alive in the artist. She sought in herself, in her own history and environment, the reasons for that deepening she had again promised herself to accomplish in coming out of that period of confusing, expressive furore in 1942.
The accentuation of artistic debate, in the ideological sense, the ferocious opposition between realists and formalists, between abstract and figurative painters – as they were then described – must have convinced Mascellani even more to isolate herself in the precious world of her painting which recovers the tones of classic chiarismo, but oh so modernly expressed, in a delicate symphony of whites, barely hinted roses and palest blues which flourishes in a painting of totally invented structures anticipating the synthetic spatial cuts later found in her series of L’Infinito. The view of Palazzo Ducale indeed confirms that already in 1949 one of Mascellani’s tendencies – though certainly not the only one – was that of finding an ideal, metaphysical, unreal and abstract order beyond things: but an unreality which can only arise from a phantom of the real, as a sublimation of what it is and what it appears. It is not a question of being or not being “figurative” but of choosing the motive of her inventions or abstractions in things seen or dreamed.
In works such as Palazzo Ducale and L’infinito, it should be simple to recognize the worthlessness of certain abstractions, but very few did recognize such at a time when taking sides was imposed to such an extent that even Morandi, Carrà, Tosi and De Chirico were reproved for what appeared as guilty absenteeism. It can be left to the imagination, therefore, whether or not this meditated isolation was pardoned in Mascellani. Up front with the young Bolognese avant-garde in the form of Minguzzi, Ciangottini, Mandelli, Borgonzoni and Rossi we find her again in 1948 at the Premio Firenze, an exhibition of unquestionable national importance, and at the Inter-provincial Fascist Exhibition of the same year, in which she received an award. There was no lack of attestations of esteem, but even the more benevolent spoke of “subdued voice”, “spontaneity of inspiration” and “exquisite sensitivity”: things which brought Mascellani minor awards in exhibitions of national importance, such as the First National Exhibition of Italian Landscapes organized in Riccione, in which Carlo Corsi received the highest acknowledgement: the Mafai and Giovanni Ciangottini award.
In 1949 the artist sent two monotypes to the Second National Exhibition of Modern Engraving and Drawing: Fiori and Natura morta, evidently counting on this technique, which allowed her to obtain painting effects, rather than on those of drawing and engraving to which she had in no way ceased to dedicate herself but perhaps considered marginal or, as Marcello Azzolini wrote, reserved for one’s sphere of memories and sentiment. Her drawings and engravings are prevalently portraits, although she composed numerous, limpid landscape etchings of which, significantly, only two are reproduced in the monograph on her engravings.
There are no stratagems in her etchings. The image is a direct construction and even the chiaroscuro is an effect of direct engraving, re-collective of Morandi’s small portrait and landscape etchings of the thirties. Mascellani is less detached, less impassive, however, which makes one think of a certain influence of Luigi Bartolini, as intended by Gianni Poggeschi. Mascellani’s somewhat “classic” and novecento foundations come over well in the etching Nudo, done in 1935, almost a re-take of academic techniques already experimented in her drawings with figure given to Aldo Borgonzoni. Her prevailing techniques are those of Ritratto, portrait of an artist friend, done in pencil, fluid and immediate.
Notwithstanding the numerous admirers of engraving in Bologna where Morandi’s presence guaranteed the continuity and value of a graphic school of noble precedents, Mascellani on the whole entrusted the representation of the more experimental moments of her quest to painting. In 1949 the painter appeared alone at the Casa di Dante in Florence in what was almost a small anthological exhibition presented by Bruno Santi who revealed Mascellani’s extraneousness to the game of current “isms” and confirmed the motives of her desperate isolation. On the interesting theme of the plastic structuring of her work it is worth noting how Bruno Santi records the fact that “the initial values of a basically volumetric, chiaroscuroexpression have over the years given way to a greater constructiveness of colour”. This is painting for the sake of painting, so it must have been her friendship with Cesare Zavattini which motivated Mascellani’s participation in a somewhat engagé competition such as that at Suzzara in which her Barcone sul Po a Luzzara (Barge on the Po at Luzzara) – on which I have not been able to find other information – was awarded the Scaini and Grossi Prize: diligently described by the Suzzara secretary as consisting in three woman’s dresses.
