is very difficult, in fact, in making a proper assessment of Annigoni, to separate the
painter from the man, which is not always the case with other artists. This is possibly
the reason why a lot of the great many things written about him have turned out to be so
trivial and misleading.
One needs to remember, indeed, that while he
chose painting as his most vital means of expression, and while he owes his fame ot this
primary activity, Annigoni was also a sculptor, an engraver, an architect and writer, as
well as being a great lover of music, theatre, philosophy and every other branch of what
we think of as "the arts".
Nor was he content with making use of books,
museums, galleries and whatever the increasingly sophisticated modern media could offer
him, but he was also a tireless traveller, whether going on foot or using the various
other means of transport, and he moved from one continent to another with an attitude that
was never that of a tourist, but rather that of an explorer, driven by a thirst for
knowledge and intent upon treating every journey as an opportunity for inner development
and artistic enrichment.
It was "man" himself , in fact,
with his triumphs and contradictions, his multiplicity of languages and cultures, and his
sufferings, which was the mainspring of Annigoni’s inspiration. His own experiences
as a man and as an artist were fused indissolubly in the concept of "man", which
enabled him to preserve a difficult balance between a personal and emotional involvement
in what was going on around him and the aristocratic aloofness of a detached observer.
Aside from the portraits, in which
Annigoni’s interest in humanity and psychological analysis is directly evident, his
output is also rich in nature and landscape subjects, which are hardly ever an end in
themselves, but which convey, whether implicitly or explicitly, an anthropocentric
Even in his religious subjects, which despite
his fundamental scepticism fascinated him to the extent that the whole cycle of his
frescoes is dedicated to them, the human element predominates over the divine. Or rather,
what characterises these works especially is man’s struggle to transcend pain through
the instrument of a faith which remains, in the end, unattainable.
Thus Annigoni was a cultivated man, always
questing and eager for knowledge, eclectic, given to experimenting, impatient, inclined at
times to overexercise his physical energy and intellectual powers, a natural
revolutionary, but at the same time a firm exemplar of those values which he regarded as
fundamental and in whose service he was always willing to subjects himself to an iron
self-discipline. Annigoni derived his philosophical ideas from Benedetto Croce, whilst
allowing himself the freedom to evolve. In politics he shared Croce’s repudiation of
the Fascist regime and of Nazism, in social terms he inherited his concern for the
underprivileged together with his indifference to worldly success, and above all, in the
sphere of art, he took over Croce’s conception of the indissoluble link between
aesthetics and ethics.
The fundamental reason why Annigoni chose
the figurative mode and put drawing first - in spite of a supreme technical ability which
would have allowed him to adopt any other style he wished - was the inner conviction that
only in the figurative dimension can the artist take full responsibility for what he wants
to say, without demanding an ideological commitment from the observer in addition to his
attention (see Pietro Annigoni, "Saggio sul disegno", "Essay on
drawing", ed. Il Fauno, Florence, 1972). But at this point I am happy to let
Annigoni speak for himself, using the words he wrote in 1945, when he published his first
catalogue at the age of little over 30. In this piece of writing he defined his
position and expressed his commitment to a figurative style with a lucidity and a rigour
to which he would always stay true, even though the price of such fidelity was a deep
sense of isolation which success and the public limelight would never really mitigate.
So, here I am, with pen in hand, but reluctantly so, since it is not really in words that
I would want to give an account of myself, even though I am conscious that the fruits of
my labour have so far not attained such a level as would render any account of them
superfluous on the grounds that my various works could speak sufficiently for themselves.
And then, assuming I must use words, it will be difficult for me to avoid sounding
contentious and even impertinent if I am to deal with my work by setting it in the context
of its time. It goes
without saying that I feel vitally involved in what is happening; on the other hand I
realise that my work, incomplete as it is, stands in such sharp contrast to the prevailing
contemporary trends in art as to appear quite out of date. But while my work is informed
by the reverent and "nostalgic" admiration I have for the tremendous skill of
the old masters - that skill which enabled them to make the great statements we are all
familiar with, and thereby to nourish and inspire my own work by their example - at the
same time I still have my own personal need to communicate human stories and situations
according to the dictates of my own life experience working through my imagination.
