Italo Valenti, His life

Despite only ever intermittently engaging in conversation, Italo Valenti was a relaxed and perceptive talker. He loved to recall places, people, sensations and circumstances, and would reminisce in detail about emotive and often premonitory events. These fragments of his past, preserved by the memory of friends and, more importantly, crystallised in the notes kept by his wife Anne, fill out and enliven the written documents in the Italo Valenti Archives in Ascona and, of course, that other fundamental source for the biography of an artist — his works.
Italo Valenti’s parents lived in the Porta Ticinese quarter in Milan, where his father had a wine-retailing business. And at 4.10 pm on 29 April 1912 Italo was born in his grandmother’s large bedroom under a picture of Giuseppe Garibaldi, adorning the ceiling. His maternal grandmother, Emilia was the earliest major presence in his life. A strict and strong character, she was loved long after those early years together. Their relation became even more intense after the outbreak of war, since Italo’s father left for the front as a bersagliere and his mother moved to Vicenza to run the local branch of the business. His caring grandmother reared him to the age of seven, filling his spiritual world with unforgettable fables and stories. Outside their large five-storey house was the courtyard, with its busy traffic of coaches and horses, the castle and rows of barrels. A little further on was the tow-path and the Naviglio canal with its barges and long quay bustling with children at play. The shy, four-year-old Italo attended a kindergarten run by veiled French nuns dressed in fluttering white tunics. The summers were spent at Mercallo, in the house of the paternal grandparents, where Italo happily accompanied his grandfather to work in the fields or fish in the lake. Here his paternal grand mother told stirring and vivid stories of crimes and misdeeds. After the war he moved with his parents to Vicenza. The sensitive and delicate child now had to endure a rougher and at times harsh upbringing from his energetic and versatile father. He rather listlessly attended school, more attracted to the sights of the city and environs, such as the Palladian architecture and gentle hills. After leaving school at fourteen, he was sent to work in a ceramic atelier, because of his passion for drawing. This marked his initiation to painting, which he pursued the following year in Milan by working in an enamel painter’s studio and attending drawing evening classes. In 1927 he returned to work with a goldsmith in Vicenza and attended evening classes at the arts and crafts school. Here he established his first contacts with the painter Maurizio Girotto, the future writer and publisher, Neri Pozza and Antonio Barolini, another would-be writer and journalist. At this time he also met Libero Augenti, a painter and theosophist of great learning. In many ways a figure emblematic of Italian culture at the time, Augenti’s vision embraced a confused spiritualism blending various influences. In his intuitive philosophical approach pre-Socratic Greece was associated with mystical Mediaevalism and heresy with esoteric Humanism. There are traces of these influences in the dreamy allusive lyricism in some themes dealt with by Valenti. In 1931 Italo embarked on his artistic career. He began to paint systematically and showed his works for the first time (Valdagno 1932). Despite meagre economic resources, he went to Venice to attend a drawing course at the Accademia. Then thanks to the support of an uncle who had made his fortune in America, and despite the concern shown by his family, he brilliantly completed his studies at the Accademia di Brera in Milan. His favourite and greatly respected teachers were the painter Aldo Carpi and Eva Tea, a fine arts lecturer. Whereas he later became Carpi’s assistant, Eva Tea was to enter his life and art as a much admired moral reference point and an archetypal maga — a kind of sorceress-cum-nun or tutelary divinity. Valenti’s painting at this time had strong moral and social leanings. The protagonists were the strong severe faces of workers, or abandoned factories and stations, while at times the tones were powerfully dramatic. A prize awarded on completing his studies enabled him to travel to Paris and Brussels. This was a breath of fresh air after the stifling climate of autarky and the Fascist regime or, as Valenti himself was to comment later, “a luminous living world in free and democratic countries”. It was an incredible discovery for “we museum mice” — a universe of Impressionist light and colour, of Cezanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh. On returning to Italy his passport was confiscated and he was only given it back in 1945-46, after the war had ended. This marked the beginning of his friction with the Fascist authorities. He was even imprisoned for a spell in San Vittore, Milan, in April 1937. He played no part in the Second World War because of his frail constitution, but among other hardships suffered the loss of a brother on the Greek front. Just before the war—in 1937-38 — he joined the Corrente movement, one of the most exciting and lively cultural phenomenon in those grey years. In Milan this movement embraced all forms of culture and brought together artists and literati often of different origins