Filippo de Pisis between Painting and Poetry

Written by  Andrea Buzzoni, Gianni Venturi
Two noted scholars write about the many-sided and controversial personality of one of the great ferraresi of the century.

The emotion of painting

One can almost see de Pisis, in Ferrara at the beginning of the century, as he tried out his wings for the first time, fluttering from poetry to literature, history to the arts, botany and, of course, painting. And one can almost see him as he busied himself tirelessly in the task of broadening his knowledge, attempting to find someone with whom to discuss things, to communicate, even if this meant being considered petulant or suffering the humiliation of a negative reply or even downright silence.


He could not resist the drive to throw himself headlong into the uninterrupted flow of life, tasting of it wholeheartedly in a dizzying whirl that wore him down until his vitality and health were quite consumed. This is therefore the answer to the many questions regarding de Pisis's early days in Ferrara: his were not the erudite whims of a young provincial with somewhat decadent tastes, but rather the first stirrings of that adventurous exploration of the world that, from then on, he was to pursue unceasingly until the end of his life.

Those years, those experiences and the results of them, play a rightful part in the formation of de Pisis and his culture. True, all this was not immediately translated into painting, as also happened with regard to his friendship with the fathers of Pittura metafisica: De Chirico, Savinio and Carrà. Nor was it translated into painting - or rather, into great painting - during the years in Rome, during which his literary activities were still a priority.

With regard to the canvases painted at that time de Pisis himself, although he defended them, was to write: «No one is more aware than I of their extreme imperfection, when compared to an ideal of beauty».
But despite this, it is clear by now that it was during his time in Ferrara and Rome that de Pisis began to fashion the compass that was to guide him along his chosen path for the rest of his life. And he did it above all thanks to his poetic and literary efforts, which, in later years, he drew into his painting as an original and felicitous stimulus.

It is only from this point that one can understand the discontinuity between his earlier paintings and those of the late Twenties: a discontinuity that is too sudden for us to believe that all he had behind him was the work of the Roman period, influenced by Spadini, the macchaioli, and the painting of the Seventeenth century, for this would be to neglect that extraordinary reservoir of contemplation, sentiment, subjects, images and colours that de Pisis the writer had collected, and from which de Pisis the painter liberally drew inspiration.

But it was Paris that proved the decisive factor in his becoming a painter: compared to Matisse, Utrillo, Bonnard, and Marquet, and the great art of the Nineteenth century - from Delacroix to Manet and the Impressionists - the masters of the Roman school must have instantly struck the young de Pisis as inadequate.

It was at that point that he benefited from the lessons of the metaphysical school, which helped to prevent him from adhering too closely to the real. This served as a species of barrier that stopped him from falling into a relationship of inferiority with the subject, which was wrapped in an aura of magic and mystery. This point marks the birth of the fine series of metaphysical canvases executed in the second half of the Twenties.

Thereafter, the need for that barrier gradually disappeared. De Pisis's growing maturity went hand in hand with his capacity to capture the life within every object and reinvent it on the canvas while maintaining without any further need for filters a perfect balance between the reality of things and the emotions they aroused in him.
As his style matured he could instantly delineate the subject on the canvas with brushstrokes that were light, vibrant, luminous, delicate in appearance, but in reality hard as nails.
This marked the birth of his celebrated "pictorial stenography", which allowed him to transcribe the feelings aroused in him by the Parisian townscape at dusk; the last quiver of life and beauty in a bunch of flowers; the drive to describe, by means of a jungle of signs, the lush vegetation and the muggy atmosphere of a London square; the sense of happiness and peace typical of Piazza San Marco on a sunny morning, when it swarms with vociferous passers by and the sudden swerves of swallows trace indecipherable figures in the sky.
Happiness and unhappiness, joie de vivre and fear of death: it is between these opposites that de Pisis's vision alternates. But while the first opposition prevailed until the late Forties, things were to change as his life and his art began to draw to a close.

The thousand lights of his palette began to wink out one by one, like those of a city as night advances, until they gave way - around the middle of the century - to a starkly monochromatic treatment. Even, his febrile "pictorial stenography" gradually began to dry up, leaving the way clear for a terse, spare, essential figurative syntax. But despite this his hand continued to produce masterpieces: portraits, flowers, still-lifes, landscapes, right up to that extraordinary last painting which is Still-Life with Pen of 1953.

On the centenary of his birth, Ferrara Arte, with the invaluable contribution supplied by the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Ferrara and the Coop Estense, will be mounting an exhibition scheduled for next autumn-winter. This will be a carefully selected group of about ninety canvases and about thirty drawings, all recognized masterpieces, which will inform the public about one of the most extraordinary careers in the history of Nineteenth century painting. In addition, many other cultural institutions in Ferrara have plans to re-evoke the artist's invaluable early labours during the years he spent in Ferrara.

Andrea Buzzoni

De Pisis in the city of a hundred marvels

On a trip to Assisi in 1934, Filippo de Pisis sent a postcard to Nina Vendeghini, a lady friend of his from Ferrara. The postcard was also signed by the tutelary deities of the revival of the great tradition of Ferrarese painting and the "Ferrarese workshop": Morandi, Giuseppe Raimondi, Bassani, Longhi, and Arcangeli.

