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Giuseppe Capogrossi at GNAM in Rome: a life journey to abstraction

Updated: May 11, 2023

From tomorrow September 20, the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea in Rome pays a tribute to Italian artist Giuseppe Capogrossi (1900-1972), major figure of the Italian Twentieth Century Art, with an exhibition curated by Francesca Romana Morelli and promoted by Fondazione Archivio Capogrossi on the 50th anniversary of the artist's death.

The Italian institution owns the most important collection of the artist's works, from the figurative and tonal season of the 1930s to the iconic Superfici of the Informal period, a new production that was presented for the first time at the Galleria del Secolo in Rome in 1950.

At Galleria del Secolo he was introduced by his friend and fellow artist Corrado Cagli with whom Capogrossi had initially shared together with a third painter, Emanuele Cavalli, an important part of his professional journey as a figurative painter. But Capogrossi's vision of the arts has always been very rigorous, strictly based - as he himself would later recall in the margins of the exhibition of 1968 Recent Italian Painting & Sculpture at the Jewish Museum in New York - on line, form and colour.

We find the painter Cavalli protagonist as well as Capogrossi of the Self-portrait of 1927, a composition of extreme formal synthesis, dominated by the strong light contrast between the dark tones of Capogrossi's shirt in the foreground and the brighter tones of the faces and of the background. These were the years in which the artist, divided between the frequent travels to Paris and the participation in the Venice Biennale (1934 and 1936) and in the two Rome Quadriennale Exhibitions (1935 and 1939), focused on the tonal quality of the painting, in the chromatic impasto, arousing both approval and disapproval from the art critic of the time.

As explained by Giovanna Bonasegale in 2010, "Colour, bent to the needs of space, becomes in turn form and assumes a symbolic significance".

Giuseppe Capogrossi, Autoritratto con Emanuele Cavalli, 1927 circa. Private Collection

The following decade saw the artist at work with a greater expressive freedom on a few themes such as female figures, still lifes and landscapes. Decisive in the process of geometrization of form and progressive abandonment of figuration was a stay in Austria in 1949, the year in which the oil and tempera on cardboard Surface 028 was executed in Salzburg, where the zero is meant to be a rebirth, a tabula rasa, but above all a new formal classification.

Giuseppe Capogrossi, Le due chitarre (verso), 1948. Credit: Galleria Nazionale

So if previously was the colour, after the war is the sign to develop the painting's vocabulary, as a repeated and recognizable, but always varied, half-circle shape: vertically and tightly arranged such as in Superficie 419 of 1950 or later, wider and dynamic such as in the extraordinary Superficie 600 of 1960.

In 1954, Capogrossi was exhibited again at the Venice Biennale: a personal room with eighteen paintings from 1950 onwards and presentation by Michel Tapié.

1954 is also the year in which Capogrossi experiments with the oval format, according to the critic Fagiolo Dell'Arco a proof that "even an external datum such as the support can structurally enter into the figuration".

Giuseppe Capogrossi, Superficie 419, 1950. Private Collection

Giuseppe Capogrossi, Superficie 600, 1960. Credit: Galleria Nazionale

Surface 188 from 1957, today in a private collection, is oval as well: the painting belonged to the London based art critic Roland Penrose (1900 - 1984), painter, patron and art collector. One of the leading figures of the British Surrealist movement, Penrose was the owner of the London Gallery and founder of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) where in June 1957 Capogrossi exhibited twenty paintings, fostered by Carlo Cardazzo.

The brilliant Venetian gallerist, owner of Il Cavallino in Venice and Il Naviglio in Milan, signed at the time an exclusive contract with the artist and started the promotion and market of Capogrossi's production on an international level.

Giuseppe Capogrossi, Superficie 188, 1957. Private Collection

The exhibition closes with a room dedicated to the Rilievi bianchi, colourless white reliefs of the 1960s, and the famous tapestry Astratto (1963), designed for the cruise ship Michelangelo.


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