From immigrant to ‘award winning painter’: Shelburne Museum honors 20th century artist Luigi Lucioni | art review | seven days

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  • Courtesy of Shelburne Museum
  • “Stowe Village, Vermont” by Luigi Lucioni

On Saturday, June 25, the Shelburne Museum opened the exhibition “Luigi Lucioni: Modern Light” at the Pizzagalli Center for Arts and Education. Anyone who has seen the online version in recent months should think, I was there; I did that. The personal view is more comprehensive – with 48 panels, 11 engravings and 1 panel – and more visually exciting. In a way, paintings are like friends and lovers: no matter how good the virtual or print copies are, close proximity to the original is always best. And for fans of skillful brushing, Lucioni is swoon-worthy.

“Modern Light” presents a comprehensive survey of the landscapes, portraits, and still lifes of the Italian-American artist (1900-1988). Those with a passing knowledge of his work might consider the birch trees, barns, and other vistas of rural Vermont. In fact, Lucioni spent much time painting outdoors in the Green Mountain State, and Shelburne Museum founder Electra Havemeyer Webb was an important patron. In 1937, Fairmont Live The magazine even declared him the unofficial “Painter Prize Laureate” of the state.

But first, Lucioni, who was 10 when he arrived on Ellis Island with his mother and three sisters, became an artist in New York City. His talent was evident early on and the typical immigrant fate of factory work might have saved him. He was educated at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and the Arts and the National Academy of Design and won prestigious residencies at the Tiffany Foundation. Lucioni was steeped in the city’s burgeoning creative culture – as well as its largely closed gay community.

Painters, collectibles, and other artists began to notice the young Realist painter even as his skills developed alongside – and in contrast to – Abstract Expressionism. Lucioni’s style was based on historical artistic traditions, yet it was “remarkably modern for its mid-century audience,” Shelburne Museum director Tom Denenberg writes in a new book about the artist accompanying this exhibition.

At the right time and at the right time, [Lucioni] Capture the elliptical, even ambiguous, nature of the New England he embraced, as well as the pervasive sense of alienation that emerged in international creative circles in the bracketed decades of World War II,” he suggests in Luigi Lucioni: Modern Light.

On a tour during the show last week, curator Katie Wood Kirchhoff referred to the unoccupied scenes and to a functional “modern” look: telephone poles. Lucioni’s Vermont views are subtle artwork, glowing lighting, but he didn’t shy away from including such common references to the era. A real telephone, circa 1928, and what appears to be Campbell’s soup could sit at a table in one of his still lifes.

In the book, Dinenberg notes Lucioni’s disdain for ratings, a position that was itself modern. He also cites art historian Bruce Robertson’s comment that Modernism was not just a “Manhattan Project”. It was essentially, Dinenberg wrote, “a response to the rapidly changing conditions of life in the twentieth century.” Modernism eschewed the emotionality of the previous era, as well as “the embrace of the kinetic Impressionists. It replaced them, in Robertson’s words, with a ‘certain stillness’.”

If Lucioni shares similarities with his contemporaries such as Andrew Wyeth, Rockwell Kent and Edward Hopper, other influencers shaped his unique approach to canvas.

“He studied typography,” Kirchhoff said. “His business certainly depends on the line.” (And at times, Lucioni’s livelihood depended on his ability to make and sell prints.)

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"portrait" By Luigi Lucioni - Courtesy of Shelburne Museum

  • Courtesy of Shelburne Museum
  • “Self-Portrait” by Luigi Lucioni

Remarkably, Lucioni assimilated his European artistic dynasty during several trips back to Italy in the late 1920s. There is a bit of a Renaissance in this twentieth century American modernist realist. Noting a pair of his life still separated by several years, Kirchhoff noted the development of Lucioni’s attention to the smallest detail, and the increasing sincerity of his brush strokes. He even skillfully mastered the imperfection, as it were, like repeating bruises on the fruit.

In her own essay in the book, Kirchhoff cites an early-20th-century critic named Frank Kronenschild, who was struck by the confluence of Lucioni’s Italian and American artistic sensibilities. Kronenschild wrote in 1928: “He seems to see the world through the eyes of his predecessors, but he conveys his impressions of it in the traditions of his contemporaries.” He also praised “the use of a new, color-affirming lotion.”

A stunning example of the latter characterizes Lucioni’s painting “Portrait of Ethel Waters” from 1939. The famous concert singer and Broadway famed wore a vibrant red dress, unlike the beige curtain behind her. Lucioni put it down looking one side away from the viewer; Her face is not smiling and her arms are crossed on her waist. The palette’s flamboyant colors somewhat jump off the palette, yet it’s Waters’ vague expression – about surrender? Sadnes? – This holds the look. It’s hard not to think that even fame and glamor didn’t protect Waters from the realities of being black in America.

Two other portraits in the exhibition – of fellow painters Jared French and Paul Cadmus – speak of Lucioni’s involvement in the LGBT community. But while these two men have been openly talking about their sexuality, in life and in their artwork, Lucioni has remained more conservative. Kirchhoff has admitted some misgivings about the artist’s outing now, given that he didn’t do it himself.

In the book, however, contributing writer David Brody dedicates an article, “Cryptographic Paintings: The Circuit of Lucio Quier,” to the work and interactions of these artists in a historical period of severe homophobia. Lucioni’s 1930 portrait of the Frenchwoman may be a direct representation, “however, given the nature of their relationship, the portrait becomes more interesting,” Brody writes; “It’s as if Lucioni created a tribute to his relationship with this handsome young artist through painting.”

“The Athlete Resting (Amateur Resting)” from 1938, is more ambiguous and more suggestive. It’s not quite a selfie, as the sleeping character, in shorts and stockings, is in peril, his face out of sight. Lacking contextual clues, we are left simply marveling at Lucioni’s flawless execution of his short body, glossy skin, velvet robe, and plaid flannel bedding as the young man dreams.

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