Mario Cavaglieri, Interieur Baroque (1916), oil on canvas, 17-3/4″ x 23-3/4″; courtesy The Jewish Museum
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To say that Mario Cavaglieri (1887–1969) is one of the lesser-known figures in twentieth-century art is to risk an understatement of sizable proportions. Although he is an artist of some note in his native Italy, Cavaglieri is virtually unknown throughout the rest of the world. The Glittering Years is the first one-man exhibition of his work to be seen in the United States. (Three of his paintings were included in the Jewish Museum’s 1989 show Gardens and Ghettos: The Art of Jewish Life in Italy.) In her preface to the catalogue, Joan Rosenbaum, the director of the Jewish Museum, writes that The Glittering Years will “undoubtedly contribute to the ongoing revision of the history of Modernism.” Given the work on view, this statement says more about the institution’s optimism than it does about the quality of Cavaglieri’s paintings.
The exhibition title takes as its conceit the “glitter” of both the social milieu depicted in Cavaglieri’s work and the manner in which it was painted. Born to wealthy parents, Cavaglieri filled his paintings with members of the upper class and their trappings: fashionable young women (and, though they appear less frequently, men) strike poses in opulent interiors laden with exotica. It is said that Cavaglieri wore a tuxedo while he painted. Whether this is true or not is beside the point: it’s a memorable image that captures this aspect of his “glitter.”
The “glitter” of Cavaglieri’s painting, however, is more problematic. Enamored of the work of the Intimists and not blind to the major art of his time, Cavaglieri never fully grasped the nuances of painting. His notion of painting was to fill the spaces with gusto and a loaded brush. Cavaglieri obviously loved the physicality of oils, often squeezing paint directly from the tube onto the canvas. This excessive painterliness is not uninteresting, and works best when Cavaglieri concentrates on finicky detail work. The cake-frosting treatment of an ornately patterned tablecloth in Romanticism (1915) has the vitality of someone genuinely having fun; it’s an oddly affecting, if vulgar, bit of painting. But, for the most part, Cavaglieri’s “action” painting is illustrative.
As a social portraitist, Cavaglieri was incompetent. The figures in his work are stiffly rendered, almost amateurish. Incapable of plumbing the personalities of his sitters, Cavaglieri was, perhaps, too timid to attempt the stylization of the human form his work seems to call for. (Comparisons to Klimt and Matisse are inevitable and telling.) When he tried psychological narrative, as in the self-explanatory Before the Engagement Was Broken Off (1918), the results are embarrassing. In her catalogue essay, Emily Braun of Hunter College assails Cavaglieri’s depiction of women, equating his impastoed portrayals with their being “subordinated” into objects. She has a point: the women (and men) in his paintings are little more than mannequins. Yet, one feels this has less to do with Cavaglieri’s attitude toward women than it does with the fact that he simply could not draw very well.
Not surprisingly, Cavaglieri’s most successful paintings are those in which no figures appear. In his paintings of interiors, he seems to have relished being freed from depicting the human form. Indeed, in Chinese Vases with an Indian Carpet (1915) and An Indian Carpet with Chinese Idols (1914) he approaches a certain mastery, particularly in his rendering of carpets. Whether he responded to their rhythmic patterns or to working from a predetermined image, Cavaglieri painted carpets with conviction. Here his swirls of impasto no longer sit inertly on the canvas—they gain life as painting. But his is a small achievement. Indeed, Mario Cavaglieri: The Glittering Years 1912–1922 is proof that, at times, it is far kinder to consign some painters to historical obscurity than it is to bring them to light.
© 1994 Mario Naves
Originally published in the November 1994 edition of The New Criterion.