Paying a Great Artist His Due: An Oscar Ghiglia Retrospective

Until Nov. 4: GHIGLIA CLASSICO & MODERNO. Centro Matteucci for Modern Art, Viareggio. Hours: Fri. 3:30 – 7:30 pm, Sat. – Sun. 10 am – 1 pm, 3:30 – 7:30 pm. General admission € 8; reduced € 5.

Tucked amidst Viareggio’s market stands, beach clubs and flowering tree-lined streets is the Matteucci Center for Modern Art. This summer, the museum is hosting a retrospective of the Italian painter Oscar Ghiglia (1876 – 1945). Curated by Elisabetta Matteucci, the exhibition Ghiglia: Classico e Moderno displays over 40 works by the artist.

A number of the paintings by Oscar Ghiglia are on public display for the first time, having been in a private collection for years; also on loan are two works by Amadeo Modigliani in order to highlight the close relationship between the two artists.  Modigliani’s opinion on the contemporary art scene was “in Italy, there is nothing: there is only Ghiglia.”

The exhibition is divided into seven sections, tracking Ghiglia’s work chronologically, making apparent the painter’s stylistic evolution.  His early works are heavily inspired by the old masters, as seen through formal portraits and dark interiors.  In later years, Ghiglia’s artistic vocabulary blossomed, evidenced by bright colors and confident rough brushstrokes.

As Elisabetta Matteucci has stated, “Oscar Ghiglia lived the life worthy of a novel.”  Born to a poor family in Livorno in 1876, this self-taught painter moved to Florence in 1900.  There, he made many friends, including the art critic and collector Ugo Ojetti, the writer and painter Ardengo Soffici, and the artist Amedeo Modigliani.

At the suggestion of Giovanni Fattori of the Macchaioli (Tuscan Impressionism) school, an artist he valued greatly, Ghiglia enrolled in Florence’s Scuola del Nudo school.  His self-portrait and a portrait of his wife, Isa Morandini (the latter of which is in the exhibition) were part of the 1901 and 1903 Venice Biennale respectively.  Influenced by Cézanne, Ghiglia then began to paint still lifes in 1907.  Fattori and Cézanne remained great artistic mentors throughout Ghiglia’s life, as markers of each period: “classic” and “modern.”

Much of the downstairs portion of the exhibition is dedicated to Ghiglia’s years in Florence. Hanging at the beginning of the show is artist’s 1902 portrait of his wife.  In another, Allo specchio, Isa peers at her reflection in a mirror, hand cupping her hair in a Caravaggio-esque composition and use of shadow.

Ghiglia’s Nudo di donna recalls Titian’s Venus of Urbino: direct gaze, hazy brushstrokes, phantom smile. A slideshow presents the similarities among three artists:  Ghiglia’s Nudo di donna morphs into Venus of Urbino morphing once more into Modigliani’s 1917-1918 Nu couché (Reclining Nude).

If Ghiglia’s early works on the ground floor of the museum are somber, the exhibits on the floor above are a riot of color.  The landscapes on the wall depict scenes of small towns and the Italian countryside.  A memento of the artist’s time in Castiglioncello, Ghiglia’s 1918 Paolo con la barca is painted in soft sea-foam blues and feathery taupes with the same loose brushstroke.

Though Ghiglia’s portraits and landscapes are beautiful, his still-lifes are the most arresting examples in his repertoire. Painted in thick impasto and a vibrant palette, the forms of fruit and vases and books seem to be molded from solid prismatic color alone. Though the artist painted his objects as modern Cézanne-like block forms, he worked from a classical grid used by fifteenth century artists such as Piero della Francesca. Traditional method and modern execution are combined to striking effect.

Limoni (1928-1930) is luscious: life-like limes and lemons are set before a crisp white cloth against a deep aqua ground.  Tavola imbandita (1908) is a symphony of color, texture and pattern. Sage green glass glints against floral wallpaper, and a cobalt blue teacup sits adjacent to a polka-dot silk scarf. Most impressive in this work are the impasto-ed zinnias, whose painted petals are molded three dimensionally.

The seventh section highlights Ghiglia’s relationship with Modigliani. The two Modigliani portraits: L’enfant gras (Louise) (1915), and Tête de femme rousse (La ragazza rossa) (1915) are muddy as compared to Ghiglia’s vibrantly colored works in the neighboring rooms. Ghiglia’s 1927 self-portrait faces Modigliani’s portraits: they are in constant conversation. (isabelle blank)