On the A brush with… podcast the painter Jacqueline Humphreys is explaining how ‘really good ideas can make really bad painting and really bad ones can make really good painting’. Osvaldo Licini got there first I think, when I visit London’s Estorick Collection the following day. A kooky red heart on the chest (of an angel!), and hilly landscapes resembling two nippled breasts. Plus there is one idea so brilliantly ‘really bad ’ I am not sure I should mention it: Archipainting (1936) is one of Licini’s most ‘serious' abstract paintings, with its plays of shape, colour, figure and ground. But look at the red rectangles at bottom, then to the top of one of its tall, thin vertical bands of umber, to find how with perception’s after-image it glows like the end of a cigarette. It cannot be, it happens every time, but not in reproduction. It is only this badly good in the gallery.
All of which is a first fumbling attempt to figure what characterises Italian painter Osvaldo Licini, born in Bologna in 1894, who described himself - in 1934, in the guest book of a restaurant on the island of Burano - as ‘Errante, erotico, eretico’ (Errant, erotic, heretical), and whose works - near fifty of them shown here - are good examples of all three, which makes them scathing of any art historical categories I might apply to them, and to his development. But develop he does, and how to understand that trajectory is one of the questions posed here: the early landscapes, nudes, and portraits, before a shift into a very particular kind of abstraction, then painting after painting of his - Alter egos? Muses? A moon goddess and rebellious angel, again and again.
Was it all evident from the beginning? Archangel (1919), one of the earliest paintings here, has loose lines sketching landscapes and bodies, plays with flatness and dimensions, utilises vivid areas of single colour. Its drama gets orchestrated amongst three or four key elements, in service of a fantastic, slightly whimsical vision, all of which are staples of Licini’s oeuvre as it will unfold until his death in 1958.
Take, for example, that sail on a ship in Seascape (1922) which resembles the small painted and paper curves in later works, to be utilised both as recognisable crescent moon and abstract shape and colour. Also, at the bottom of his canvases, Licini loves a swelling, curving horizontal line, marking out a formal division whilst denoting both landscape and female body. Portrait of Nanny (1925) gives multiple curves of arm, shoulders, fingers, sheets and pillows, to the subject’s reclining form. Decades later, in Homage to Cavalcanti (1954) there is a line like this that seems landscape, string, a hand, there are even houses that seem to spring up upon it.
Homage to Cavalcanti (1954)
Another way to consider Lincini is via artists he admired. Remembering his first sight of Modigliani’s figure paintings, Licini wrote of the ‘very powerful impression of relief that was obtained with minimum effort and without the use of shadow, through the simple play of a line that conveyed all four dimensions by itself’. Licini’s Nude (1925) seeks just such a precise line around the face and upper torso, but below the waist he seems to stop the imitation, producing instead a selfish and shapeless overcoming of flesh and paint.
Similarly Landscape (1925-29) in its wrestling with planes and brushstrokes evokes Cezanne. As the catalogue prompts, Portrait of Nanny (1926) can connect with the French artist’s paintings of male card-players, through a shared concern for building up an obdurate pictorial presence without conformity to conventions of representation. Once again, Licini is soon off on his own adventure, and that space of play, reference, lapse and suggestion is a lot of this exhibition’s pleasure.
After a 1920s spent moving between Paris and Italy, the next decade sees Licini living in isolation in Monte Vidon Corrado, working with shapes and picture planes and visual perception. He sends these abstract paintings to the Quadriennale exhibitions, perhaps a protest against the Fascist state’s favoured ‘neo-verist’ aesthetics. He also connects with wider European groupings, like abstraction création magazine, which reproduced his work.
Consider Nocturne (1931) and Castle in the Air (originally 1932, reworked 1936 after it was vandalised). The former sets up a pattern of lines, squares, rectangles, triangles, arranged asymmetrically on the canvas. They could recall a Ben Nicholson relief, or a Neo-plastic Mondrian, were it not that Licini uses a moody, swirling, palette of blacks, blues and greys, in dappled brushstrokes and indecipherable, foggy intermingling, adding an expressionistic fervour over a tidier debate about space, figure and meaning.
Often, Licini is unable to resist animating his abstracts with a cartoonish glee: in Rhythm: Abstract Designs on a White background (1931-32) a wilful crescent moon peeks in at the bottom edge, whilst Castle in the Air has plentiful lines, grids, a prism, squares and triangles, optical manipulations, opacities and transparencies: an abundant abstract painter’s toolbox. But the title and a background of swirling blue and white cloud conjure a Futurist architectural folly. Planes shift, turning grids and lines into floors and stairs.
Licini’s impure, rebellious abstraction is evident in a number of works all titled Archipainting. A monochrome from 1932 suggests Licini at his severest: a strict arrangement of circles, plus horizontal and slanting lines. In 1937, he paints an almost op art column of black and white patterned slanting rectangles on a red ground. In both a close up look reveals ghostly forms and other geometries seeping through the top layer. Are these deleted drafts and workings? Is their presence a deliberate choice or unavoidable? It was another Archipainting (of 1936) where I became fixated with those possible glowing cigarette ends.
Whether or not that was my own stupid idea, the cartoonish animalism continues. In Pink Kite (1935) the beloved horizon(tal) line becomes rulered, then a stick man Atlas is added, holding it all up. In Composition with Black and Blue Lines (1935) a bit falls off the strict geometry, which might seem a play of pattern and expectation, but in Licini’s world the whole becomes a three dimensional building or machinery, as ghostly mistake-structures linger in mottled blue below. Not forgetting the more and less obvious olfactories in abstract-seeming paintings titled Composition- Mouth (1934), Mouth (1934), Tasting (1933), Biting (1935-36).
