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Giuseppe Mentessi. A forgotten artist  
Roberta Balmas
ISSN 1127-4883     BTA - Telematic Bulletin of Art, August 14th 1999, n. 193

The curiosity to know who Mentessi was, and to go and see the exhibition came to me as I was reading the folowing two lines of a press report: " utilizing the socialist ideals of Filippo Turati, Mentessi conceived the practice and instruction of art as a sort of mission in the service of humanity".
Sometimes it takes only a little to motivate us to pick up an old book of art or history. I won't cite Argan, though Garzantina gives him ten lines… On the other hand Filippo Turati (1857-1932) reminds us of his conception of a marxism open to changes and penetrating ideals: His words were set to music in the " The Worker's Hymn".

To learn more about Mentessi it's necessary to visit the exhibition.Born at Ferrara in 1857, he was, along with Pellizza da Volpedo (painter of the famous Quarto Stato in 1901), Longoni and Morbelli, a leading proponent of art being a social imperative as well as a cultural one. Of humble origins, his father died when he was six years old, and thanks to great sacrifices by his mother, he was able to study at the Accademia di Parma where, in 1876, he receved a gold medal for sceneografic innovation. Thanks to this, and also to the help of Giuseppe Previati, he was able to complete his studies and in 1880 became an assistant to Luca Beltrami at the Accademia Belle Arti di Brera, Milano. Here he became involved in the "Scapigliati" group. He followed a course of the great Verdian sceneographer Carlo Freccerio and received commissions from the Scala.

Head of the departement of Landscape (1887), Prospective and Scenography (1907), Mentessi taught until 1924, maintaining that instruction is a mission in the service of mankind. He instituted courses at the Accademia open to workers, orphans, war invalids, and tailors, maintaning that art is not the privilege of a few, but an essential form of expression capable of being understood by all; a demonstration of life and its manifestations of sentiments such as: suffering, love, mercy, and pain.
For Mentessi, the teaching of art needed to favor "the complete development of personal attitudes and tendencies of the individual students and… to make them obtain the means to express the sincerity and clarity of their sentiments". His was also the innovation of the didactic method of instruction using geometric projecton with inventions of set prospectives (square method) where to position the objects and to copy them realistically.

At the Triennale of Brera in 1891, the painting "Ora triste", the depiction of a prolateriat funeral was presented. This work was defined by the writer Neera and by the critic Vittorio Pica, as the greatest representation of Italian sentiments. It was capable of reproducing the suffering of the common people. It may be the first painting to demonstrate the relationship of Mentessi with the poetics of social realism, and to the social question: urban develep and industrialization. His work was criticized also for choice of colors as well as technical division. In this period Mentessi began to be influenced by the ideals of the human socialist Filippo Turati, he began to visit also the legal advisor of Turati, the lawyer Luigi Majno, and his wife Ersilia Bronzini. Their patronage supported him, not only idealisticaly but also tangibly, he lived in their house until the day of his death in 1931. The Majno family inherited the works of Mentessi, and the larger part of the exhibition was donated by them.

The painting "Pane Nostrum Quotidianum", inspired by a pellagra epidemic, was presented at the Biennale di Venezia in 1895. Mentessi describes the origin of this work with these words: "… one afternoon after lunch last summer as I was walking outside through the country in a field of corn… I saw a peasant woman with her little girl, already of some years, and of a sickly figure, the two of them sad and obviously suffering… above was a vast, bright sky of silvery-grey dying in the squalid violet of the sunset; and the surrounding ripe, abundance of the countryside, triumphant…the contrast was too striking: the misery, maybe the hunger, and in the midst of all that insolent and healthy richness!… I felt the painting and it's title…".

At the Paris World Exhibition of 1900, with the painting "Visione triste" Mentessi was awarded a silver medal. This work, which represents the peasant condition as being part of the long suffering of humanity, became defined by many as a " cardinal work in the passage of the artist , from the polemiche of social realism to that of the religious symbollism. Before arriving at the finished picture as we see it today at the museum, on loan from the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna Ca' Pesaro di Venezia, the artist made dozens and dozens of sketches: heads in various positions, hands, women with babies in their arms, crucifixes, the arm of a man supporting a cross, men kneeling on the ground, all of this demonstrates the long artistic process of creation.

Another important painting presented at the exhibition is "La Pace", which was first presented at the Biennale di Venezia in 1907, where it was criticized and defined by Boccioni as "Mentessi horrible and senile", therefore incapable of being viewed alongside of hte young girl with flowers in her arms, a mixture of Pre-Raphealite, Liberty, and Crepuscular. (Italian School of Art characterized by a subdued choice of subject).

Of all the works of art on display at the museum (open until the 5th of Sept. 1999, ) the piece which struck me as the most interesting was a study, amongst the circa 180 on display, entitled "L'arrestato" from 1898. It is a clear reference to the fierce repressions of the civil unrest of that year. The face represented in this study shows pain, suffering, hunger, dismay, and resignation. Another sketch on the wall opposite this one shows solitude: the same man, this time standing, and in handcuffs. His face has changed, it has become hardened and the brow deeply furrowed, his eyes ask the question Why?, as if to the cause of everything. The question is for the observer, and I cannot bear up under his gaze for very long.

The sources are taken from the catalogue (edited by the Comune di Ferrara £.45.000) and from an interview by the curator Marcello Toffanello and Beatrice Avanzi.

"GIUSEPPE MENTESSI" Opere delle collezioni delle Civiche Gallerie d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Ferrara. Ferrara Palazzo dei Diamanti dal 18 luglio al 5 settembre 1999.



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