20 June 2017

The Prodigious Michele Cascella




















He was a prodigy, there was not doubt; certainly his father believed in him from the beginning.  He did poorly in school, being the kind of student that teachers described as being adrift with the clouds.  When one of his art teachers humiliated him in class, Cascella stopped going to school entirely.  This caused a crisis in the family: the boy's mother wanted him to make a religious vocation but his father, who supported the boy's artistic ambitions, won out. 

As an adult, Michele Cascella (1892-1989) credited Vincent van Gogh and Raoul Dufy as his artistic influences and, while it makes a good parlor game to tease out visual bits he took from them, no influence is sufficient to explain his skills in painting, drawing, lithography, and ceramics.   When I look at Orangerie, painted when Cascella was just eighteen, I see the lines used to describe the girl's skirt as coming straight out of Dufy, the lines and the colors work together but not in the usual academic way.  Cascella is fearless in using bright colors (blue, purple, yellow, orange) without ever letting them overwhelm this tranquil, workday scene.  The house in Abruzzo,  clad in stucco, is shown here in stark white, probably an indication of the midday sun.  The country house and the orange grove was a  subject Cascella often returned to, but seldom more effectively than in Orangerie.  He usually depicts orchards as pure landscape, absent their human gardeners.   Here he shifts his focus, making a young girl at work, staking and pruning, his subject, underlining the domestic element of the landscape. She kneels in a pose that appears, appropriately,  reverential in this Edenic setting. 

Caseclla was born in  Ortona, a city on the Adriatic Sea,  in 1892. His father Basilio, a polymath, was an engraver, ceramist, lithographer and illustrator, was the boy's first teacher.  Basilio's career was given a boost when he given  a plot of municipal land to build a laboratory and art studio for his lithography business.  Michele's first job at his father's business was the painstaking task of filling in backgrounds on lithographic stones.  But his father also gave him more traditional art projects such as copying  drawings of the old masters.  Unable to draw well himself from nature, Basilio sent Michele and his brother outdoors, supplied with a box of pastels, chocolate and cheese, to paint.
    
Basilio judged that the boy was ready to exhibit in public and so a show was arranged in Milan for the fifteen year old (this was in 1902), followed by a show in Paris the next year where Michele sold his first painting.    At eighteen he had already taken his place as a regular among the cultural set in Milan.   

In another prodigious move, the now twenty year old artist began an affair with the thirty-eight year old Sibilla Aleramo, one of Italy's most famous writers and already the author of the feminist classic A Woman (1906). (I read the novel in college but confess to only a vague memory of it at this point.) 

Cascella's career would be long and varied, not a footnote to youthful achievement as are some who succeed early.  Cascella won a gold medal for painting at the 1937 Paris Exposition Universelle, where Raoul Dufy created a sensation with his multi-panel mural La fee electricitee.  He made his first visit to the United States in 1959 and thereafter spent six month of each year at Palo Alto, California. In 1977 the City of Ortuna re- dedicated their art museum  to Cascella; more than five hundred works by three generations of the family are included in its collection.  When he died at age ninety-seven in Milan, he was buried in his hometown of Ortona.

Image: Michele Cascella -Orangerie, 1912, Cascella Museum, Ortona.

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