Her exhibitive activity in this period was almost frenetic and her progress evident to the trained eye. To counter Giacomelli’s excrutiating reduction of her work in his presentation of hem one-man exhibition at the Circolo Artistico, in which he writes of an art “without historical pretentions, remaining prudently anchored to the honest dimensions of its own limits” it was just as well there was Gian Carlo Cavalli to note that Mascellani’s climb “records no failing back or brusque turnings, but proceeds in a direct line; clear and calm; slow, perhaps, but continuous. Cavalli continued: “yesterday there were noticable traces of her origins in the Bolognese school, but today Mascellani is shedding once and for all the greater part of this dead weight. With the purification of internal colour quality, left free to the fancy of the impression, and the natural abandon of the patina, the images of her compositions have also predictably acquired breath, light, expansion…”.
Apart from being a critical note it is a working indication taken into account by the artist who strived also to meet the demands of her intense exhibitive activity. In 1950, in the III room of the Biennial Exhibition of Modem Art in Venice, she exhibited Fiori. Then she was present in the Sixth Quadrennial in Rome with Il Vaporetto (Fermy). Between these two important appointments there were others to record, including the Premio Suzzara in 1951 (with the painting Pescatori (Fishermen)) as well as an exhibition with Marzocchi, Gherlinzoni and the young sculptor Carpigiani, held in Trieste, in which she exhibited oil-paintings and a small, bright roomful of monotypes.
In 1952 she repeated her oneman exhibition at the Circolo Artistico, become almost a habit for Bolognese art lovers, accompanied by the same Dante Carpigiani. Between October and November 1952, an exhibition was held at the Palais des Arts of Toulouse, which gathered together works by Bolognese artists selected by the Circolo Artistico. Mascellani was present with the painting Fiori. This was her moment of reaching maturity, acknowledged by her most obstinate admirer and critic, Corrado Corazza, in his presentation of one of hem by then ritual one-man exhibitions at the Circolo Artistico featuring the intense Ritratto del pittore Carlo Leoni. Corazza notes that the artist does not content herself with having reached a completeness of expression, but attempts new roads in her unjustified fear of not being sufficiently modem.
There is a continuation of the process of clarification already recorded by Gian Carlo Cavalli with regard to the paintings Paesaggio and Fiori, but it is in her portraits that the artist establishes herself with newfound energy to reach almost expressionistic results at the exact moment in which her paintings of Natura morta become more distensive, touching decidedly deliberate moments of Morandi in her painting with shell motif, Conchiglie. Light and material here come together with singular freshness, whatever she paints and in whatever way she paints: wide spatula-type spreading in works carried out in Muggia, or to obtain exclusively atmospheric effects in the examples of paesaggi d’acqua (waterscapes), which began to pile up in her studio. Barca solitaria (Solitary boat) of 1954 concludes the series ofLa Nave (Ship) of 1953 and Barche a Muggia (Boats in Muggia) in an extreme, formal, chromatic rarefaction. The new proportions noted by Corazza are discernable here and also take in Ritratto di Alberto of 1953. They are however interrupted in a new thickening of the material, even though highly luminous, in the already mentioned Ritratto di Carlo Leoni andMamma Samorini.
I Padelloni (Trawl nets) of 1960 is the painting most conceding to an evaporation of light and any eventual points of reference would seem to be more Semeghini and the Venetian school of Burano rather than Morandi and Guidi. The artist immediately recuperates that formal linearity already preannounced in Palude (Marshes) of two years prior, through works of great chromatic lyricism and extraordinary expressive harmony such as Porto Garibaldi of 1962, going directly back to her quite absolute views of Venice painted between 1948 and 1950. Raffineria (Refinery) of 1962 is all structure, of mental construction, even though these words might not have pleased Mascellani and her admirers of those years. More than themes, the sea suggests new manner which we significantly find again in her examples of Natura morta.
La Spezia, Lerici, Ravenna, Porto Corsini and of course Venice are the places which now supply the “motifs” of her paintings. Intense, luminous examples of marine (seascapes) consequently appear in which the melancholy of softest greys accompanies a vibration of subterranean tones relating an intense painting described by one critic as “capturing state of mind rather than things”. Here is a Mascellani outside any veristic bottleneck, although there were few demonstrations of any awareness of the fact at the numerous exhibitions in which her works were collected, including the Quadrennial in Rome in 1955-56 in which Canalea Porto Corsini was exhibited. At official exhibitions she received dutiful homage and recognition, but the attention of the Bolognese environment was still attracted by the neo-realists and “new naturalists” who translated the informal teachings. Paintings of extraordinary structural value, at the limit of purest metaphysical abstraction, therefore passed unnoticed.
