Against Seriousness

Alberto Savinio

an exhibition at the Center for Italian Modern Art, New York City, October 6, 2017–June 23, 2018
GAM, Torino/G. Rampazzi/© 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS)/SIAE, Rome
Alberto Savinio: Self-Portrait as an Owl, 1936

Alberto Savinio, the hidden spring of metaphysical modernism, lives on in his Self-Portrait as an Owl (1936). His face, with its marked eyebrows, dark eyes, thin lips, and air of melancholic diffidence, sketched in swirling feathers, resembles that of his brother, Giorgio de Chirico, who did a pencil drawing of the two siblings—or Dioscuri, as they liked to call themselves, after the mythical twins Castor and Pollux—at the start of their working life in Paris, one as a musician, the other as an artist. In Self-Portrait, Savinio wears a dark suit, and his shapely hand, the thumb hooked over a waistcoat button, takes up one fifth of the image. The scarf wound around his neck partly conceals a feathered chest (see illustration on page 29).

In his autobiographical novel, Childhood of Nivasio Dolcemare (“Nivasio” is an anagram of “Savinio” and dolce mare means “sweet sea”), Savinio wrote that the “singularity” of his alter ego “was so discreet, so secret, so subcutaneous, that on the surface nothing transpired and might easily have been mistaken for the most blatant normality.” André Breton, in his Anthology of Black Humor, baldly stated that “the basis of all modern myth still coming into being is founded on two bodies of work, Alberto Savinio’s and that of his brother Giorgio de Chirico, almost indistinguishable in spirit, that reached their climax on the eve of the 1914 war.”

Savinio, the younger brother, was a composer who wrote novels and stories, as well as essays on literature, art, theater, opera, and ballet. He was also a stage and costume designer. And he was a painter. That’s the side of him on view at the Center for Italian Modern Art (CIMA), in Soho, where twenty-five of his rarely seen works are on display. There are two galleries at CIMA: the larger one holds depictions of toy-like forms, the smaller one Savinio’s portraits of his family.

Savinio said of his paintings that they were “born even before they were painted.” Most of those in this show were made between 1926 and 1936, during his second stay in Paris, although two small lithographs are from 1945 and 1946. In one of these, My Parents (1945), his mother and father have become stone armchairs, very expressive ones, with just one eye each. The mother’s chest looks pubescent above an exposed ribcage, her arms replaced by a rolled upholstery trim, her head the skull of a camel or a horse. The father is headless, an expansive chest grafted onto an armchair with one immense, mournful eye staring out of it. The shadows they cast consist of dense handwritten lines that narrate a brief story of their lives: “My mother was called Gemma, she sang with a beautiful mezzo-soprano voice.” In his father’s shadow, Savinio…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.