September 09, 2007

Alberto Savinio

Objets dans la forêt by Alberto Savinio, 1928

Objets dans la forêt, oil on canvas, 1928

Italian polymath Alberto Savinio (1891-1952) left a large body of work in painting, music and literature which is highly regarded at home but little known in the English-speaking world, in spite of a few translations and exhibitions.

Souvenir d'un monde disparu by Alberto Savinio, 1928

Souvenir d'un monde disparu, oil on canvas, 1928

Brother of the better known Giorgio De Chirico, he shared with him the early phases of life: childhood in Greece, studies in Germany and participation in the Paris avantgarde circles.

The whole of the modern myth still in process of formation is founded on two bodies of work—Alberto Savinio’s and his brother Giorgio de Chirico’s—that are almost indistinguishable in spirit and that reached their zenith on the eve of the war of 1914.
(André Breton, Anthology of Black Humour, 1937.)
La cité des promesses by Alberto Savinio, 1928

La cité des promesses, oil on canvas, 1928

Close enough to be nicknamed I Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux), later the two diverged to the point that Savinio wrote ‘[in death] my brother and I will find each other the way we were twenty years ago, when nothing divided us yet and we shared the same thoughts’ (from the introduction to Casa ‘La Vita’, 1942).

Niobe by Alberto Savinio

Niobe, tempera on canvas

While his output was protean from early on, Savinio seemed to focus on different media in different periods of his life. ‘My interest in the various forms of expression does not privilege any one of them. I go from one to the other the way people used to change horses at the posting house. My undivided love is for something that lies beyond all forms’.

Donna coniugale by Alberto Savinio, 1951

Donna coniugale, costume for his ballet Vita dell’Uomo, 1951, pencil and watercolour on paper

Le Angiole Infermiere by Alberto Savinio, 1941

Le Angiole Infermiere, pen and ink on paper, 1941

After studying piano in Athens and composition with Max Reger in Berlin, Savinio seemed destined to a career in music. His early compositions seem to have made quite the impression in Paris avantgarde circles. Modern recordings of Savinio’s music exist, but I doubt they do justice to the composer’s own fiery performances:

I was surprised and beguiled; Savinio mistreated his instrument so much that after each piece the keyboard had to be cleared of chips and splinters. I foresee that within two years he will have gutted every piano in Paris. Savinio will then go on to destroy every piano in the universe, which may be a true liberation.
(Guillaume Apollinaire in Mercure de France, June 1, 1914)

Later he moved away from music yet he never abandoned it completely. Like other musician-writers (Sorabji and Gould come to mind) his music criticism is witty and idiosyncratic; it is a shame that it is not available in English.

Il fiume by Alberto Savinio, 1950

Il fiume, tempera on masonite, 1950

As a painter Savinio was more or less self-taught, except of course for his close connection to his brother. I will let the images speak for themselves, except for noting his early predilection for ‘painted collages’ that quote freely from sources both high and low (such as The World before the Deluge or Zur Geschichte Der Costüme), often reproducing the original’s texture: a photograph’s sepia tone, a folk print’s broad cross-hatching, a map’s bold outlines, etc.

Il sonno di Eva by Alberto Savinio, 1941-42

Il sonno di Eva, mosaic after a cartoon by Savinio, 1941-41

Savinio wrote a lot and in many different forms. English traslations are heavy on his early ‘surrealist’ writing at the expense of later essays, fiction, theatre and less classifiable items such as Nuova Enciclopedia. A good place to start is The Tragedy of Childhood, a quasi-memoir that romantically sides with children as the eternally defeated soldiers of imagination and poetry:

If you, an adult, wish to be consistent with the proposition you keep hidden within yourself, you should trace this warning with charcoal on the foreheads of expectant mothers: ‘Attention! Here lies danger!’
Monumento marino ai miei genitori by Alberto Savinio, 1950

Monumento marino ai miei genitori, tempera on masonite, 1950

Posted by michelangelo at September 9, 2007 11:59 PM

Wow. I wish I could offer a more articulate comment and maybe mumble something about futurism, but: wow.

