(Trieste 1875 - Roma 1948)
The red shawl (1928)
Measures: 55 x 54 cm
Technique: Oil on panel
Signed upper left “Bruno Croatto Roma”
Provenance: New York, Rita Boley Bolaffio collection
A master of magic realism – theorised by Massimo Bontempelli – Bruno Croatto (Trieste 1875 – Rome 1948) was able to create, through the study of the Old Masters, technical expertise, and a love for detail, still lives and portraits surrounded by an alienating and dreamlike dimension in line with return to order and new classicism as theorised by the magazine “Valori Plastici”. The sophisticated elegance of his works won the approval and the admiration of the middle-class public in his native Trieste and even in Rome, where he resided from 1925. After moving to the Eternal City, he kept his distance from the official art movements, although his home-studio in Via del Babuino was a meeting place for an elite public – often protagonist of his portraits – and he frequently took part in local and national exhibitions, before achieving international acclaim with his personal 1929 exhibition in Paris at the Galerie Reitlinger (Mugittu 2000, p. 271). As the critic František Xaver Harlas said on the occasion of the Prague exhibition in 1931, with his own style developed over years of work, the artist found himself bridging a gap between tradition and modernity: “Bruno Croatto is a refined painter in the sense of the old masters, he is a successor of the Dutch school of still life painting, although a trait of modernity can be detected immediately” (HARLAS, 1931) – traditional, therefore, in language and technique but modern in setting, clothing and, at times, in a certain seductive boldness or, on the contrary, austere haughtiness of his models. His painting is the perfect representation of the aristocracy and the upper middle class – made up of industrialists and financiers, politicians and diplomats – that populated salons and places of power in Rome: art critic Francesco Sapori (1932), the General Director of the Ministry of National Education Ernesto Franco (1935-36), Count Ernesto Vitetti (1938), Pietro Mascagni (1939). Evening and day dresses, velvets, silks and taffetas, furs, pearls, precious rings and fashionable hairstyles characterise his female portraits. In the compositions with vases of flowers and still lifes with fruit and wild game, chinoiserie and oriental ornaments are combined with precious Murano glass, a true cult object of high society in the 1930s. His favourite model for an uninterrupted series of portraits spanning the artist’s entire life is his wife Ester Igea Finzi, a member of a Jewish family from Trieste. An oil painting depicting Igea while playing a cello dates back to 1919. Musical instruments and shawls with long fringes are a recurring element within this production, which is characterised by the austere sobriety of the model and a skilful study of drapery. Igea often appears draped in a green, red or white shawl. From around 1928 onwards, a ring with a large dark stone is also clearly visible. Executed at the beginning of his stay in Rome, this painting can most probably be identified as The Red Shawl, presented in 1928 at the LXXXVI Esposizione della Società promotrice di Torino and sent to Paris the following year for a personal exhibition at the Galerie Reitlinger. Igea, who also appears in other contemporary paintings with a similar short hairstyle and a thick fringe (Lying Woman, 1928, private collection; Portrait of Igea with Pink Shawl, 1929, private collection), is sitting on a heavy carved wooden chair set against a dark background. A beam of light from outside illuminates her face on the left, creating a chiaroscuro effect in the style of the 15th century. The gaze is directed towards a horizon that is unknown to the viewer, chasing elusive thoughts, the elegant hands have long tapered fingers, and the body forms are barely perceptible under the shawl, contributing to a magical and suspended atmosphere.
Originally from the US market, this painting belonged to Rita Boley Bolaffio, an interesting artist who moved overseas to escape the racial laws of 1939. Born Margherita Luzzatto in Trieste, she trained at the Kunstgeweberschule in Vienna and was a pupil of the famous violinist František Ondříček. She got married in 1919 to the architect and engineer Oscar Bolaffio, a cousin of the painter Vittorio Bolaffio and won prestigious awards in Italy. Her artistic activity started in the United States, where she played an important role in spreading the art of collage and decoupage. The provenance of The Red Shawl therefore provides a glimpse into the lively artistic environment in Trieste, to which the Croattos belonged.
Teresa Sacchi Lodispoto
F. X. HARLAS, in “Lidové Listy”, Praga, 5 novembre 1931.
D. Mugittu, Bruno Croatto, Trieste, Fondazione CR Trieste, 2000, pp. 107, 271.
B. [Silvio Benco], Alla Galleria Trieste Bruno Croatto e la sua mostra annuale, “Il Piccolo”, 19 novembre 1940.