and inspiration. They all shared, how ever, a desire for renewal and were attracted to the great European cultural movements. As such they were implicitly hostile or diffident towards the autarkic regime, within which, however, they had to work. Youthful enthusiasm, solidarity and a common disgust at everything that was official, emphatic and rhetorical combined to make the various groups converge. The founder of the Corrente movement was Ernesto Treccani, a publisher, writer and painter. At various times among those who joined the movement were Arnaldo Badodi, one of the Italo’s best-loved and most mourned companions who was to die in the war, Renato Birolli, who was looked up to as a leader, Bruno Cassinari, Lucio Fontana, Renato Guttuso, Ennio Morlotti, Giuseppe Migneco and Aligi Sassu. There were also writers, critics, and poets such as Luciano Anceschi, Carlo Bo, Beniamino Joppolo, Giuseppe Marchiori, Salvatore Quasimodo and Vittorio Sereni. Valenti mainly frequented these writers as well as people active in theatre and cinema. He was to describe this time as a period not only of artistic solidarity but also “sentimental and social aggregation”. The life and art of the period is documented by the reviews Vita Giovanile, later to become Corrente, which published the first critical articles on Valenti’s painting. In 1939 Guido Piovene singled him out as the most promising young artist in terms of painting that was neither defeatist or fragmentary but, on the contrary, well-focused and highly concrete. From 1939, often in poor health and dire economic straits, Valenti taught life classes at the Milan Accademia. In 1942 he married his student, Angela Valdevit and set up home in a flat overlooking Milan Central Station — the inspiration for his stations and trains steaming at the platforms. In his book II lavoro nella pittura italiana d’oggi, he even saw an analogy between these images and his own activity: plumes of smoke drifting up into the air assume rhythms and forms that may be rapid or stationary, become denser or be dispersed. In 1943 he refused to go on teaching and sought refuge with Angela’s family at Porcia in the Veneto. Despite the troubled times and his role in a clandestine freedom committee, he produced a number of exquisite lyrical landscapes. Clearly influenced by Cézanne but with a sharper use of light for water reflections, they have a relaxed idyllic atmosphere, evoking a happy time of life in a good corner of the world, despite everything going on round about him. After the war and the deep scars left on his family due to deaths, hardship and economic difficulties, Valenti returned to Milan and went back to teaching at the Brera along with Carpi, who had survived a concentration camp in Germany. He withdrew from the Corrente, however, since he no longer shared their new ideological orientations and political outlook. This marked the beginning of his self-isolation, solitary development and the original direction of his art. He sought and found other relations, outside his artistic circles and work. He often met with Eugenio Montale, who liked to paint in his studio. He developed a passionate interest in theatre in those brilliant years for the Piccolo Teatro in Milan, where Paolo Grassi worked. These experiences led to the creation of the Teatrini (“Puppet Theatres”) in 1954. But even before these works, some paintings already revealed a scenographic approach and had lank, hieratic characters, arranged like actors on a boxed stage. The title I giganti della montagna (“Mountain Giants”, 1974), for example alludes to a well-known contemporary play by Pirandello, while his dogs howling at the moon are like something out of an open-air theatre. Other themes — seats, armchairs, vases… — are clearly the outcome of explorations in post-Cubist regions with echoes of Braque. Valenti’s painting increasingly focused on the figuration or the symbolic, autobiographic representation of a number of key themes. In fact alongside the locomotives and theatres there were now the first sorceresses and ferrymen, hinting at a desire for — almost prefiguring — evasion. In 1948 he had an exhibition at the Galleria La Bussola, Turin, and took part in the Rome Quadriennale, the National Exhibition of Contemporary Art at Milan and the 25th Biennale in Venice, where he was invited back the following year. In 1950 he accepted an invitation to run a summer course in an Ascona art gallery. Unbeknown to him, this was the beginning of his self-exile from Italy, where he was still to hold a number of shows, but increasingly rarely. In 1952 he showed at the Galleria La Colonna, Milan. But then at the end of September he gave up teaching at the Brera for good and settled at Locarno Muralto. Ticino offered him contacts with a different, cosmopolitan society whose writers and artists welcomed him and were only willing to help. He became close friends at various times with the sculptor Remo Rossi, Jean Arp, Julius Bissier and especially Ben Nicholson — artists often very different in terms of their art, but who had the same high ideals of work and its quality. His family life also changed. Having separated from his wife, he became the companion of Anne de Montet, writer, photographer and mother of two young daughters, with whom he formed a tender bond of mutual affection. Hailed by an enthusiastic review from Giorgio Orelli, Valenti