Posted by: Michael on September 10, 2007 12:47 AM

Many thanks, michelangelo—I had no idea that Savinio & De Chirico were brothers. For those curious about Savinio’s music, I have uploaded a few tracks from the futurismusic: piano anthology 1 CD—L’homme chauve et l’homme jeune, and L’éxecution du Général, both from the six-part suite Les chants de la mi-mort (The Songs of Semi-death); and Serenata. In the liner notes of the CD, Daniele Lombardi writes of Les chants de la mi-mort that ‘In 1914 Savinio brought this suite to Paris for the Soirées Musicales organized by Guillame Apollinaire, and the newspapers reported of a performance of unheard-of violence, in which the composer stood at the instrument with bleeding hands!’

Posted by: misteraitch on September 10, 2007 08:56 AM

Another great surprise, misteraitch. I was aware of Savinio as a writer and painter, but I know nothing of his music. Paris saw terrific performances those years: Rite of Spring, Parade, etc...

Posted by: C. Rancio on September 10, 2007 07:06 PM

Wow, what a range of imagination Savinio had. I had never heard of him before. Thanks for the introduction.

Posted by: Christopher on September 11, 2007 10:28 AM

Thanks for introducing me to this artist! And the brother of De Chirico no less! I'm going to mention this post on MB this Wednesday.

Posted by: Aeron on September 11, 2007 03:45 PM

I was aware of Savinio, but only as the lesser known brother of De Chirico and author of Lives of the Gods (which I've owned for a few years and still haven't read). I had no idea he was also a painter and a composer.

Posted by: Scott on September 12, 2007 12:23 AM

I think I should provide a translation of the paintings' titles. They are, in order of appearance:

  • Objects in the forest

  • Souvenir (or remembrance) of a vanished world

  • The city of promises

  • Niobe

  • The married woman

  • The angel nurses

  • The river

  • Eve's sleep

  • Marine monument to my parents

Posted by: Michelangelo on September 12, 2007 03:32 PM

Someone should write the history of instrument smashing: Savinio, the Fluxus jokers, Hendryx, Townshend, Annea Lockwood, etc. Sounds like this guy is the daddy of them all.

Posted by: Sixpack Chopra on September 13, 2007 02:22 PM

De Chirico is artist whom art i find beautiful, condense and enigmatic. i had no idea he had a brother, and such a talented one. thanks for this post.

Posted by: moon on September 14, 2007 12:38 AM

Thanks for this post. The signature paintings of De Chirico -- those we think of when we think of Pittura Metafisica -- were done during a very short, early period of his long life. It's interesting to consider the two brothers together as painters once De Chirico left Pittura Metafisica behind, for there is indeed a dialogue, despite their having had a parting of the ways.

Posted by: Elatia Harris on October 1, 2007 04:52 AM

cool site. really good info about Alberto Savinio.

Posted by: megan on October 15, 2007 09:12 PM

I just found this excerpt, quoting Savinio, I noted from Enrique Vila-Matas’ novel Montano:

…Has anyone ever been intelligent? Alberto Savinio said that complete, balanced intelligence has always been a special case. And he added: ‘The effort made by man to climb the steps of intelligence is so painful, so desparate… The damages resulting from an incomplete intelligence are so much greater than those arising from frank and submissive stupidity.’
We whould doubt the usefulness and real value of such prized intelligence, prized intelligence because it doesn’t actually exist. The very fact that some of us—not all of us—search after intelligence simply goes to show that it isn’t natural, it isn’t human, it isn’t of this world. […] ‘Intelligence,’ says Savinio, ‘is the holy Grail, but stupidity, that Cinderella, poor, modest, despised, vilified stupidity, is what the true, spontaneous, lasting love of man in the end returns to.’ Savinio thinks that man, even in metaphysics, divides his affection between intelligence (the lover, the holy Grail) and supidity (the wife or consort). After all the deceptions of intelligence, it is she, good, magnanimous stupidity, who consoles us deeply.
Stupidity is loyal and constant, we have known her from time immemorial, she awaits us in the sweet home to share with us, with imposing resignation, the colossal misfortune not to be intelligent.

Posted by: misteraitch on October 18, 2007 12:40 PM
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