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, 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, 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, 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, costume for his ballet Vita dell’Uomo, 1951, pencil and watercolour on paper
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, 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, 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, tempera on masonite, 1950