held his first Swiss exhibition in Bellinzona in 1953. In 1955 he exhibited in German-speaking Switzerland, in Basel (Galerie Bettie Thommen) and Zurich (Librairie Française, where he also exhibited a year later), while in Italy he showed at the Galleria Il Milione, Milan (the catalogue included a text by Enrico Emanuelli). On the latter occasion the critic Renzo Biasion neatly summed up the sense of humour in his painting, a humour that successfully undermines their solidity. He also offered an all- round portrait of the artist as an imaginative, erudite, refined and ironic man. At this time, in addition to the lasting themes and favourite forms, Valenti was now exploring plastic compositions — intense impastos of paint like magmatic vortices in some primordial, material or planetary chaos, prefiguring his last abstract phase. In summer 1958 he participated for the third time at the Venice Biennale, plunging once more into a refreshing atmosphere that he had always been fond of, while the following year he had works in the major historical exhibition entitled “Fifty years of Art at Milan, from Divisionism to the Present Day”, as well as in the Turin Quadriennale. In 1960 he was included in a selected group show at the Galleria Gian Ferrari, featuring artists from the Corrente. The renewed interest in the movement was to continue to grow and reached a climax in the large 1985 Milan exhibition. Exhibitions in 1960 also included a one-man show at the Loggia, Bologna, and the Kunstverein, Freiburg im Breisgau. . The fifty or so works exhibited included oils, gouaches, lithographs and small collages. On a trip to Sardinia with Anne he discovered the ancient culture of the nuraghe. Along with his knowledge of the Cyclade and Micenae cultures this was to further stimulate his interest in antiquity. For Valenti, however, antiquity did not so much mean Classicism as the ecstatic and mysterious world of mythical creations, their simple forms and geometric patterns. Through Nicholson, he met Charles Lienhard and so came into the orbit of his important Zurich gallery, where he often exhibited (the first show was in 1959, with an introduction by André Kuenzi) and met with considerable success, also in economic terms. From now on, partly due to his relaxed home atmosphere, he could work with the kind of peace and quiet he had never experienced previously, and this comes through in his more expansive works. At Christmas 1959 he produced a number of small variegated paper collages. This new form of abstract expression both in tiny and large format was to develop parallel to his painting. His craft was further stimulated by the fact he worked in the group of ateliers organised by Remo Rossi in the outskirts of Locarno. Among the other artists working alongside Valenti and Rossi, were Arp, Hans Richter, Ingeborg Liischer and later Fritz Glarner.

In 1961 he went to the United States to take part in a group show at the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburg, and in 1962 he was in London for a one-man show at the Waddington Galleries. Other exhibitions followed that year at the Modern Art Gallery, Basel, at Oldenburg in Germany and again at the Lienhard gallery, Zurich. More importantly he was included in a selected group show of work by a number of major older artists — Arp, Bissier, Nicholson and Tobey. According to Willy Rotzler in the catalogue, these artists’ works all had “the meditative element, the fundamental issues for the human spirit”. At another show in the Zurich gallery, Valenti met the critic and publisher Manuel Gasser, marking the beginning of a friendship based on great mutual respect. The same may be said of his friendship with another important French critic and writer — Christian Zervos. In 1964 there was a show of collages at the Waddington Galleries, and one of the works shown, Palestrina, was purchased by the Tate Gallery. In 1965, in addition to Swiss exhibitions, there were also shows at the Kunstverein, Esslingen, Germany, the Dawson Gallery, Dublin, the Osborne Gallery, New York, and a selected group show at the Rigelhaupt gallery, Boston (followed up by a one-man show at the same gallery the following year). In 1967 a travelling exhibition took his works to several cities in the United States. Valenti would have acquired much greater fame, but he was retiring, fragile and at times depressed. When this melancholic side to his nature took over, he turned to meditation, to books and his canvases. The sweeping Dutch countryside, admired by the painter during a trip with his wife and other acquaintances in Holland, is reflected in some large paintings in 1966-68. In 1967 he began working in the Locarno atelier of François Lafranca, a printmaker, paper craftsman, publisher and artist. Here he embarked on his first experiments in colour lithography. At the same time he established relationships with the collectors William and Agnes Schöning and Sergio Grandini, the generous publisher of a high-quality series of books which included two works dedicated to Valenti: Lunes (1975) and Magiciennes (1982). A short story by Piero Chiara, I Re Magi ad Astano, published by Grandini in 1978 was illustrated with collages by Valenti, and was an opportunity for him to meet the celebrated writer from Luino. Through Chiara he was to meet Franco Vercelotti, a keen art-lover and promoter in Milan and