Today there is easy awareness of the importance of works such as Infinito of 1962 andInfinito n. 2 of 1965, but at that time of prevailing realist expressionism and the turbulent “latest naturalism” of Arcangeli, full of moods and pathos, it was objectively difficult to be aware of such works which revealed Mascellani as the last, complete and convinced representative of that metaphysical naturalism justified by Giorgio Morandi and Virgilio Guidi in their founding of a new, high-level Bolognese school of “doing modern”. There were few who al that time understood what these limpid works represented: extreme point of an intellectual intuition which found its highest expression in the barely suggested sensuality of painting and colour.
“Morandi’s pupil has learned her lessons” was the title of a critical article written by Giorgio Ruggeri in 1960 on the exhibition organized at the Civic Museum Gallery and presented by Massimo Dursi. Dursi had sensed the “restless veins running underneath the still waters of these landscapes. Their melancholy reserve conceals subdued secrets, and their cleverness is a discreet veil over the nostalgia for things present but already committed to memory. The shadow of time (something akin to a farewell) is always present in Mascellani’s paintings…”. This is the great lesson of the inactual, of time which cannot be measured either with the past, the present or a prediction of the future; which is felt as an eternal, implacable dimension of being and living. So Morandi’s pupil had indeed learned her lessons, though how many were aware of it?
At a one-man exhibition, at the Circolo Artistico in 1962, in which works of the series Infinitowere exhibited, Corazza acknowledged a “more arduous expressive phase which might not find immediate consensus and approvation amidst Mascellani’s wide public”. He himself showed some reserve in his concluding comment: “Alongside still-lifes with flowers and seascapes appertaining to a harmonious impressionistic moment in Mascellani’s course, we find certain landscapes of more severe distillation which appear due to a pre-selection of subject, an expressive severity, a formal restraint which risks, without falling into, vacuousness and conventionality”.
The painter was showing what I have all along been defining as the “interior structure” supporting each and every one of her works, even those more apparently left to gesture and chance. When Masceliani’s work is considered from this fixed point, deliberately emphasized in the 1962 exhibition, it is much easier to understand the secret charm and strength of her painting which has unfortunately been looked upon more than anything as a miraculously surviving form of antique virtuosity, when indeed it is lucidly modern. Being modern in painting signifies being able to give order to the image outside circumstance, and this is the lesson Mascellani learned from Guidi and Morandi and explored to greater depth without heed for eventual criticism directed at her by orthodox traditionalists or cultivators of permanent experimentalism.
On closer inspection these works come under a definite line of Italian pursuit, the same which in the Lombardic sector and the Cesena school rejected expressionistic and chromatic emphasis to give life to so-called “existential realism”, to a painful gaining of awareness of art’s detachment from the antique joy of melody. The suffocated grey tones; the immense silence over the places of L’infinito, that desert of things and men painted by the artist with a hallucinated awareness of solitude; the same implacable perfection of the compositive structures brought to the limit of abstraction: all elements which place these works alongside those of the young Italian painters foretelling of that damnation to incommunicability which a few years later in 1968 was to become a cliché of Italian and European culture. I shall not insist more than necessary on this point since neither is it possible in the case of Mascellani’s more “metaphysical” works to talk of establishment of poetics or of any attempt to enter into a debate which in those same years found new basis in the conflict between objectuality and metaphysics of art. It is with one of the more complete works of this series, Il Molo (Pier), however, that Mascellani chose to represent herself in the catalogue of the Autumn Exhibition of 1962.
Her placement in an important exhibition of Bolognese artists al the La Loggia Gallery in a presentation of graphic works of masters as well as of younger artists (from Morandi to Dino Boschi) and an invitation to participate as a non-competitor at the 1963 Autumn Exhibition demonstrate the consideration reserved for this artist who continued to paint and exhibit but had begun to dedicate a great deal of her time to helping the less fortunate. The story is too well known for me to dwell on it, and I am mentioning it only to emphasize that many exhibitions and participations in collections of even contrasting genre can be explained more by reasons of human solidarity than by aesthetic motivations. It was also through her same motivations that Giorgio Morandi, who maintained a cordial relationship with his ex-pupil right to the end, donated his Premio Rubens to ANIEP, the Poliomyelitis Association. This is just one of the many episodes regarding the activity which if it did not distract Mascellani from painting it at least isolated her from the artists’ environment. One could say that from the mid-sixties onwards Mascellani worked in silence and solitude. Her art became more secret and jealous, growing on itself more than in any relationship sought with the experiences of others.