One should not simply imagine that I feel
estranged and cut off from what is going on around me. On the contrary, I have followed
and continue to follow with great interest all forms of contemporary art, both in Italy
and abroad , and I am always, as it were, listening. There was a song that I could hear
swelling strong in Piccio and through to Renoir, and then taking on a more discordant and
ambiguous quality in Cézanne, the harbinger of a new academy, and I can still hear the
echoes of that song today, fleetingly but unmistakably, in the restless moods of Carena,
for example, or dissolving in the surreal atmosphere of De Chirico, or fading away into
the pale silences of Soffici. Or again, while I can easily resist the sterile attempts
that there have been to go back by convenient and undemanding routes to a misconceived
primitivism, I can readily accept that there are certain rare utterances by Tosi, and
Morandi, and De Pisis, which to the initiated can offer exquisite sensations and sometimes
the distilled essences of pure poetry. To tell the truth, there have been times when I was
intensely attracted by the full, free sound of these siren voices, except that what made
me uneasy in the end was this unrestrained freedom of theirs, which absolved them from the
need to abide by principles which now more than ever I hold to be absolute and
ineluctable. My instinctive diffidence was reinforced by the suspicion that one had to
look here for the source of something which, in the end, by proceeding unchecked, has the
effect of stunting their development and confining them to a little world in which they go
on imitating and, at the last, wearily repeating themselves.
situation has come about, today, in the domain of art, and sometimes an embarrassing one
also, as if, to use an analogy, they had decided to abolish the horse-drawn tram in its
day without having the electric tram available to replace it. It would seem that the need
for self-renewal, which never fails mankind, has played a nasty trick on us this time, by
encouraging a few bold spirits to cast off the traditional baggage before venturing
bravely into the unknown, driven not so much by a bright faith in their new cause, but
more perhaps by a despairing reaction against the monotonous work of all those who were
content to reduce the splendours achieved by the great masters to an empty and sometimes
In venturing on towards the unknown these
brave new souls have blurred truth and falsehood in their disdain for the past and have
neglected those hard won advances in method which ought to have sustained them and pushed
them forward in their efforts.
As far as I am concerned, the only new
experiences which are important to me, and which spur me on, are my feelings of joy or
despair, the emotions and enthusiasms which occur in the life I have been granted, in the
world I can call my own. But I am not sure that the word "new" can be applied to
the commitment to follow one’s own instincts or, more fundamentally, to the sheer
concentration always on drawing, in the effort to give a genuine reality to the parts and
a logical harmony to the whole.
With this purpose, with this belief in the
possibility of recapturing something of the wonder of our past tradition and of the sense
of craftsmanship that has, unfortunately, been lost, I have worked hard and without
compromise up to the present time, in the kind of isolation that usually frightens young
artists. But the more I am able to master the practical techniques that a certain kind of
poetic fervour seeks to discredit, the more clearly will I be able to express the vital
certainty of my lyrical inner world.
I would add, in this connection, that I
cannot help but smile whenever people criticise or praise me for having too much talent.
Such people will not or cannot understand that there is another and greater kind of talent
that I stand in need of, by which I mean the talent for using hand and eye. If talent is a
thing to be understood in different ways, evidently the others do not realise that their
more fashionable brushwork is much more talented than mine.
For the real human story that I want to tell
I shall therefore renounce all choiceness of vocabulary in favour of a common language
which can be understood by the majority, but which is not, I would argue, to be considered
strained of deficient because of this.
So I can conclude, now that I have said too
much in words. The things that are most dear to me I shall hope to be able to express more
clearly, as clearly as I humanly can, using my pencil and brush" (Extract from
Pietro Annigoni, Ed. Gonnelli, Florence, 1945)
Benedetto and Pietro Annigoni
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