What’s the State of Italian Painting Today?

An expansive new exhibition at Triennale Milano takes stock of how today’s generation of Italian painters have responded to three years of transformation and upheaval wrought by the pandemic, war, economic upset, and the rapid proliferation of AI.

Photo credit: Pier Carlo Quecchia/@piercarloquecchia

The European art history books and “101” courses posit that Italian artists paved the way for painting as we know it today. Many of the medium’s milestones, like the replication of intricate Byzantine patterns during the medieval period, Giotto’s portrayal of emotion and multidimensional human form, and the advent of linear perspective in the work of architect Filippo Brunelleschi, are captured in the works of High Renaissance masters like Michaelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Just a 15-minute walk away from Santa Maria delle Grazie, whose refectory houses The Last Supper, a survey of 119 contemporary Italian paintings at the Triennale Milano takes stock of the medium’s evolution as society begins to emerge from its own recent Dark Age. 

Architecture and painting have long been intertwined in both the country and the museum’s history. In antiquity, this took the form of the early frescos adorning Roman villas and evolved to include Renaissance altarpieces and murals. Even the inaugural art and design triennial in 1933, a mural exhibition for which the museum’s current home in the Palazzo dell’Arte was tailor made by Giovanni Muzio, embodies the tradition. “Italian Painting Today” is no different. Triennale head curator Damiano Gullì worked closely with Milanese architect Italo Rota to determine the right number of paintings to showcase, and how to structure the lineup to avoid thrusting visitors into a cavernous and overwhelming display. 

Photo credit: Pier Carlo Quecchia/@piercarloquecchia

The result is as if a tower of monumental art books clattered to the floor, each landing open to a different page with related themes, techniques, and subjects. Coves and corners make connections across related works and allow visitors to discover others in their own time. “You can create connections between the works in a very spontaneous way,” Gullì told Surface of the exhibition design. “There are no schools, there are no movements, each painting is an individual. You can retrace themes and topics. You can find more and more just by looking at the pictures. It’s really important to center the work and create a dialogue.”

The survey, which includes artists born between 1960 and 2001, is neither precious nor discriminating in its definition of painting. A gallery of painted textiles and walk-through installations, including a vignette for live portrait sketches, invites touch and interaction. Renaissance techniques like chiaroscuro and gold-ground paintings of divine figures find new life in works like a painted onyx portrait of Saint Sebastian by Nicola Samori, in which the rugged face of the gemstone stands in for the saint’s mottled flesh. Or Dario Pecoracro’s menacing empress, whose gold brocade catches the light as her shadowed eyes seem to pierce the viewer’s soul. “Italian Painting Today” avoids making blanket statements about whether painting in the country is alive or dead. It simply is, and the exhibition’s value lies in the platform Gullì provides to the talents working within the medium today.

L: Dario Pecoraro, Imperatrice, 2019-2023. R: Verlato Nicola, Hostia, 2022.

“The Whitney Biennial presents American art, the German Kunsthalle and the Kunsthaus present German artists, France’s FRAC are made to promote the French artists, and so I think it is the same,” Gullì tells Surface. “We give them a scene and then people can see them. For a long, long time, there have been no exhibitions about Italian painting. The Triennale presents itself as a place where we can discuss, and starting this discussion through an exhibition or public programming is really important.”

Included works range from the violently pornographic, such as in Iva Lulashi’s Ma come disarmanti, anima cara, a graphic reflection on censorship, freedom, and abuse of authority. Others, like Il tappeto dei respiri, Maddalena Tesser’s coolly eerie scene of three girls sitting far from one another with heads bowed and hair obfuscating their faces, land as commentary on isolation and intimacy considering how hard-hit Italy was during the pandemic. Landscapes, whether in the form of Pietro Ruffo’s collage of skulls peering out from a forest of vines, trees, and mountainous expanses in Antropocene 33 (Parigi), or Vera Portatadino’s abstraction of sun-scorched terrain in As the Sun Burns the Ground, reflect nature contextualized by what humanity has done to it.

Maddalena Tesser , Il tappeto dei respiri, 2021.

If the study of Italian painting from antiquity through the Renaissance provides the language to analyze a painting objectively, “Italian Paintings Today” takes it a step further, making masterful works relatable. The exhibition charts an optimistic future for the medium and how it is taught and talked about today.

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