The itinerary dedicated to Giovanni Battista Ciolina could not have ended better than with L’ombrellino rosso (The Red Parasol). This extraordinary backlit scene is an exceptional piece of the artist’s work, for its daring and incisive use of colour, an explosive, almost non-naturalistic colour that seems to anticipate the excesses and freedoms of the Fauves by at least a decade; and for its brushstroke, which is constructive rather than descriptive, laid on the canvas with an almost furious, instinctive impulse, yet supported by a consummate wisdom.
The view of Toceno and the valley, which stretches almost dizzyingly beyond the garden wall from Casa Testore to La Selva, is treated with a chromatic freedom that inspires wonder. In it, vibrant complementary colours are juxtaposed with ease and effectiveness, implying extensive experimentation in the pursuit of atmospheric rendering and light. The technique, in my opinion, does not belong at all to Lombard naturalism, as Aurora Scotti believed. What is naturalistic about the extraordinary feat of the wall, where not even one brushstroke describes the shape of the stones, but rather alludes to them? What naturalism is there in the slate roof of the house in the centre, ‘touched’ by the tip of the red parasol, with that black-violet and intense blue, picked up in the indistinct mass of houses further down? In the astounding succession of brushstrokes that construct the landscape to the right of his wife, Giuseppina, without any objective definition? And in Giuseppina herself, whose sketched face has a complexion reminiscent of Gauguin’s exotic figures, rendered with a very few, brief, confident brushstrokes? Whose hand, gripping the handle of the red parasol, is a graphic mass without any volume, achieved with dense vertical brushstrokes? That parasol! An extraordinary feat of skill, glowing as it allows the incredibly intense light of an early winter afternoon to filter through, yet also capable of conveying the coolness of the shade through bold touches of black! The figure of Giuseppina is masterful: the black of her skirt, (black! A colour painters rarely use! And placed prominently in the foreground!), echoed in the raven-black hair gathered in a chignon, it contrasts with the white of her blouse, dirty yet capable of reflecting some of the dazzling sunlight on the surface of the low wall. And the brown colour of her neck, with its African complexion, very slightly enlivened by the touch of an orange brushstroke beneath the jawline? It comes naturally to me to quote a passage written much later by Umberto Boccioni (who also had divisionist training): “If I can (and I hope I can), I will convey the emotion by resorting as little as possible to objects that have provoked it. The ideal for me would be a painter who… does not focus on the nature of things (man, animal, etc.)… but can, through lines and colours, evoke the idea… And all of this with painterly sensations, meaning beautiful colours and shapes.” I believe that here, Ciolina has truly succeeded in this aspect.
Dating this masterpiece is indeed a challenging task. Guido Cesura placed it around 1892-93, by comparing it with some works by Fornara (such as La sorella Marietta davanti al lazzaretto di Prestinone from 1894 and La sorella Marietta sul balcone di casa from 1896), which are similar in terms of free, broad, constructive brushwork, but lack the same intensity and daring use of colour. Aurora Scotti placed it more plausibly around 1895; my discovery of two photographic images (one print and one plate) taken by Fornara after his return from the second trip to Lyon with Ciolina, where Giuseppina is depicted strolling in the meadows, protected by a parasol, wearing a white blouse and a long chequered skirt, with a pose very similar to that in L’ombrellino, leads me to lean towards the end of 1896 or the beginning of 1897 as the probable time frame for the artwork. This hypothesis, however, contrasts with the fact that just a few months later, Ciolina painted Il filo spezzato (The Broken Thread), the piece that would bring him fame, executing it with a technique, style and use of colour completely opposite to that of L’ombrellino. The matter is still open and will require more in-depth studies, precisely due to the exceptional nature of the painting within Ciolina’s body of work.
There are no major doubts regarding the chronological placement of Cadono le foglie (Falling Leaves), which is held at the Galleria Giannoni in Novara. The adherence to the meticulous divisionist technique in this masterful backlit scene, especially in the foreground, links it to Fornara’s lost masterpiece En plein air (1897), which brought him to the attention of the divisionist group, as well as to its ‘twin’, A giornata finita (1898). The friendship with the artist from Prestinone during those years certainly facilitated Ciolina’s interest and experimentation with a technique that, at the Milanese Brera exhibition of 1897, had finally received approval after the perplexity – not to say criticism – it had aroused in the 1890 exhibition. It is true that there could not be a more striking contrast with L’ombrellino rosso. The soft, golden light that bathes the garden of Casa Ciolina, the subdued, chromatic tones (with the exception of the woman’s red blouse, possibly his wife Giuseppina again), and the meticulous description of each element, especially the tree on the right, behind the bench, and the shrub at its base, have nothing in common with the chromatic explosion, pronounced contrasts and broad brushstrokes that are indifferent to details, and that characterize L’ombrellino. It is difficult to believe that the two pieces could be attributed to the same artist, whether we place Cadono le foglie in 1897 or 1899, considering the fact that it was certainly exhibited at the Fourth Triennale of Brera in 1900 and possibly, but with a different title, Ultimi giorni di novembre (Last Days of November) at the National Exhibition in Turin in 1898.
Cadono le foglie and L’ombrellino rosso appear to be the precursors to two different, almost opposing paths in Ciolina’s artistic work: one more descriptive, meticulous, close to Divisionism and favoured by patrons; the other more poetic (in some cases sensual), material, constructive and usually personal. In any case, no one can contest that both artworks are of an exceptional quality.
Text and image research and adaptation by Chiara Besana.
Critical analysis by Paolo Volorio.