Lesser lights illuminate Walters exhibit

November 15, 1992|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Over and over, while viewing the Walters Art Gallery's "Ottocento" exhibit, one is struck by the question: Why have we never seen this before?

It happens before Domenico Morelli's astonishingly immediate portrait of "Bernardo Celentano" (1859), cigar in mouth and eyes piercing the shadow thrown by the brim of his top hat.

It happens before Adriano Cecioni's "Interior with Figure" (1867-1870), showing a woman seated alone in a bedroom -- a perfectly mundane scene except that this woman is sobbing into the bedspread as if in agony over a loss.

And it happens before Giacinto Gigante's "Storm in the Gulf of Amalfi" (about 1837), as the storm clouds recede and the sun streams down on a coastal town like peace after a war; and before Odoardo Borrani's "Vegetable Garden in Castiglioncello" (1864), in which sun and shadow and building walls create a geometric foil for vegetation and the lone human figure.

Again and again, in progressing through "Ottocento: Romanticism and Revolution in 19th Century Italian Painting," the viewer is struck by a picture that might have been dismayingly trite or simply ordinary but isn't; instead, it has been given new life by an artist one has never heard of before. Finally, one simply relaxes and enjoys the great freshness and appeal of this show.

There is more than one reason for that appeal. Part of it, of course, is the very unfamiliarity of the work. The museum-going public has seen so many exhibits (and reproductions) of French, American and British 19th-century art that even the greatest works suffer to some degree from overexposure.

Italian 19th-century art, however, is virtually unknown outside Italy. The assumption has been that Italy was in deep decay, the country split up into a hodgepodge of vassal states, its great days as an art center long gone, its artists accorded a highly deserved obscurity.

And part of that is unquestionably true. The center of the art world had shifted to Paris, and Italy spent much of the 19th century in the struggles of the Risorgimento, the unification effort ultimately successful in 1870.

But Italy's art did not exist in a series of regional vacuums as has been supposed. Art in Italy followed the general outlines of 19th-century developments from classicism to modernism; and the peninsula produced many fine artists whose images, in this first major American exhibit, are even more effective for being virtually unknown.

Lega, Morelli, Andrea Appiani, Francesco Hayez, Giovanni Costa, Vincenzo Camuccini, Giovanni Fattori, Gioacchino Toma, Giuseppe De Nittis, Telemaco Signorini -- these are names most of us have seldom or never heard before, and yet they are among Italy's most respected 19th-century artists. An introduction is long overdue.

However, art must reverberate with more than just newness if it is not to grow old soon, and this art does. The hope of the Risorgimento -- the desire for a once again united Italy -- was a great inspiration to artists of all kinds, and it unquestionably plays a part in raising many of these paintings above the ordinary.

Hayez's "The Inhabitants of Parga Leave Their Homeland" (1826-1831) is a history painting with a difference: It's not about the past but is modern, based on an 1818 incident in the Greek struggle for independence, and clearly meant to be pertinent to Italy's similar struggle.

A similar spirit infuses portraits. In Camuccini's portrait of "Pope Pius VII" (1814-1815), the pontiff leans forward holding a paper on which are listed the territories gained by the papacy after Napoleon's fall; he thus becomes a symbol of unification.

Genre painting perhaps benefits the most by the urge to nationhood. Odoardo Borrani's "The Seamstresses of the Red Shirts" (1863) shows four women sitting around a table sewing. We know from the title and the portrait of Garibaldi on the wall behind them that they're sewing shirts for his army. But the painting's seriousness and quiet intensity also give it an added dimension that we don't get with many similar subjects.

Toma, too, paints a picture of a woman sitting in a room sewing -- only this is "Luisa Sanfelice in Prison" (1874), a representation of a woman considered a heroine of the Neapolitan revolution of 1799.

Political unity was not the only desire of the 19th-century Italians. It was accompanied by an effort to recapture the glories of the cultural past, and another of this show's strengths comes from the repeated references to the past -- both of antiquity and the Renaissance.

Ippolito Caffi records the ruins of the Colosseum in "Interior of the Colosseum Viewed from Above" (1855). Artists known as purists created paintings in the style of Renaissance masters, such as Tommaso Minardi's Raphaelesque "Madonna of the Rosary" (1840). One of the great artists of the Renaissance is more directly recalled in Francesco Podesti's "Francis I in the Studio of Benvenuto Cellini" (1839). Vincenzo Cabianca re-creates the past in "Florentine Storytellers of the Fourteenth Century" (1860).

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