On ViewThe Center For Italian Modern Art
Marino Marini: Arcadian Nudes
October 17, 2019 – June 13, 2020
Marino Marini (1901 –1980) led a 20th-century life. He was the portrait sculptor of the era. His postwar horsemen are perhaps the most credible monuments of the Western world’s near-death experience and shaken conscience. Sophisticated decoration as well: Bogart had one in his office in Sabrina (1954). But before the celebrated horses, work in an entirely different key, the “arcadian nudes” now to be seen at the Center for Italian Modern Art, were at the very germ of his achievement.
The exhibition could well have been titled Nudes Interrupted, or Nudes from Dark Times. These approximately 30 figures, all sizes, all women, made between 1932 and 1949, were born under Fascism. In 1942 the artist and his wife were bombed out of both home and studio, and they crossed the Swiss frontier to Tenero, where Marini continued this work in exile. The peace, when it came at last, soon soured. The ground under the barefoot Nude crumbled. She required a security of place and person Europe had forfeited, and though the artist hardly knew it at the time, Marini came home without her.
The exhibition is an eye-opener, in part because, quite as Marini had feared, this kind of thing just isn’t done anymore. These figures come to us from another world, although it really wasn’t so long ago. We are now accustomed to objects that are just that, but here every “piece” is a person. Here, whatever the subject, one regards and respects the object as if it would look back, turn around, and look for her clothes. They are us.
In our era, nakedness is a sometime thing. These nudes are caught in the baldly offhand undress of contemporary life, hair half-wet, maybe just untowelled, and look at us as they might see themselves in the bathroom mirror. Marini’s Pomonas (an Etruscan plenty-spirit), though ostensibly divine, are also such women; his Susannas tiredly resent our gaze. They have rather the tone of an Alberto Moravia novel than the Old Testament story. The untitled chubby figures lying on terracotta plaques, like small loaves seemingly warm to the touch, might be studio models on break, covering up somewhat for five personal minutes, and falling asleep.
The Center for Italian Modern Art is loft-like. It feels as much a gracious domicile as a foundation-cum-Kunsthalle: the largest exhibition space has a fireplace and sofas. On the mantel, inside a bell jar, propped on a cork, is Marini’s own plaster replica of the so-called Venus of Willendorf. Only 4 3/8 inches high, she was the portable goddess of other people’s dark times. Nearby hangs Willem de Kooning’s Woman (painting on paper, 1952-53), astonishingly Willendorf-ish, more tender than usual, less manic, still menacing. The juxtaposition opens the otherwise intimate exhibition, so much like an at-home studio visit, out to the transatlantic world, where another postwar modern (these two met in New York) also reached for the stubbiest code of naked humanity, and rather than voicing it like a prayer, muttered it like a curse.
Marini held his little Venus while he made the big Pomona (1941), perhaps the core of this exhibition). A modern and a skeptic, he could not have been more serious about her divinity. We see it, as he could feel it in both hands. Stand close to her, as close as you would to your most intimate partner, or as a child to the woman who made you: she is not more than life-size, but she has the planetary gravity of a whole world, and the airy balance of an astronomical body in space, immeasurable and dainty. And perhaps permanent. Perhaps stronger than what we’ve done to her. This nude says maybe the world can go on. Once, it was a promise.
This celestial body is also a mural, scribbled over by every tool that crossed it: fingers, mallets, spatulas, chisels, knives, maybe even a saw. Modeled sculpture is always a palimpsest, but these marks were crisscrossed, when the artist returned, business unfinished, to chatter again over the interior of the mold. Marini’s scrawl is as unique as his extraordinary sense of volume, over which he writes. He is his own vandal. With the effort of handwriting, but no words. What had to be said? I found this. “Creation” amounts to sgraffito: find something and scratch it. Scratched over the nude, it says, of us, for us, to us.
Every piece in this exhibition has a private line of descent to the littlest Venus. Though considerably larger, each has some of the vulnerability of a very small thing. Even the foot-high figures would seem mounded snugly enough to cuddle inside a hand. And each figure tropes somewhere on a spectrum between Willendorf-come-hither and Willendorf-modesty. Was she a brazen goddess or a downcast Susanna? All tweak Kenneth Clark’s dichotomy of the naked and the nude. They say the Nude is naked, nakedness very often requires some vestige of humor (Marini’s easy, never malicious, often rueful fig leaf that covers warmly enough), and that after 1939 undress is all too often distress.
After 1949 Marini found he could not make another nude. He didn’t explain why: maybe he didn’t notice when exactly she became impossible. He went to horses. The last thing one learns about Marini is that later in life he did not hesitate to say, perhaps without pessimism, something rather strange: “Quite seriously, I believe that we are approaching the end of the world.” Of course, we know he hadn’t seen anything yet. Today we could recognize him anew, as an undarkened spirit in darkening times, and the first great sculptor of the early Denaissance.