Enclosed within a bell jar amid the dozens of sculptures on display in the exhibition Marino Marini: Arcadian Nudes at the Center for Italian Modern Art in Soho, sits a cast of the Venus of Willendorf, the 30,000-year-old fertility figure from the collection of the Natural History Museum in Vienna.
According to CIMA’s president, Laura Mattioli, when Marini drew, he held the cast of Venus in one hand and his pencil in the other. Such is the tactile nature of Marini’s practice, which encompassed sculpture, painting, lithography, and drawing.
The appearance of the Venus of Willendorf — one of the earliest prehistoric artworks known at the time — marks the connection between the artist, who was born in Pistoia in 1901, and antiquity, a lineage that he himself described in genetic terms (from the exhibition catalogue, Marino Marini, edited by Pierre Casè, Skira, 1999):
I see myself as a descendent of the Etruscans […] What interests me is the primitive, the elemental. The Etruscans move me so profoundly just because their nature is absolutely original. A nature that is truly original contains so much of the warmth of life that it can live of its own accord, developing continually down the centuries. This is why I have always sought roots of human endeavor such as these.
In this regard, Marini is echoing the same back-to-basics impulse that led Pablo Picasso to the art of ancient Iberia and 19th-century Africa, a scoured vision of art-making that stripped it down to its essentials and defined Modernism as an endless font of rebirth and renewal.
The motifs pursued by Marini — the horse, with or without a rider; the nude; and the portrait — are as timeless as they come, but art history is riddled with paradox. The presumed timelessness of certain subjects can, at certain times, have the opposite effect, binding the images and the artist who explored them to a particular, and not terribly agreeable, political climate.
So it was with the classicized styles that spread across Europe after the close of World War I, in which a culturally conservative “return to order” resisted abstraction and anti-art in favor of an accessible historicism that often, but not always, aligned itself with the nationalistic goals of the state.
This is where things get curious and complicated for Marini. His art was part and parcel of the return to order, but the subjects he chose and his intentions behind portraying them can be interpreted across a range of political perspectives.
Marini’s membership in the Fascist Party is something that will cling to him, whatever his reasons for joining (a prerequisite for his appointment in 1940 as a professor at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera, Milan), and despite his self-exile to Switzerland in 1943 and the anti-imperialist tone of his postwar work.
The CIMA exhibition, Arcadian Nudes, might seem intent on sidestepping this issue altogether, indulging in a nostalgia for an imagined past. Most of the works were made in Switzerland, and so it would be reasonable to interpret them as an aesthetic retreat, the artist shutting the war completely out of his mind.
But CIMA’s Mattioli, at the press preview, explained that the nudes, whose rounded hips and full breasts place an emphasis, like the Venus, on fertility and birth, were expressions of hope in a very dark time, while the exhibition’s curator, Dr. Flavio Fergonzi of the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, discussed the work primarily in terms of form and volume.
With its intimate touch and personal imagery (portraits, nudes, and allegorical figures), Marini’s art overall had more in common with the sculpture of the avowedly anti-Fascist Giacomo Manzù than it did with the neoclassical public monuments designed to serve Mussolini’s ambition of remaking the Roman Empire.
A focus on Marini’s nudes, with their relative calm and stylistic stasis, makes for a very different set of associations than, say, a study of his horses and riders, which undergo severe transformations before, during, and after the war, from bucolic innocence to satirical eroticism to apocalyptic disintegration.
Each nude, whether it is life-size or suitable for a tabletop, engages in a dialogue between the monumental and the anti-monumental, impulses underscored by two supplemental works in the show, Willem de Kooning’s “Woman” (ca. 1952–1953), in oil, enamel, and charcoal on paper laid over canvas, and Alberto Giacometti’s oil painting, “Petit nu” (“Small Nude,” ca. 1961/1964). In these two frontal nudes, the forms are dissected and reassembled, but the continuity of humanity, though ravaged, is affirmed.
Marini’s sculptures don’t go as far in their deconstruction as his two contemporaries (though in actuality, much of Marini’s work concurrent with the de Kooning and the Giacometti was more pessimistic about the prospects of nuclear Armageddon), but the psychic scars are apparent in the scoring and scratches he inflicted on the surface.
The sole plaster in the show, the armless “Giovinetta” (“Young Lady,” 1938), is among the most intensely abraded, with pockmarks across the sculpture’s face, chest, belly, and left leg, but similar scratches crop up everywhere else — except, interestingly enough, in the exhibition’s other outlier, the single work carved out of wood, “Nudo feminile” (“Female Nude, 1932–34), whose smooth finish is interrupted only by the slight natural splits in the log’s surface.
That this sculpture is the earliest in the show is telling, in that it is the closest to the Fascist goal of a contemporary engagement with the classical past. It is also the one piece whose interest fades almost immediately. The only other prewar work, “Pomona sdraiata” (“Reclining Pomona,” 1935), is armless, like the plaster “Giovinetta” of a few years later, but it is not as scarified. It does, however, display a tense instability in the way the reclining body is bent at the waist, raising the head and torso as if she were lying on an unseen chaise.
Although Marini’s nudes remain weighty and solid throughout the war, an anxiety antithetical to Fascist triumphalism takes increasing hold. There is an awkwardness to the forms and a sense of angst lacing the poses, which subvert and complicate the imagery: “Figura seduta” (“Seated Figure,” 1944) grips her hair and crosses her legs tightly, protectively, together; the kneeling “Piccola figura” (“Small Figure,” 1943–44) clutches her chest and belly as she arches her body back — awestruck, defeated, or emotionally overwhelmed; the hands of “Piccolo nudo” (“Kneeling Nude,” 1945) are pulled behind her back as her body bends forward, like a prisoner of a death squad.
After the war, the nudes become lighter and more playful (again, in contrast to his horses and riders, which literally collapse under the weight of their symbolic import), reflecting a kernel of optimism wrapped deeply within postwar existential foreboding.
This sense of muddling through despite the odds is embodied in the figure of Pomona, the goddess of crops, specifically orchard fruit. There are 10 works titled “Pomona” in this show, more than half of them done in 1943 and 1944, after Marini fled to Switzerland. As Eric Steingräber writes in the essay “Marino Marini: A Biography Through Images,” published in the Skira catalogue cited above, she is a goddess who “stands for the fullness of life,” an attribute so consistent with the artist’s proclivities that “[n]early all of Marini’s female statues could be called ‘Pomona.’”
Among the last sculptures he made before his death in 1980 at the age of 79, is a portrait of the Viennese Expressionist Oskar Kokoschka (“Ritratto di Oskar Kokoschka,” “Portrait of Oskar Kokoschka,” 1976–77), whose work had been condemned as degenerate by the Nazis, and who died the same year as Marini.
It is a polychrome plaster that supersedes the political histories of the two men and attests to the timelessness — not of classicism — but of the palpable sense of form that Marini found in the fecund roundedness of the Venus of Willendorf. Even more than the motif of the nude in wartime, his lifelong pursuit of a sensual ideal, one that fuses the physical and emotional meanings of “touch,” remains a signal of hope within the dread.
Marino Marini: Arcadian Nudes continues at the Center for Italian Modern Art (421 Broome Street, 4th Floor, Soho, Manhattan) through June 13, 2020. The exhibition is curated by Dr. Flavio Fergonzi.