the Lake Maggiore area. In 1967 he also married his companion, the artist Anne de Montet, after his previous marriage had been annulled. This provided the opportunity for a new trip. Valenti had always longed to go to Brittany and his journey was to inspire a number of works with the subdued colours of a harsh landscape of sea and rocks. Intrigued by the descriptions and urging of Alfred Andersch, he made an equally stimulating and fascinating trip to Bruges and Gand, where he explored first-hand the Flemish painters, especially Van Eyck and Memling. Another source of inspiration that year were his conversations with a young student of art history at the University of Geneva — Anna Beretta-Piccoli. They were occasions to reconsider — at Anna’s prompting — his development over almost forty years, first in the Corrente and then through the various personal experiences, at times coming into contact with other movements and personalities. He thus elaborated on the issues of painting, retracing a tradition, interpreting modernity and returning to the perennial themes of humankind. In all this time he had evidently never lost his youthful enthusiasm and spontaneity or his powerful but difficult creativity in the struggle to achieve such limpid results on canvas, if introverted and deeply meditative as he was, he blithely played with his student’s young children or mixed with those at work in the small room adjoining his new atelier in Ascona. In late 1967 Valenti participated in the exhibition entitled “Corrente — Thirty Years On”, a retrospective at the Galleria 32, Milan, and a book entitled Corrente: 30 litografie, published by Teodorani. Other exhibitions followed over the next few years at the Museo Civico, Turin, at Olten and Winterthur. In a catalogue Manuel Gasser stressed the extremely essential forms, the greater perseverance and the spiritual tension in his work. In 1970 there were selected group shows in England, Switzerland and Milan, where Scheiwiller, another fervent admirer of the artist, published the volume Italo Valenti, consisting of twenty-two collages with a text by Manuel Gasser. In 1971 in a d’après exhibition at Villa Ciani, Lugano, Valenti showed a collage with a detail of the fourteenth-century Virgin and Child by Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti — a highly imaginative and refined modern interpretation of the sinuous line of the Sienese tradition. The same year a large one-man show at the Galerie Kornfeld, Zurich, crowned the artist’s career, confirming the widespread recognition. Anne and Italo then set off for Greece, on another eagerly awaited trip and inevitable stage in his spiritual, cultural and artistic development. This time he plunged into the sunny Mediterranean landscape, exploring the roots of myth and the fountainhead of so many masterpieces of poetry, drama and philosophy, which he had already become acquainted with as a boy. With a writer’s flair for rendering lively details and arousing emotions, he would always delight in recounting his Greek trip (although he actually returned a second time in 1974 with his old friends the Bechtlers, art collectors from Zurich). He felt the presence of the Western soul much more keenly in the ancient Greek world than in the Christian tradition. This experience led to a series of remarkably poignant works: Antenati, Battello di Ulisse, Oracolo, etc. In addition to the sublime emotional Greek reason, in his reading and meditation, he also explored poets and mystics from the other side of the world. Valenti responded to Oriental ideas, especially because of the rarefied emotion and stark style he found in Japanese writers and artists. But his intellectual interests were genuinely remarkably wide-ranging. For example, he once gifted me a book entitled Jeux et sapience du Moyen Age (Pl é iade 1978) — a work full of fun and intelligent games, inhabited by people and animals, saints and clowns, fables and morality, subtly portrayed even in all their most instinctive aspects. This volume was kept with other small books and objects on a long narrow shelf in his new house, a cottage in the centre of Ascona, half-hidden by a small garden with a vine pergola, shady trees, flower beds, green gate and stone walls, where the Valentis had come to live in 1973. The Ascona house was the couple’s lasting home, an oasis of intense calm isolated from the world’s hubbub where visitors were given a festive welcome. Here he mainly explored variations of the moon: the enigmatic nocturnal element and inseparable companion of the sorceresses in many of his works from 1938, and then from 1958 and the Chaos series, the absolute protagonist in small canvases, and individual or series of collages and engravings. Valenti often visited the Locarno-Monti observatory. He read the poems to the moon by Li Po and the Pleasant Hours by the 15th-century Japanese philosopher-monk Urabe Kenko. He may even have been influenced by the first sputniks. A 1975 exhibition at the Galleria Portico d’Arte at Omegna, owned by Luciana and Luigi Alberti, led to another highly polished book, printed by an equally enthusiastic publisher: a “multiplied collage” in hues of night blue; this was followed by the Lune in the above-mentioned Grandini series. Other publications that year included Otto poesie by Eugenio Montale with a collage by Italo Valenti, and Le pied de