Arguably the two most important things to any Italian is his/her family followed very closely by his/her culture. If you find yourself in New York City, there is a relatively new institution to discover a little-known part of Italian art; it is the Center for Italian Modern Art, or CIMA. Founded in 2013 by Laura Mattioli, an Italian curator and former professor of art history at the University of Milan and the Fine Arts Academy in Bergamo. CIMA is a 501c3 public, nonprofit exhibition and research center promoting new scholarship of Italian modernism from the early 20th century above all.
Laura Mattioli inherited an extraordinary collection of modern Italian art from her father, Gianni Mattioli (1903-1977). Always a champion of the artist’s of his time, Gianni’s financial success as a business man selling cotton to Italy’s largest textile mills afforded him the ability to collect their artwork – specifically that of the Futurists (Umberto Boccioni, Gino Severini, Giacomo Balla, and Fortunato Depero), the Metaphysicals (Giorgio de Chirico), and those that did not fall under such art historical classifications (Giorgio Morandi). He formed the collection on his own and at time with the aid of his cousin Fernanda Wittgens (1903-1957), a noted art history professor in Milan and the first female director of the city’s Pinacoteca di Brera.
As early as 1949 Gianni Mattioli was lending his superb collection of de Chirico paintings across the ocean to the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition, Twentieth-Century Italian Art. A year later he purchased an apartment in Milan for the specific purpose of displaying his ever-growing art collection, which he opened to scholars, artists, and collectors by appointment when asked and to the general public every Sunday and serving as its tour guide. To share the significant talent of these Italian masters, Mattioli also sent part of his collection on a five-year world tour, from 1967 to 1972, and produced a catalogue to further disseminate the artwork and critical thinking of these artists. When Gianni died in 1977, Laura inherited the collection. A curator and art historian herself, she has kept the collection in the public eye, placing key examples on long-term loan to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice and producing additional English-language catalogues documenting and analyzing the collection.
While she lives in Europe, Laura believes that the worldwide acknowledgement of New York City as the center of the contemporary art world made it the only logical location for a nascent institution meant to advance the accomplishments and knowledge of modern Italian art to the world. She began traveling to New York City on a regular basis in 1994 accompanying friend and fellow collector, Guiseppe Ponza (1923-2010), visiting exhibitions and artists’ studios. While Ponza focused on post-war art, Laura remained steadfast in early 20th century Italian art. While traveling she became painfully aware of the lack of focus on and knowledge of Italian art outside of classical antiquity, the Renaissance, and the Baroque eras along with the misnomer that “modern Italian was a derivation from French models.” This fueled her aspiration to create a place for art critics and historians and the general public alike to experience and discuss the wonders of the all-to-little-known Italian modernists.
While there is no direct correlation between the Gianni Mattioli Collection and CIMA, the latter’s roots and premise are similar to the former. CIMA’s mission states it is to be: “an exhibition and research center [meant] to bridge the cultural gap between Italy and the United States in the narratives of 20th century art and culture…Through annual exhibitions, multiple art historical fellowships awarded each year to international doctoral candidates, and a vast calendar of public initiatives, CIMA provides opportunities for the public and scholars alike to explore Italian masterpieces and consider the legacy and ongoing impact of this work on contemporary art and culture.”
Since its 2014 launch in a spacious loft in SoHo, each year CIMA presents an installation dedicated to work rarely seen outside of Italy. Laura has referred to it as an “incubator for educators” and as a way to “rescue art from its role as a mere status symbol.” Each year’s installation is on view from October through June allowing for numerous visitors and the dedicated research that is asked of its four core fellows. To date CIMA has hosted 24 fellows, each selected for their relationship to the artists on view that year as they base their research on the actual art on view and not simply on reproductions and books. Each fellow also then contributes to that year’s catalogue published in conjunction with the installation, which not only documents the year’s initiatives but also broadens the knowledge and critical thinking of Italian modernism. (Additionally, CIMA holds academic conferences and plans to support translations of Italian art-history books into English.)
Occupying a 4,400-square-foot space that has an overtly domestic feel (to purposefully distinguish it from an art museum or commercial gallery). Tours begin with espresso in the kitchen, which is outfitted with Italian design from the table and cabinets to the espresso maker and cups. Tours then proceed to the other areas of the loft, also sparsely furnished with Italian furniture and design objects from the time period. The tours fall under the auspices of the fellows, offering a keen insight into the artists and themes on view.
The current installation, on view through June 23, 2018, is Alberto Savinio, (1891-1952) the regrettably over-looked younger brother of Giorgio de Chirico, featuring 25 works by the artist, who was also an accomplished pianist, composer, musical historian, set designer, critic, and writer. Fulfilling the desire to not only present the work of lesser-known modern Italian artists, the installation pairs his impressive art with that of the great Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010). As the press release notes such a pairing “reveal[s] the two artists’ serendipitous commonalities, including their flirtation with Surrealism, a shared interest in the subconscious, and, most significantly, the profound influence that familial relations had on their respective artistic imagery;” while simultaneously illustrating the impact of Italian art from the early 20th century on late 20th and early 21st century artists.
When I was treated to a Sunday morning espresso and tour in May of 2017 as an alumna of the Association of Art Museum Curators’ Mentorship Program, an installation of Giorgio de Chirico – Giulio Paolini was on view. While de Chirico (1888-1978) is a staple of graduate course work in early 20th-century art, seeing his magnificently painted enigmatic narratives paired with the new-to-me tranquil beauty of Giulio Paolini (b. 1940) connected the Metaphysical with Conceptualism like I had never previously seen. Classical sculpture shows up often in de Chirico’s paintings and is something of a rarity in Conceptual art; however the smart juxtaposition between these two Italians is seamless.
I encourage all, whether Italian by birth or a lover of all things Italian, to make plans to visit CIMA and also support their indispensable cultural and educational work by becoming a member. As Laura has stated she “grew up with the idea that art had a social function,” and that is exactly what she has superbly done with CIMA.
For information and reservations, visit http://www.italianmodernart.org
Marisa J. Pascucci is an art curator and art historian. She has worked for art museums throughout the United States. She is currently with the Cornelius Arts Center, Cornelius NC, and the New Gallery of Modern Art, Charlotte NC.