Fig. 1 – Fortunato Depero, Pagliaccetti, 1918, Oil on canvas, 61 x 65 cm. On the back, handwritten inscription: “DEPERO / PAGLIACCETTI 1918 / L. 500.”
Among the lots featured in Cambi Auction House’s Live auction dedicated to Modern and Contemporary Art scheduled for July 5, 2023, is the iconic work Pagliaccetti (1918) by Fortunato Depero (see fig. 1).
An Italian painter, sculptor, designer, illustrator, set and costume designer, Depero (1892-1960) was one of the most brilliant and revolutionary personalities of the 20th century. He was one of the signers of the Aeropittura manifesto and representative of the so-called Second Futurism. A brilliant mind capable of declining his passion for the plastic arts into different forms and languages of expression, and applying it to the everydayness of life.
But let us start from the origins. As Paolo Baldacci explains in the catalog entry accompanying the work (approved by Maurizio Scudiero, Italian art historian and leading Depero scholar), the artist, a subject of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had left Rovereto at the end of 1913 with his partner Rosetta and moved to Rome, where he would remain for a long time except for a brief interlude as a volunteer at the front, interrupted by illness.
It was in Rome that his genius exploded, in contact with Giacomo Balla, with whom he conceived the Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe, giving life to incredible polymateric and colorful mobile constructions and sculptures. The Futurist movement moved into a second phase in which the need for total art aspired to influence many aspects of existence through a radical transformation of the environment: from furniture to fashion, from film to theater, from music to dance, from advertising posters to the design of the utilitarian object.
Even Sergei Diaghilev sensed his enormous inventive abilities and commissioned him to create the plastic scenery of abstract magical flora for Stravinsky’s Le chant du rossignol, and then put him alongside Picasso to create the costumes and sets for Parade.
“It was during those years that Depero met and became great friends with Swiss architect, writer and archaeologist Gilbert Clavel (1883-1927), who introduced him to Capri and Positano and inspired him with the magic of the places where he had chosen to live, ancient mysterious towers clinging to the rock, full of stairs and surprises,” Paolo Baldacci continues.
“Thanks to Capri’s climate, but especially to its sunsets-during which all possible shades from yellow to violet can be observed-and to the diffused light from the sky and reflected from the sea, Depero discovers new, previously unknown hues. It is thus that a new, and in some ways unprecedented, chromatic approach to reality takes shape, resulting in a palette that is more decisive and broadened in the chromatic spectrum.” Maurizio Scudiero himself explains in the related filing.
During their stay Depero and Clavel conceived the Balli plastici, in which the dancers are replaced by wooden puppets dancing to avant-garde music, and which were staged in the spring of 1918 at the Teatro dei Piccoli in Rome.
Fig. 2 – Poster
The action was performed by puppets with rigid, mechanical movements that evoked a magical childhood dream world, accompanied by the avant-garde music of Alfredo Casella, Gerald Tyrwhitt, Francesco Malipiero and Bela Bartok (under the nickname Chemenov).
Fig. 3 – Rome exhibition leaflet, April 1918
Clown dances were one of the main elements of the representation, also evoked in Depero’s poster depicting the first “Clown” and “The Man with the Moustache.” The other main characters were “The Savages [red and black]” (reproduced on the cover of the newspaper “Il Mondo” of April 27, 1918) and “The Blue Bear”, as well as several other dancers and animals.
Fig. 4 – The Savages (red and black), oil on canvas
It was precisely on the occasion of the premiere of Plastic Dances that an exhibition of works and projects related to the current event was organized in the Foyer of the theater, where Pagliaccetti was certainly included. Among the paintings made before April 1918, Pagliaccetti is one of those that include the same scenic elements that we find somewhat modified in the work I miei Balli Plastici of summer 1918 (see fig. 5).
Fig. 5 – My Plastic Dances, detail (painted in Viareggio in the summer of 1918)
The closest and most immediate reference to Pagliaccetti’s work, especially for the central character, seems to be the painting-cartoon (see fig. 6) that advertised the show and that Depero made a few copies of. “In reality, however, the Capri setting in the guise of a stage set makes us think that this iconic painting anticipates and heralds the show precisely as a moment of pre-vision of his scenographic project.” Maurizio Scudiero explains.
Fig. 6 Poster (oil version)
With this small masterpiece we are dealing with the rare case of a painting that has never circulated on the market. It was in fact purchased by the grandfather of the last owners at the Milan exhibition in Palazzo Cova in February 1921, as the autograph label on the back written by the author attests, and has not left home since. In 1921 the painting was three years old but was already the document of an unrepeatable creative season: that of Fortunato Depero in Rome and Capri between 1916 and 1918, with Balla, Stravinsky, Clavel, Diaghilev and Picasso.
Fig. 7 – Autograph label on the back, handwritten inscription: “DEPERO / PAGLIACCETTI 1918 / L. 500”
Fig. 8 – Detail of the catalog page hand-noted by Depero with prices charged on the left and new prices for subsequent exhibitions on the right
(from: “Depero,” edited by M. Fagiolo and N. Boschiero, Electa 1988, p.33)