I’alouette (1976), poems by Anne de Montet with a drawing and a “multiple” of a collage, both published by Scheiwiller and printed by Lucini. In 1977-78, François Lafranca also printed poems by Montet with aquatints and etchings by Valenti in Locarno. Eugenio Montale and Valenti were brought together again in the publication of Mottetti, commented by the philologist and friend Dante Isella, and illustrated by two aquatints; the result was a superb edition published by Valdonega (Verona 1980). The major exhibitions in this period were held at the Vismara gallery (1974), Milan, the Kornfeld and Klipstein galleries in Berne (1974), the Pudelko, Bonn (1975) and the Brinkman, Amsterdam (1975). At a second exhibition at the Kornfeld (1976), the artist chose a quote from Kenko for the catalogue: “The circle of the moon is only perfect for a single instant, before rapidly waning. Unless you are careful, you will fail to notice that the form changes so much in one night”. In 1978 Valenti took part in the major retrospective “Corrente, Culture and Society, 1938- 1942” at the Palazzo Reale, Naples. In 1979 he showed at the Westend Galerie, Frankfurt. In a review of the exhibition in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Christa von Helmot used a strikingly perceptive analogy to describe the evolution of Valenti’s art: “When you love music, you begin with Verdi and end with Monteverdi”. In 1980 Italo Valenti received two major acknowledgements: a large retrospective of 107 works from the period 1939—79, held at the Kunsthaus, Zurich, from January to March, and an exhibition of miniatures — a wide-ranging series of small-format collages — shown at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, in June with the simultaneous publication of the book Piccoli Collages, Small Collages by Scheiwiller. On their way back from Scotland, Italo and Anne made a last emotional visit to Ben Nicholson in his Hampstead house. Another important exhibition of miniature collages was held at the new Pieter Coray gallery, Lugano. These were generally carefree years for the artist, and there were exchanged visits with Andersch and Golo Mann, as well as with the celebrated photographer (and water-colourist) Henri Cartier-Bresson, the naturalist and sculptor Alfonso Sella, a companion from the early Milanese days, who lived with his wife in a converted convent at Biella. In 1981 Italo Valenti was awarded Swiss nationality. The same year he was invited to take part in one of his most important selected group exhibitions: the “Peintres du silence” at the Musée Jenisch, Vevey, which also included works by Nicholson, Morandi, Bissier, Rothko and Tobey. In Germany his work was included in an exhibition dedicated to Italian art after 1945 at the Westend Galerie, Frankfurt. In 1982 his seventieth year was celebrated with a retrospective at the newly restored Museo del Borgo, organised by the Ascona City Council. Another retrospective was held at the Museo Comunale, Campione d’ltalia, under the patronage of Sergio Grandini. In 1983 he was included in a group show entitled the “Years of the Corrente” at Bergamo and in another exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh. Meanwhile two new books on the painter were published: Venti incisioni di Italo Valenti, with an introduction by S. Grandini and text by G. Bezzola (1983) and Walter Schönenberger, Italo Valenti (1984). As in 1981 the Schlégl gallery, Zurich, put on a show of gouaches and water-colours, again inspired by poems to the moon. In 1985 interest in the Corrente as an “opposition movement of art and culture” came to a climax in a wide-ranging retrospective at the Palazzo Reale, Milan. Valenti was present with twenty-four works. As with the other artists, the paintings on show documented not only his early years but also the development of his art. In the catalogue, Elena Pontiggia described Valenti’s personality within the movement, focusing on his disposition to awe and enchantment as well as the tendency to evasion or quest for the essential. Shortly afterwards Valenti was deprived of speech and the use of his right arm by a stroke. But this in no way diminished the growing public interest in his life and art. Evidence comes from two fundamental events in 1987: the carefully documented and lavishly illustrated book edited by Sylvio Acatos and published by the Biliothèque des Arts (Lausanne and Paris), and a huge exhibition at the Fondation Pierre Gianadda, Martigny. He was also dedicated a whole room in the inaugural exhibition at the re-opening of the Musée Jenisch, Vevey, and in 1991 he was honoured with a splendid retrospective at the Civica Galleria d’Arte Villa dei Cedri, in Bellinzona, which later moved on to the Galleria Epper, Ascona. His eightieth birthday was celebrated in 1992 with an equally splendid exhibition at the Fondazione Querini Stampalia, Venice, a nostalgic visit to the places of his past. Meanwhile Valenti had been laboriously composing collages with his last remaining strength in a period he dubbed as the “epoch of the left hand”. His health, however, deteriorated, especially after a car accident in 1994 deprived him of the caring company of his beloved Anne. He died on 6 September 1995 in Ascona, and was laid to rest in the local cemetery.

Carlo Carena

(Carlo Carena, Stefano Pult – Italo Valenti, Catalogo ragionato dei collage, Ed. Skira)