Alberto Martini, Masks & Shadows

Written by Pippa Roberts | Wednesday 23 February 2022

Alberto Martini (1876-1954)
Autoritratto [Self-portrait]
Ink on cardboard
412 x 322 mm. (16 1/4 x 12 5/8 in.)
Signed lower right in box "A. Martini"
Image courtesy of Laocoon Gallery

When they were first brought to the attention of the London art market in 1914 at the internationally renowned Goupil Gallery, as part of the solo exhibition Pen drawings by Alberto Martini, The Times newspaper wrote a long article highlighting the wonderful technique used by the artist in the creation of his illustrations, declaring, "there can be no question that these drawings are the most masterly that have been seen in public for years". Now, over a hundred years later, Laocoon Gallery reunites a part of this critically acclaimed collection - dedicated to The Macabre Tales of Edgar Allen Poe and certain works from William Shakespeare - placing with it other masterpieces inspired by the literary works of Mallarmé, as well as a mysterious set of drawings entitled Poem of the shadows and the exemplary oil painting Le Flambeau du Pantin. It is a collection of 70 works comprising pen and pencil drawings, watercolours, engravings, lithographs and oil paintings which placed the artist simultaneously as the epigone of Italian decadentismo and symbolism as well as the absolute precursor of surrealism.

Alberto Martini (1876-1954)
Tronchi d'albero
Indian ink and tempera on cardboard
235 x 295 mm. (9 1/ x 11 5/8 in.)
Signed and dated lower right in indian ink "Alberto Martini 96", and in pencil "A. Martini 1896"
Image courtesy of Laocoon Gallery

Alberto Martini (Oderzo 1876-Milan 1954) was one of the most original and eccentric European illustrators of the early twentieth century, his greatness and inimitability consist above all in a virtuosic ability to use pen and Indian ink with such intricate and obsessional technique that his drawings seem like an engraving. This exhibition, alongside a book [Vittorio Pica e Alberto Martini. Il trentennale sodalizio tra un critico ed un artista, Ed. Tau, 2021], was inaugurated at Gallery W. Apolloni of Rome in June this year, and is the culmination of a substantial research project by Monica Cardarelli, founder and director of Galleria del Laocoonte in Rome and Laocoon Gallery of London, who has studied Martini since her specialization at the University of Florence.

The masterpiece among many in this exhibition is his Self-portrait (1905), a vertiginous work of pen, with amazing graphic effects of shadow weaving, in which the young Martini presents himself as the perfect figure of a dark handsome man, with a black bow tie that appears as both a flower and a butterfly, and a tiny naked moth-shaped woman, who rests on a drawing by the artist, specifically, the one for Edgar Allen Poe's Berenice.

Those for Poe's short stories, begun in 1904, are Martini's best-known illustrations, which were never published by the artist, but only in 1985, in a sumptuous editorial format, by Franco Maria Ricci. Six of these are exhibited here, including two large ones - one in nocturnal ink that enhances the whiteness of the paper - dedicated to Hop Frog, with the horrid holocaust of the gloomy jester - and the other a double self-portrait entitled William Wilson, in which the artist is scrutinized by his menacing doppelgänger, watching from the shadows, illuminated by candlelight.

Alberto Martini (1876-1954)
William Wilson
Pen and black ink on paper
370 x 260 mm. (14 5/8 x 10 1/4 in.)
Signed, lower right
Image courtesy of Laocoon Gallery

Of Shakespeare's tragedies, Martini chose the two closest to Poe's macabre and horrifying spirit for his depiction: Hamlet and Macbeth. From these there are two scenes, one of the oaths in the presence of the ghost of Hamlet's father, and another in which the now mad eyes of Lady Macbeth stare at her hand that stands out, black with shadow against a candle, glimpsing in the delirium those bloodstains that not even all the perfumes of Arabia could have sweetened.

Another important series can be seen in "Il Poema delle Ombre", comprising almost thirty masked faces of all shapes, which evoke the Venetian carnival, the black masks of thieves and conspirators of the past, the veiled female faces of the mystery novel, all quickly improvised with brush and ink like random "Rorschach spots" that, by satanic prodigy, take the form of faces that look at us brazenly from the holes of their masking. Martini became the favourite artist of the infamous Marchesa Casati; he acted as director, costume designer, property finder and portrait painter for her and for her amazing Venetian masquerade parties. In this series of masks, the carnival is transformed from a dream to a nightmare.

A series of pencils and drawings testify to the collaboration that Martini had in 1905 with "La Lettura", the literary supplement of the "Corriere della Sera". It should not be forgotten that it was Martini who illustrated Marinetti's magazine, "Poetry" in 1905. Martini was not immune from the influences of futurism and cubism, as the Aurélia watercolour, an illustration for the poem by Gérard de Nerval, clearly shows. In fact, from 1928 to 1936, Martini lived in Paris, creating a particular genre of "black painting" and "painting the colour of the sky", which he thought of as the culmination of his art. In reality, his greatest creation, both in terms of daring vision and technical achievement, is perhaps the cycle of the Mysteries, and Mouth, Kiss and Tears of love, from 1915, extremely refined lithographs, dreamlike apparitions that the world of art had never before seen, and that preceded everything that surrealism would be able to invent in art, photography and cinema.

Alberto Martini (1876-1954)
Aurélia. L'attrice Jenny Colon
Watercolour on paper, mounted onto cardboard
300 x 220 mm. (11 2/3 x 8 5/8 in.)
Signed and dated lower right "Alberto Martini 1934"
Image courtesy of Laocoon Gallery

Alberto Martini: Masks & Shadows is on display until 1 July 2022. Watch an introduction to the exhibition previously presented in Rome here and stay up-to-date with the gallery's latest news and events by subscribing to their Newsletter.

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