On Saturday 25 June the Shelburne Museum inaugurates the “Luigi Lucioni: Modern Light” exhibition in its Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education. Anyone who has seen the online version in the past few months shouldn’t think, Been there; Done. The in-person exhibition is both larger, with 48 paintings, 11 etchings and a panel, and visually more spectacular. In a way, paintings are like friends and lovers: no matter how good the virtual or printed reproductions are, an intimate proximity to the original is always better. And for connoisseurs of skilled brushstrokes, Lucioni is worthy of swooning.
“Modern Light” presents an extensive review of landscapes, portraits and still lifes by the Italian-American artist (1900-88). Those with a passing familiarity with his work might think of birches, barns, and other Vermont countryside vistas. In fact, Lucioni spent a lot of time painting en plein air in Green Mountain State, and Shelburne Museum founder Electra Havemeyer Webb was a prominent patron. In 1937, Vermont life magazine even declared him an unofficial “graduate painter” of the state.
But first Lucioni, who was 10 when he arrived on Ellis Island with his mother and three sisters, became a New York City artist. His talent showed up early and perhaps spared him the typical fate of the factory worker immigrant. He studied at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art and the National Academy of Design and won coveted residencies at the Tiffany Foundation. Lucioni was immersed in the city’s thriving creative culture, as well as its largely closed gay community.
Gallerists, collectors, and other artists began to take notice of the young realist painter even as his skills evolved along with – and in contrast to – abstract expressionism. Lucioni’s style drew upon art-historical conventions, yet was “recognizablely up-to-date for his mid-century audience,” writes Shelburne Museum director Tom Denenberg in a new book about the artist accompanying this exhibit.
“At the same time timeless and timely, [Lucioni] captured the elliptical, even enigmatic, nature of his adoptive New England, as well as the pervasive sense of alienation manifested in international creative circles in the decades that have bracketed World War II, “he suggests. Luigi Lucioni: Modern light.
In an overview of last week’s exhibition, curator Katie Wood Kirchhoff pointed to uninhabited scenes and a “modern” practical manifestation: telephone poles. Lucioni’s Vermont landscapes are masterpieces of precision, his lighting glowing, but he didn’t hesitate to include such common and era-specific cues. A real phone, around 1928, and what appears to be Campbell’s soup can sit on a table in one of his still lifes.
In the book, Denenberg notes that Lucioni disdained categorizations, an attitude that was itself modern. He also cites art historian Bruce Robertson’s comment that modernism was not just a “‘Manhattan project'”. It was essentially, Denenberg writes, a “response to rapidly changing living conditions in the twentieth century”. Modernism avoided the sentimentality of the previous era, as well as “the kinetic embrace of the Impressionists. They have been replaced, in Robertson’s words, by a ‘certain stillness'”.
If Lucioni shared similarities with contemporaries such as Andrew Wyeth, Rockwell Kent and Edward Hopper, two other influences have shaped his unique approach to canvas.
“He had studied engraving,” Kirchhoff said. “His works definitely depend on the line.” (And at times, Lucioni’s livelihood depended on his ability to produce and sell prints.)
Significantly, Lucioni absorbed his European artistic lineage on several return trips to Italy in the late 1920s. There is something Renaissance about this 20th century American realist-modernist. Observing a couple of his still lifes several years later, Kirchhoff noticed the evolution of Lucioni’s attention to the smallest details, the growing veracity of his brushstrokes. He also subtly perfects the imperfection, so to speak, like replicating the bruises on the fruit.
In his own essay in the book, Kirchhoff quotes an early 20th-century critic named Frank Crowninshield, who was fascinated by the confluence of Lucioni’s Italian and American artistic sensibility. “He appears to see the world through the eyes of his ancestors, but conveys his impressions of it in the conventions of his contemporaries,” Crowninshield wrote in 1928. He also praised Lucioni’s “fresh and confident use of color”.
A striking example of the latter distinguishes Lucioni’s “Portrait of Ethel Waters”, from 1939. The famous concert singer and Broadway fame wears a bright red dress, contrasting with the chartreuse drapery behind her. Lucioni put it down looking to one side of her, away from the spectator; her face doesn’t smile, her arms folded against her waist. The bright colors of the painting leap out of the canvas, yet it is Waters’ inscrutable expression: resignation? sadness? – who holds her gaze. It’s hard not to think that even fame and glamor didn’t protect Waters from the reality of being black in America.
Two other portraits on display – by fellow painters Jared French and Paul Cadmus – speak of Lucioni’s involvement in the gay community. But while those two men were public about their sexuality, in life and in their artwork, Lucioni remained more discreet. Kirchhoff has admitted some concerns about the artist’s performance now, as he had never done it himself.
In the book, however, writer David Brody dedicates an essay, entitled “Portraits in code: Lucioni’s queer circle”, to the work and interactions of these artists in a historical period of extreme homophobia. Lucioni’s 1930 portrait of the Frenchman may be a direct representation, “but given the nature of their relationship, the portrait becomes more intriguing,” writes Brody; “it is as if Lucioni had conceived a tribute to his relationship with this handsome young artist through painting”.
“Resting Athlete (Amateur Resting)”, from 1938, is more ambiguous and more suggestive. It is not quite a portrait, as the sleeping figure, in shorts and socks, is prone, face turned away. In the absence of contextual clues, we are simply left to marvel at Lucioni’s flawless execution of the foreshortened body, the shiny skin, the velvety robe, and the Scottish flannel bedding as the young man dreams.