Licini refused to exhibit his work in World War II. In 1941 he wrote to his friend, the philosopher Franco Ciliberti, that he was dwelling in the ‘region of the Mothers’, searching the ‘primordial wilderness’ for ‘the rare symbols that have no name’. By the late 1940s he had discovered a painted menagerie of fantastic beings. First, his Amalassunta, which appear here in various forms: …with Red Halo (1947), …with Yellow Eye (1947) , …on Blue-Green Background (194X), …on Blue Background (1949), and …on Vermilion Background (1949). Each time, against the coloured backdrop, is suspended the white and roundish Amalassunta head, its ideograms of eyes, nose and mouth, that Licini sometimes paints as numerals, as if the zone of human recognisability itself is being tested and extended.
Amalasunta No.1, (1949)
Usually the Amalassunta’s head has a neck-like attachment. Sometimes a white shape over the landscape below seems part of their extended body. The single coloured grounds suggest flat backdrops in early Renaissance altarpieces. Two later renditions, The Pathetic One (1949-50) and Italy (1950) offer mocking allegory - Italy thumbs her nose rudely, the pathetic one leers obsessively at those nippled breast hills below, but maybe these two have only a family resemblance to the other Amalassunta, for Licini does not normally suggest social criticism so directly. His favourite stance is an amused, gnomic detachment like No.3 (1950), where the motif seems nicely settled in a landscape of its own oblique, hermetic grammar. Or the Amalassunta smokes a cigarette, a yellow diamond for a lighter in the landscape beneath. In the artist’s words: ‘Amalassunta is our beautiful Moon, silver for all eternity, personified in a few words, the friend of every tired heart’.
The 1950s was also Licini’s time for Rebellious Angels. These fill the height of their canvases, in gestural, expansive white brushstrokes, often with the ground colour beneath still visible through their bodies (are they still forming out of clouds?). With satyr like goaty calves, bodies and wings calcified into elongated shoulder blades or one huge breast. Black winding lines outline shoulders or torso, but never neatly depict outline. These entwining lines suggest ropes, veins, umbilical cords, tent cables, anchors. The ideogram faces are abandoned for double dot eyes, a vertical and horizontal line for mouth and nose. Ancient helmets, maybe, or just holes as the attempt at a human representation crumbles.
It is easy to miss the clues as to their vast scale, how …with Red Heart (1953) is taking an enormous stride across water, that…on Dark Red Background (1946) is dominated by a vast sun, whilst alongside the celestial features of Rebellious Angel and White Moon (1952) the tangle of black lines suggests a similarly big figure woven out of a ripped up horizon line. This is how Licini gets Romantic, Sublime, and Cosmic, whilst also keeping up his punning, eroticised, heretical energy.
Rebellious Angel and White Moon (1952)
On the way home I google Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Fall of the Rebel Angels (1562). Two white angels assist St. Michael to fight and slay the demon hoards. There are plenty of similarities with Licini’s angels, from the suspended, twisted body forms to the simplified, symmetrical face with shadow chin Brueghel paints looking out at the viewer. As his personal fantasy, Licini’s angels absorb good, evil, light, dark, flight, fall, within their world-striding, transparent, painted bodies.
There are moments of surprise in the two rooms of this exhibition, which disrupt my attempted chronologies and explanations. Memoirs from Beyond the Grave (1938) looks like an incised rock surface, spirit drawing or river delta seen from an art-satellite. It is all the things Licini referred to in 1941 when he wrote to Ciliberti from the ‘bowels of the earth’, explaining he would return with ‘the rare symbols that have no name; enigmatic alphabets and writings, and totemic representations that only you with your scientific understanding will be able to decipher.’ So, too, The Millionaire (1938) which feels like it should be satirical. Indeed, the numbers Licini uses for facial features have here pooled at the bottom, like a bank account number, whilst the indications of a body could be ears, buttocks, the back of a skull. It all suggests our most modern aspirations manifest like cave paintings on some still undiscovered walls of Lascaux.
The exhibition concludes with Angel of Santa Rosa (1957). Unlike the Rebellious ones this angel is constructed from stretched, juxtaposed, and coloured triangles that were part of Licini’s lexicon of forms in the 1950s (in Dawn and Composition [both 1953)] they appear as both abstract shapes and landscape features). The gallery wall text thinks ‘the figure appears to open its arms in a final salutation to the earth that is full of love’, welcoming Licini into the afterlife a little early.
Angel of Santa Rosa (1957)
Perhaps its careful construction out of coloured segments - diligently painted in, a contrast to the quick brushing of the rebels - recalls Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920), famously described by its owner Walter Benjamin - in his Theses of the Philosophy of History if 1940- as having a face ‘turned towards the past… he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet’. I wonder how and whether this can be applied to Licini’s depiction, then I notice that next to the large crescent moon above the Santa Rosa angel’s head a small crescent almost-triangle (spaceship?) is actually a tiny, glued on slither of coloured paper.
Did Licini love the particular tone? Unlikely. Compositionally it serves to echo the outer forms of the angel’s head, interrupting the relation with the yellow crescent on the far right, but there is not much the paper adds that a dot of paint would not have. Other than, perhaps, enjoyment of the handling, process, choice involved, its insignificance. Humble, grand, foolish and stupid. ‘Long live irrational painting!’ wrote Licini in 1935 to his friend the critic Giuseppe Marchiori. It seems his firmest credo, one to hold in mind on another go round, attuned now for ‘Errante, erotico, erratic’.