A New Year at Pisa’s Palazzo Blu with Avant-Garde Masterpieces from the Philadelphia Museum of Art

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Until April 7, 2024: THE AVANT-GARDE: MASTERPIECES FROM THE PHILADELPHIA MUSEUM OF ART. Palazzo Blu, Pisa. Open daily 10 am to 7 pm, extended hours until 8 pm on Saturday and Sunday. General admission: €14.

The Avant-Garde: Masterpieces from the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a must-see show. The bright blue color of the building that hosts the exhibitions isn’t the only unique factor. The retrospective showcases pieces from iconic 20th century artists including Chagall, Dalí, Duchamp, Kandinsky, Mirò, Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian, and Klee. These artists all have unique styles, but are united in the sense that their work was so revolutionary that the art world was changed forever. The exhibits, created between 1900 to 1950 were a reaction to times that encompassed war, repressive regimes, depression, creating a world full of chaos that led to new ideas and forms of expressions that are known as avant-garde.

As one walks through the exhibition of over 40 masterpieces, the viewer is transported into the creative and troubled minds of artists who were struggling to find ways to understand and fit into the 20th century. Their work was often as dramatic as the times that they found themselves in. Curated by Matthew Affron, curator of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in collaboration with art historian Stefano Zuffi; this show is an incredible example of the beauty of collaboration and powerful art.

The guest is guided through numbered rooms that display the order in which the paintings and sculptures were designed to be seen. As one walks through the rooms, the stories of these artists and the time periods they represent begins to unfold.

The display is carefully crafted by the curators in chronological order. It begins with Self-portrait with Palette (1906) by Pablo Picasso. He depicts himself as a broad-shouldered man, with an intense gaze upon his face, wearing a plain white V-neck shirt and gray trousers. One hand rests at his waist while the other is holding a palette. This painting reflects the desire to represent self and identity; a theme that people struggled with during that time due to the nature of constant change in the world around them, a theme still relevant today. Here Picasso is able to strongly emphasize his Spanish features, representing his national identity. He is then able to show himself as a painter, another large part of who he was and what he did.

In another room is one of the headlining pieces, Circles in a Circle (1923) by Wassily Kandinsky. This piece plays more with the idea of geometric shapes and abstract art. It is a large circle with a thick border, surrounding 26 smaller circles of different sizes and colors, as well as a series of crossed thin black lines. This work emerged during a time when artists were experimenting with new styles and forms of expression, and is the first one where the artist explored geometric forms and color in this way. Subsequently in the years to come he would continue to produce other pieces in a similar technique, inspiring many other artists to explore this style.

Another example that shows changing and evolving styles is Woman Sitting in Armchair (1920) by Henri Matisse which plays with the combination of flat and ornamental designs., He depicts a woman in a white dress sitting in an armchair in front of a highly decorated background, with a contrast between the three-dimensional body of the woman and the flatness of the objects that surround her. This composition is also a stunning example of Matisse’s mastery of color, achieving harmony that makes this work stand out as particularly beautiful. A very different but equally interesting work is Still Life with Fruit Plate (1936) by Georges Braque, There are fragmented images of a wine glass, newspaper, a pipe, and fruit on a table, layered in front of various patterned wallpapers and fabrics. Within this piece he is exploring new ideas with dimensions, textures, and shapes simultaneously. These two works are just two examples of the dynamic and experimental artworks that fall under the category of avant-garde.

The show ends on a particularly powerful note with The Crucifixion (1940) by Marc Chagall. This painting was created to draw attention to the suffering of the Jewish community in Europe who were being persecuted by the Nazi Regime. It is a dark painting, emphasizing the use of chiaroscuro, where the artist plays with lightness and darkness in a way that darkness dominates the image. It shows Jesus being crucified on the cross, wearing a Jewish prayer shawl rather than the typical halo that is usually associated with this religious figure. A black form holds a candle illuminating Jesus’ torso, showcasing the wounds on his body. On the ground at his feet there are two women mourning. A year after creating this painting, Chagall was forced to leave France and seek refuge in the United States. It is another window into the experience of many people who were suffering during this time. Many were unable to express their feelings, but artists like Chagall transformed their pain and agony into masterpieces that are appreciated to this day.

From abstract to surrealism, The Avant-Garde captures innovative ideas of artists who were not afraid to break rules or think outside the norm. Their work was often not understood at first; later on, the effect of the work would live on. This exhibition not only illustrates the importance of these art works but also leaves the viewer feeling inspired. (Claire Ryan)