I have had this mid-century modern painting for about 30 years. I can’t remember where I found the work. It had to have been a thrift store.
I have never looked into the artist. I treated myself to research for this article. What I found was incredible.
The artist of the piece, which has hung in my dining room for 33 years, is Antonio Stagnoli, who was born in 1922. He lost his hearing at age 2.
His family, of Brescia, in Lombardy (northern Italy), placed him in the Pio Istituto Pavoni, founded in 1821 in a former convent, for the education of orphans and those who can’t hear and speak. Thus, my artist, who couldn’t hear or speak, was brought up in the Institute, remaining there as his home for a lifetime.
A teacher noticed Stagnjoli’s talent, and the artist was sent to study in Milan at the Brera Academy of Art. That must have been in the 1930s, because an article I found mentions that Stagnoli fell in with an artistic crowd who created work in a style called New Figuration.
Here’s what New Figuration means.
In the time between the two world wars, after a period dominated by abstract painting, artists began to rediscover the human figure (realism). They discovered portraiture and the varieties of expression in the human face, and one of these artists was Stagnoli, who made a name for himself in one-man shows in Venice, Rome and Milan.
After exhibiting throughout the 1940s-1960s, the painter constantly returned to the institute where he was raised. And that’s where he died in 2015.
A recent show in Milan features works by artists in the style called Italian New Figuration: “Italy 1920-1945: New Figuration and the Narrative Self” at the La Triennale di Milano in 2017.
Here’s where the story of this artist’s life gets really interesting. Stagnoli was a kind of a recluse. After his art school days, he painted places, faces and animals around his home at the Institute, and he was limited in his paintings of the outside world. My painting is a still life, which could have been done anywhere, but since I see that he painted many still lifes, I bet this was painted inside the Institute walls.
Turns out my painter was a bit of a celebrity at the Institute and the Brescia area, because I see that a filmmaker created a short film in 2003, not so much about Stagnoli, but how she imagines the artist’s experience in his visual world since sight was his superior sense. The filmmaker is Elisabetta Sgarbi; the title of her film is “Ghosts of Voice.”
Reviews of her film, around the theme of Antonio Stagnoli’s experience of art, offer insights. The film imagines the painter dreaming his life amidst familiar places, but the outside world is an echo from a dark realm.
The point of the film is that it IS a film, and a film makes “visible sounds.” Thus, a painter who does not hear or speak is a perfect metaphor. The voice of the “real world” and the voice of the artist is performed on a mournful cello. A review goes onto say, “is the artist gazing upon us, or is the film gazing inward at the artist, or are we gazing upon the film? In any event, the feedback-loop analogies are hypnotic.”
The Istituto Pavoni of Brescia commissioned a book about former students from historian Vittorio Nichilo. His book is titled “People of the Word” because, I read, the author chronicles the struggles of the students at the Institute since the 18th century, fighting to achieve the fullness of life and to find all that is good in the word.
The book is a series of interviews of students who “speak” their lives. Stagnoli is mentioned as a renowned painter who came out of the institute and made a mark upon the art world.
Since Italian New Figuration is not as well-known as it should be, my painting’s kin have an auction history from $1,000 to $1,800. I now can picture the artist composing the “stuff of life” upon an old table at the 18th-century institute’s dormitory room and painting in silence.
I will print my own article for my son Locky’s information, and I will tape an envelope containing my painter and his painting’s history.
Antonio Stagnoli has waited 33 years for me to notice him, and I hope Locky finds the envelope one day!
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press Life section.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.