2008- Wilson Stephens Fine Arts, London. Italo Valenti

Paintings, collages and drawings

Tn the spring of 1957, a young German journalist, Felicitas Vogler, wandered down the lanes and back roads of St Ives in search of the artists whom she had heard were to be found round every corner of this quaint fishing L village. The king of this ‘sea-coast of Bohemia’, Ben Nicholson, was rather taken with her – so much so that only a few months later they were married. The following summer, he cleared his studio in Porthmeor and moved with Vogler to Switzerland, to the shores of Lake Maggiore. Here Nicholson found another established art colony with Jean Arp as its owm resident luminary. Amongst this group was one man to whom Nicholson was to become particularly close during the decade or so he lived there – the Italian painter and collagist, Italo Valenti Although Nicholson was sixteen years ( older than Valenti, their careers had followed similar paths They had both found themselves at the centre of important artistic and literary avant-gardes in the early 1930s. In Nicholson’s case. this was the Constructivist movement, which, fuelled by an influx of emigres from the Bauhaus and the presence of Mondrian, flourished in and around Hampstead. For Valenti, it was Corrente, a collective of artists, writers and philosophers, albeit without a distinct group ‘style’, based in his home town of Milan Both movements were opposed to Fascism, which was already casting a long shadow over Europe, although Constructivism’s politics were perhaps a little more oblique and utopian than that of Corrente, whose members were inclined toward direct action (Valenti himself spent two months in San Vittore prison in Milan in 1937 for subversive activity). The two men had also arrived at abstraction by way of a similar journey, through the Primitivism that artists in Paris and Berlin had made so chic in the 1920s, although neither of them had found the authenticity and immediacy they were looking for in African masks, but rather in the quieter backwaters of the Primitivist lexicon – in naive art and the pictorial sensibilities of children. Whilst Nicholson switched between the figurative and the abstract in the 40s and 50s, Valenti delayed his move to abstraction until 1957 and rarely looked back Valenti’s Chaos series of that year, like much European art of the mid-50s, is influenced in equal part by American ‘Action Painting – specifically Pollock and de Kooning – and by French tachisme – in which the mark (tache) stands as a self-sufficient act, expressive in itself and not because of what it might represent. By 1960, however, gesture gives way to measured composition and the brushstroke becomes immersed within solid forms that float on an even ground. His paintings are elegant and poised, concerned with the physicality of the surface and yet strangely ethereal too. They are serious and intellectual, but, at the same time, playful and witty Italo Valenti was born in Milan in 1912, a few years after the industrialist, impresario and playboy Flippo Tommaso Marinetti had shocked the city’s cultural elite with his Futurist manifesto. However, by the time Valenti amved at art school in the early 30s, Futurism’s bright vision of a new industrial society – fast, hard, violent, but also egalitarian and democratic – had become a dark reality under Mussolini. As such, the artists and writers of the new Milanese counter-culture, the Corrente, looked towards other European movements – Cubism. Expressionism, Dada & Surrealism – which celebrated the freedom of the individual and the freedom of individual thought. Valenti’s work of the late 30s and early 40s is symbolic, full of nostalgia for better days, and he continued to paint scenes from his poetic interior life after the War was over. The two works from the early 50s that are featured in this exhibition are classic post-war Valenti In Transito (Crossing) 1950, two figures row across a lake under a full moon they are probably lovers on a midnight fit, although the dark, surreal atmosphere of the image makes theviewer wonder whether or not the man on the left might be Charon, ferrying a charge across a wide, glass-like St in II Porto (The Port) 1952, two lovers, straight out of an Edivard Munch, sit dreaming on a shore, wanching paper boats drif away on an emerald sea, each one containing a message, a voice, Fike the limle votive flames that Hindu set sail on the Ganges to carry their prayers to the gods. Valenti moved from Milan to Switzerland in 1952. His series Pesci nel Giardino (Fish in a Garden) 1954-55 is a rough equivalent to Patrick Heron’s Garden Paintings of the same fime and was an important step towards pure abstraction which led hir to the Chaos series. However, the tachisme that evidently most appealed to Valent was not the slashing vertical rain typical of the Parisian school, but that of Nicholas de Stael. it is de Stael’s blocks of thickly-applied colour that inform Valenti’s signature style from 1960 onwards. The paintings in this exhibition Trinome V 1967, Isola Rossa 1968, Vicenza 1968 – are excellent examples ofValenti’s concerns in the last two decades of his life: of the harmonies between forms and (usually bright) colours, between line and mass and the relationship between the painted forms and the shape of the picture itself Valenti began using collage in 1959 because it has an essential flatness, the sense of its appropriation from the real world, which is always there in its torn edge, stopping it from fully entering the ilusionistic space that is somehow unavoidable within paintings (an effect painting itself only seems able to counter through hard-edge minimalism). Valenti was a poet of this torn edge. If his collages already have a wit and joie de vivre from the informality of their geometry – the off-kilter squares and rectangles that either balance uncertainly. like a high-wire act, or unravel across the picture with a lopsided grace – it is the artist’s judgement of this line that lends them a finesse that in turn is an elegant counterpoint to their structural informality Of the collages in this exhibition, Il Fiore Rosso (1973) is without doubt his masterpiece in the medium. The 1960s were an important time for Valenti. He had met the influential Zurich dealer Charles Lienhard through Nicholson, and held the first of three one-man shows at his gallery in 1959. In 1962, he had a solo exhibition at Waddington Galleries, one of London’s leading galleries of international Modernism. This was followed in 1964 by a show of collages, from which the Tate Gallery bought Palestrina. This was the year he showed at the highly influential Documenta 4 in Germany, where Jim Ede bought five monochrome collages, of which he wrote in A Way of Life – ‘Black became really black, and white had infinite variety. The skill and sensibility with which these pieces of paper were torn, left me amazed’. These Valenti’s remain on display at Kettle’s Yard, Ede’s former home and now a treasure of a museum that, like no other place, captures the spirit of British Modernism in its heyday. For an artist who was never at ease with the limelight, Ital Valenti had a long and quietly spectacular career. Among many solo and group exhibitions, one of the most important was his retrospective at the Kunsthaus in Zurich in 1980 (in the same year as his exhibition of small collages at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh). Another highlight was his inclusion in Painters of Silence, held in the museum at Vevey, Switzerland in 1981, where his work was shown alongside Morandi, Nicholson and Tobey If his early paintings from Milan had attained a significance precisely through their quietness, amidst the noise of totalitarianism and war, Valenti’s abstract work from the late 50s onwards is suffused with an ethereal silence that makes them both fragile and enduring.

Simon Hucker, August 2008