The anthological exhibition dedicated to her in October 1966 by the Centro d’Arte e Cultura, with an affectionate presentation by Giuseppe Raimondi who had selected the works himself, could be considered a kind of consecration. The works included some of the more severe portraits, her first small etchings, examples of natura morta which were by then pardoned for their Morandian structure and light, and metaphysical, desolate visions of the lagoon and delta. It was no coincidence that Giorgio Ruggeri began his review by sustaining that this was the first time in years he had seen a critical exhibition of the Bolognese painter. It was also the first time for me, in writing a critical note on the artist. Re-reading if after a lapse of more than twenty years, I am willing to substantially confirm its contents quoted here to better illustrate my intentions in writing these notes.
In L’Unità of the 9th of November 1966 I wrote: “This Bolognese painter has for many years enjoyed the unconditional esteem of critics and gallery owners, but in the end this unchallenging acceptance of her work may have been detrimental in confining her to that group of artists which no one bothers to discuss. This exhibition, on the other hand, puts us in touch with a Mascellani capable not only of pleasing but of pricking our reaction. Right from the early landscapes, from Viareggio of 1932 to the indeed praiseworthy Viale Aldini of 1934, the Bolognese painter has demonstrated a desire to shed the beloved weight of her masters. Of help to her in those years must have been the open-mindedness of the young painter Savoia, whom she knew well, but there is no doubt that already in her portraits and early flower paintings, in which the suggestion of aerial perspectives could not have much influence, Norma revealed an anything but feeble breath. The tonalism, the diaphanous light of her views of Venezia and certain precious refinements of Guidi and Morandi influence seem to me rather the fruit of a later choice, when the painter’s spirit seems to suffer some conflict of duality. On one hand, especially in her portraits and some of her small landscapes, one senses a desire to dig hard into the folds of earth and flesh; on the other, particularly in her views of vast horizons of air, water and sky, there seems to be a tension of ideal (idealistic?) purity, of metaphysical detachment. These two currents have co-existed and crossed each other for years, but in her latest works (and Fiori secchi of 1963, of faint neo-naturalistic style, stands out like a marker buoy) they arrive at a happy synthesis. Out of this comes some of her most illuminating paintings whose light, in spite of its refined tension, does not soften the horizons and objects; on the contrary, it veils them with a grave, mysterious air… under the limpid spreading of tone, the phantoms of objectivity remain brusque and disturbing. An example is in Conchiglia (Shell) of 1966, and even more specifically in Cardo con conchiglia (Thistle with shell) of the same year…”.
Corrado Corazza confirms the modernity reached by Norma Mascellani in her latest works which “although not rejecting the more advanced and reasonable results of linguistic and structural exploration, leave the personality of the painter and her inherent freshness of evocation intact”. It was to be this latter quality, and certainly not linguistic and structural exploration, which prevailed in what had become Mascellani’s popular image. Acknowledgements increased in number and prestige. In 1967 she was conferred with the title of Cavaliere Ufficiale Della Repubblica – receiving a congratulatory telegram from Giorgio Morandi – but was substantially forgotten in artistic debate. Of no help to her were probably those who insisted solely on her “natural grace” as did Enzo Fabiani in presenting her one-man exhibition in November 1968 at the Forni Gallery – on the “crepuscular unfinishedness” of works which can be sensed to resist the threat of technological advance by the sheer strength of their poetry. So it was with this leit motiv that the critics greeted the painter, restored to considerable dignity by the exibition presented by Giuseppe Raimondi: convinced but somewhat generic fondness and admiration. It was no different in December 1970 when Mascellani held a one-man exhibition at the Pinacoteca Gallery in Piazza di Spagna in Rome. An important key to the reading of her works was provided by Marcello Azzolini, whose major monograph on the painter had just been published.