The possibility that the addressee of the postcard might have been the "signorina V.", the keeper and vestal of one of the greatest collections of Ferrarese artists, mentioned in the conversations in Longhi's house held by some of those who had signed the postcard (as suggested in issue n. 3 of this magazine by Andrea Emiliani), could be said to represent one of the narrative threads of the extraordinary novel that is Ferrara.

Until now it has escaped notice that while de Pisis did not make Ferrara a subject of his paintings he did make it the subject of that other mirror of consciousness: writing. His was a literary production that owed everything to a voracious and intelligent awareness of the literary phenomenon; not only its classicist origins but also the intricate and often confused roots of the avant-garde movements of whom he was a major figure, theoretician and critic.
Much has been written on the relationship between de Pisis and his city, but a great deal of material was produced in a rather too facile manner or in an ill-concealed attempt to confirm the superiority of painting over letters and the consequent influence that Ferrara allegedly had on his pictures.

Montale, his contemporary and friend, was right to state in an essay published by the Corriere della Sera in 1954 that the poetry of de Pisis «may not be considered simply as his violon d'Ingres». That de Pisis himself believed this to be the case is proved by many pages of self introduction, of himself to himself, which always refer to a continuous - and continuously interrupted - need to narrate oneself to oneself, to make one's own life a work of art.

De Pisis was highly aware of his literary roots. In 1946, despite the fact that the choice of painting, glory, and wealth had perhaps led him to forget his roots in Ferrara and in literature, they nevertheless tended to resurface in certain rather significant statements: «Before I die I should like to write two or three good books (I have dreamt and lived - which is worth far more - ten thousand) and two or three good paintings (I have painted perhaps three thousand cartoons - and what cartoons! - panels and canvases), however, for good fortune, my work as a painter, unmistakable and most pure, may be summed up in ten carefully selected paintings».

And again in 1951: «I have often chanced to say that I don't like the pictures I have not painted. But I love, vice-versa, may I say, some of my lyrics that have virtually never been published and I am sure that one day they will find their critic and their exegete».

In the mythography of the personage in question, everything is channelled towards the creation of an inimitable life whereof literature is both the means and the justification. Signor Luigi B. in the novel of the same name, Felipe of Vert-vert, and the painter-aristocrat of the Parisian diary all have their origin and function in the character-author.

Luigi Filippo Tibertelli the butterfly hunter, the collector of herbals, the searcher after words, the brilliant narrator of provincial life and connoisseur of the artistic and cultural restlessness that was to lead to the avant-garde movements, pours his world view and his understanding of the present into the fundamental books of the Ferrarese period.

More than the scholastic exercise that was the Canti di Croara (1916), a tribute to Pascoli, or Emporio, the collection of prose lyrics published in 1916, the metaphysical texts were to reveal de Pisis as a writer with a pictorial bent, thanks to his capacity to grasp and establish the secret relationships between things.

The role, certainly literary, played by de Pisis within the little circle of artists who had arrived in the metaphysical city par excellence - De Chirico, Savinio, Carrà and, later, Morandi - still appears largely unknown; nor does Briganti's extraordinary essay (on the occasion of the exhibition of Pittura Metafisica held in Venice in 1979) shed any light upon just how much de Pisis contributed to the formulation and the exegesis of that movement. But food for thought and the atmosphere of an epoch are provided by the fact that the walls of de Pisis's "metaphysical" room were hung for a long time with masterpieces by De Chirico.

De Pisis put it like this: «In certain rooms that gave onto a silent green garden enclosed by other walls, rooms that I had had whitewashed, were hung, hermetic, a little spectral, still unknown to the world and far from profane eyes, the most beautiful paintings of the metaphysical period, Le Muse inquietanti, Ettore e Andromaca, and I Ritornanti, and perhaps they never lived as they did for my eyes in certain desolate yet harmonious winter evenings».

The metaphysical sense, over and beyond its artistic results, emerges in the lyrical use of certain terms that underpin de Pisis's work: mystery, a sense of alienation, the elitist quality of experience, the sacrality inspired by the painting, ambience; all were officiants of a rite consumed in the rarefied atmosphere of the young writer's rooms.

That it was possible to speak of the metaphysical aura of the great Ferrarese school of the Renaissance, after or in concomitance with the years 1917-1919 is still an important fact not only for Ferrara, but also for for the critical awareness that this was a great moment in the history of literature and art.

In that case it is only right that alongside Savinio's Hermaphrodito, and Carrà's book on metaphysical painting, one should talk of the young de Pisis's literary production, which is irreplaceable not only if we are to understand the cultural and lyrical matrix from which the future painter sprang but also his substantial refinement as a man of letters and critic.
Works such as Pittura moderna of 1918 or De Chirico of 1919 are most important if we are to understand and evoke that aura - rather than school - of the metaphysical of which he was a part and a witness.

A refined reader will find remarkable moments of lyrical writing in the Prose series published in Ferrara in 1920; in Signor Luigi B., published in Milan that same year, he will find the first attempt at constructing an autobiography, in accordance with the inspiration and the aspirations of metaphysics, and he will be quite won over by Città delle cento meraviglie, published in Rome by Bragaglia in 1921, which represents de Pisis's tribute to a city, Ferrara, lived and felt as the root, not only existential but also artistic and literary, of his life's experience.

Whereas Ferrara was not to have the privilege of becoming a pictorial icon, it did become - in that complex story which is the work of de Pisis - a symbol denied, but ever present nonetheless, of an exemplary artistic destiny.

Gianni Venturi