Venice is holding a major exhibition on Felice Carena (Cumiana, Turin 1879 – Venice, 1966), who was an undisputed figure of prominence in the Italian Novecento. It is a tribute to a
Piedmont artist who chose to spend the last but fertile years of his career in Venice.
Promoted by the Regione del Veneto, the Istituto Veneto di Scienze Lettere ed Arti and the Arthemisia Group, the Felice Carena and the Venetian years exhibition will take place in the
prestigious Palazzo Franchetti from 27 March to 18 July 2010. The recognition of artists with links to Venice thus continues, after the Zoran Music exhibition in the same venue which ended on 7 March, with the rediscovery of Felice Carena, a great painter who has long been absent from the exhibition scene.
Fifteen years after the Turin exhibition of 1996, this exhibition is the first important occasion for rediscovering and reappraising the maestro with an updated critical reading, focusing on the Venetian years and retracing his long painting career, rich in references and constantly developing stylistic solutions.
The exhibition brings together more than 90 works from major Italian museums and private
collections, tracing the parabola of an artistic career that unwinds from the early years in Turin to the tormenting Pietà and the sumptuous Still Lifes of the final years. It is being curated by Virginia Baradel and coordinated by Stefano Cecchetto, with a prestigious scientific committee of Luigi Cavallo, Elena Pontiggia, Nico Stringa and Virginia Baradel.
The exhibition is laid out like a picture gallery, to which the scenic rooms of the Palazzo Franchetti are well suited. A selection of masterpieces and exemplary works in chronological order shows the different periods of Felice Carena’s career in order to then demonstrate the originality and singular quality of the painting in his Venetian period.
The first section is devoted to the initial, overly refined and shadowy period, tinged with symbolism and languid sentimentality. These were the Turin years when the artist assimilated the style of Grosso and the more congruent one of Bistolfi and Segantini. Some masterpieces from the first decade of the twentieth century are brought together here, such as The Pearl (1908) and the Portrait of Baroness Ferrero (1910), along with various unshown works like
Sister’s Portrait of 1901 and Violinist of 1905. There are then the two celebrated paintings The Uprising (1904) and the monumental The Wayfarers (1908), respectively from the Accademia di Belle Arti, Rome, and the Gallerie d’Arte Moderna, Udine, which mark the move from late- Romantic refinement to the literary fervour of the social statement in his first years in Rome.
At that time his naturalism took on a new accent and moved from the classical canon to an increasingly coarse, rugged, expressive realism. This is exemplified by paintings that have made him famous, such as School (1927-1928), which won the Carnegie Prize in Pittsburg in 1929, The Mirror (1928), from the Galleria d’Arte Moderna, Genova, , The Terrace (1929), from the Gallerie d’Arte Moderna, Udine, The Family (1929), from the Galleria Comunale d'Arte Moderna, Rome, and Masked Figure (1932) and Bathers (1938), from the Museo Rimoldi in Cortina. The real gem of this section is the extraordinary Deposition (known also as Pietà and shown at the 1940 Biennale) from the Vatican Museum’s collection of modern religious art (bought by Count Cini and then given to Paul VI), specially loaned for the Venice exhibition.
This section also has the two masterpieces People’s Theatre (1933) from the Galleria d’arte Moderna in Milan and Man Sleeping (1938) from the Galleria Comunale, Rome. The section is closed by Dogali (1936), the artist’s only concession to fascist rhetoric, which aroused bitter controversy at the 1936 Biennale because the dead were tormenting and not heroic. This painting was cut into pieces by Carena himself, though he left the magnificent central nucleus intact, which was found only recently after careful research and has therefore never before been shown.
In the fifth section, the tribute to Delacroix with Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1939), from the Gallerie d’Arte Moderna in Udine, and Tobias and the Angel (1940), is followed by some paintings from the turn of the fourth decade, culminating in the important exhibition at the Michelangelo gallery in Florence in 1943, the only sole exhibition held in his first adopted city that saw his rise as a painter and as director of the Academy. Carena tends now towards full light, foreshadowing some of the work of his subsequent Venetian period. Some of the paintings here have never been previously shown, like Flight into Egypt (c. 1940), where warm shades of red and yellow enhance the delicate dynamism of the group of pilgrims, The Angel Awakening the Shepherds (1940), The Rape of the Sabine Women (1942) and The Conversion of Saul, in which the animation is more frenzied and the colours softer and more contrasted.
The sixth section presents a series of previously unshown paintings that mark the artist’s move to Venice. Works like Exodus (1943), Rain of Fire (1943), The Parting of the Red Sea, Bust of Marzia (1946), Self Portrait (1947) and Bathers show the use of paint as pure chromatic material, less and less bound by the line, while the sign becomes freer and more concise. An increasingly dense and sinuous line and even brighter colour typify the works from the end of the 1940s, in which the artist seems to look to Daumier, transforming his popular, mythological or Biblical heroes into grotesque and highly dramatic figures, whether they be Cain and Abel, Judith and Holofernes (1946-48) or a simple Shepherd (1970).
This is the line asserted in the 1950s, here presented in the seventh section, when Carena reaches the nadir of his religious tension; the sign is now vibrant and the colour vehement and macerated. The figure of man and of Christ on the cross draw nearer to one another. The Christ of the last versions of the Pietà, and with him every man who recognises himself in the carnage of Calvary, becomes the cardinal figure of the pain and abandon that were expertly interpreted by Carena in his Venetian period. The People’s Theatre (1952) from Ca’ Pesaro, the Pietà from the Galleria Civica in Vittorio Veneto and Anguish (1956) from the Marzotto Collection are works of intense expressionism.
The exhibition ends with the eighth section, where the still lifes are gathered, as if in an ideal place of purification. The spirit of the artist seems to find calm in the Venetian light. Inspired by Tiepolo and, equally, by his contemporary Morandi, Carena fuses material and light in the solid, highly symbolic bodies of his still lifes dominated by shells. He keeps the sumptuousness and solemnity of the Baroque vein alive in the chromatic weave of the paint, while in calibrating the composition he tends towards a meditated synthesis that unifies space, light and material. It is in this context that the colours are given back the gleam of gemstones, that recondite splendour that translates Felice Carena’s incessant and pulsating love of life into the painting of every age.
Venice thus becomes the prism through which the entire history of Felice Carena’s painting can be re-read. Alongside his great admirers there were also hostile critics, who contested the large number of references and lack of compositional consistency in his work. The exhibition and the essays in the Marsilio catalogue bring to light his unmistakeable personal style and debunk the idea of an aging artist, suffering and turned in on himself, because his biographical twilight led to the attainment of new goals, through untiring and intensive research.