But in that moment the contestation of “brush painting” and art itself was at its height amidst the dried-up intellectuals produced by the 1968 unpheaval. In Rome, Mascellani was again received with esteem in presenting some of the most limpid examples of her landscapes and portraits. Some suspicion also arose in those who distrusted even Morandi. The critic of the Osservatore Romano indeed talked of “meditation on the spiritual essence of things remained themselves and not embalmed in lofty metaphysical incorruptibility”. Mascellani’s personality was recognized on a level with that of the masters of Italianchiarismo. One writer recalled the visit of Bassani who showed great interest both for the works of Mascellani and those of Lilloni, also present at the same gallery. Veduta di San Luca of 1970 was taken as a symbol by Enzo Fabiani who repeated, in the catalogue, his written presentation of the artist at the Forni Gallery in Bologna. For Fabiani it was the most welcome emblem of the new image proposed by the artist in a return to the themes of her youth.
More success followed at the L’Angolare Gallery in Milan in which Carlo Munari’s presentation appropriately underlined the “severe structural order and equally severe chromatic organization” in the presence of works such as Fiori secchi (Dried flowers), whose convergence with a certain search for informal naturalism and with the vaporous examples of Crepuscolo sulla Senna (Twilight on the Seine) did not escape the critics. It was however on the occasion of a one-man exhibition at the Stivani Gallery in Bologna in January 1972 that Marcello Azzolini synthesized the fruit of Mascellani’s studies and her deep sense of the image in the title “Metaphysics in the painting of Norma Mascellani”.
The Infinito series, examples of natura morta with thistles and shells, as well as her distancing landscapes, were the examples used by the critic in support of his thesis. InVallone di Muggia of 1968, the structuring of the Infinito series was punctually repeated. A subterranean trace of this structuring is found in the anguishing compositions of Gondole of 1980 in which the Venetian views are darkened by a leaden glow, and the gondolas in the foreground – black in the reddish light faded by the poisonous mist – float like phantoms: funereal symbols of anguish and obscure terror. This is indeed an unusual moment in Mascellani’s painting and serves to measure the capacity of her depth of sensation and the force of her symbolic expression. These two paintings were to remain isolated but not excluded in Mascellani’s history. Neither can they be considered marginal. Perhaps they reveal latent feelings which can already be sensed in other works. They convey a sense of death which goes on to touch some of her gayer and more poetic paintings such as her examples of Bambole (Dolls): a subject to which Mascellani dedicated herself especially from the eighties onwards.
In 1972 the painter returned in an exhibition at the Pinacoteca Gallery in Rome, but only with recent works. Toni Bonavita’s presentation of her decisively touches the problem of the artist’s modernity as well as her ability to respond to the more hazardous formal and linguistic proposals. He writes: “Let us take for example a painting of ’64 (Infinito n. 1 is the title): the cut, the spreading of the colour and the composition are equal to the elements of a pure abstract. Is there not, moreover, a suggestion of certain informal mixtures of Fautrier in her 1968 landscape entitled Dal mio studio (From my studio)?” Examples ofnatura morta composed by Mascellani out of explicit homage to Morandi are exhibited, namely Composizione n. 1, with shell, bottle and lamp, and Composizione n. 2, with shell and vase of flowers: they accompany Omaggio a Morandi (Homage to Morandi) of 1972, dated by the artist as 1973 and which appeared with this date on the cover of the catalogue of her anthological exhibition in 1985. The work was also reproduced by Roman newspapers writing on the exhibition, and any doubt over its attribution to 1972 is to be excluded.
In 1973 Mascellani took up engraving again, printing her etchings on an old press. She held an exhibition at the Rolandino Gallery in Bologna, which neither created particular problems nor faced the critics with interrogatives. Yet Mascellani once again revealed herself as one of the most gifted exponents of the Bolognese school of etching, with images which stand up to comparison with those of the much more recognized masters. The painter was then much talked about, also because of her activities in favour of polio victims, which made news.
An exhibition in 1973 raised eleven million lire for the founding, through the Centro Giacomo Venezian, of a school for the professional re-qualification of ex-convicts. Exhibitions of this kind were of course more widely reviewed than her small collection of engravings. I in any case inserted Mascellani in the exhibition “Bologna: graphics today”, organized by the City of Bologna for the Kharkov Museum of Figurative Arts in September 1973, publicly acknowledging her return to this precious technique to which she should perhaps dedicate greater efforts, should that be reconcilable with the volcanic activity which amidst a thousand problems she manages to carry on side by side with anyone showing a love for others. More or less anthological, more or less complete exhibitions followed one after the other throughout the seventies, permitting the artist to meet her ever increasing social obligations. More than from the critics, who had at this point consumed all the words there were lo consume, her acknowledgements came from, for example, the Minister for Justice for her activity carried out in favour of convicts, and from Arrigo Bodrini, president of ANPI, for a donation made for “solidarity with the popular fight against fascism in Italy and the world”. Exhibitions she held in other cities, such as the one at the Accademia Gallery in Turin, were in any case well received.
In 1975, when the new premises of the Bologna Gallery of Modem Art were inaugurated, Mascellani donated a group of twelve works to the Institute, followed by a second donation in 1985. In so doing, the artist prevented the dispersion of significant works which in a complete awareness of her value she had always desired to preserve. In February 1984, on the occasion of an anthological exhibition held at the Vicolo Quartirolo Gallery, the artist donated Natura morta of 1931 to the city of Bologna, and two oils to Carlo Savoia.
Mascellani’s passion at that particular moment was helping as much as possible Don Mario Campidori to set up the “Pastor Angelicus” village without barriers at Savigno on the Bolognese Apennines. Il was almost impossible to talk to the artist about her work, outside this context. Yet she threw aside her natural reserve to write self-presentations for her exhibitions destined to raise funds for the venture. Such presentations offer the occasion to collect declarations of poetics hitherto avoided by the artist. In the catalogue for her exhibition of Bambole, held at the Circolo Artistico in 1981, she wrote: “I think Zavattini was in the clouds more than usual when in a presentation of which I am very fond he declared that Norma Mascellani transforms into Venice everything she paints… Without possessing revolutionary ambitions, not in keeping with my character, I think that I, as well, can boast of something new and original as regards form… The content of this form is what I feel in my loving encounters, not only with the charm of Venice but also with these dolls, these puppets, with flowers, shells, the rusty ships corning from distant countries, canals, dear and familiar landscapes, faces marked by their past history and their hopes for the future… I still use the old methods in narrating these things, because I know no better ones: brushes, spatulas, fingers, burin…”.
Nothing more could be extracted from this woman, so simple yet complex, able to combine sweetness and anguish, the gloomiest sadness and the most candid astonishment, in a single work: Venezia or Bambola, a handful of dried flowers or whatever heraldic image of still-life. Nonetheless, in later years she accompanied a freneticism in her work and in her commitment with a search for new perspectives in painting: the moment of her Bambolewas an important episode charmed by this new disposition for narration, but it was her latest nature morte which were to indicate a new, important turning, to the point of delineating a new road for the painter who up to that moment had dedicated her exhibitions to a kind of summing-up of past activity, as in her important anthological exhibition at the Vicolo Quartirolo Gallery, presented by Romano Battaglia. The text sustains that Norma Mascellani is “of the same stamp as Sirani, Gentileschi and Carriera”, and I think this declaration rings quite true for those who really understand the latest work of the Bolognese artist. Perhaps not even when she was composing her unusual pastels did Mascellani feel similar to Rosalba Carriera, but it would indeed be difficult to indicate an artist in or out of Italy who showed more right to be the legitimate heir of the Venetian Rosalba than this daughter of a heavy and rather serious Bologna school. Of this I was convinced on having the privilege of seeing her series of pastels exhibited in 1986 at the L’Approdo Gallery in her umpteenth exhibition to raise funds for the “Pastor Angelicus” village. They are at the origins of the harmonious season of her latest works in which an intense colouring of unexpected green, blue and a no longer dull rose violates and recomposes the secret of her nature morte with quite new harmony. There is the decided sensation that Mascellani at this stage is working in an inaccessible dimension of time and space, or else accessible only through purest poetry. In presenting her pastels I wrote that “the true artist lives time as a dimension to which he abandons and subtracts himself at the same time. What we call the youth of a work of art is something which very often occurs only after long seasons of work and exploration; in the period of the painter’s full maturity”.
A new luminosity invades the latest canvasses filled with soft, almost perverse chromatic hallucination. They are participants and messengers of a poetic mystery which was not yet sensed in her major 1985 exhibition. I am unable to attribute this new and disturbing freshness to any specific motive. Perhaps an accumulation of infinite pain has found in Mascellani’s art a point of “angelic” sublimation and a place of possible new enchantment. Or, more simply, it is the harmony of poetry responding in the manner of absurd, limpid graciousness to the unhappy confusion of the present. Absence, silence and solitude come together here in a kind of implacable, gracious asceticism which Norma Mascellani has been able to show us only through poetic charm.