Emanuele Cavalli was born in Lucera, near Foggia, in 1904. After moving to Rome in 1921, he first attended the Industrial Art Institute and then Felice Carena’s school at the Orti Sallustiani, where he met Fausto Pirandello and Giuseppe Capogrossi. In these fundamental years, he approached an intimist and delicately expressionist style of painting, which was inspired by Mafai’s recent turn to tonalism and instead moved away from the classicist and celebratory solemnity of the Novecento.
The tonalism of the Roman School
Emanuele Cavalli immediately focused on painting with soft impastos and mysterious atmospheres, in which the chromatic joints establish rhythmic and harmonic relationships and in which the figures express a sense of silent and refined archaism.
In 1926, he exhibited for the first time at the Venice Biennale, presenting three paintings: a Still Life, a Self-Portrait and the figure Letizia. The following year, he took part in the exhibition that launched the tonal experiences of the young artists of the Roman School. Together with Capogrossi and Francesco di Cocco, he exhibited at the Hotel Dinesen in Rome, arousing the interest of the critics and securing an invitation to exhibit in Paris at the Salon Bovy in 1928.
After this stage in France, where he came into contact with the community of Italiens de Paris, Emanuele Cavalli returned to Rome in 1930, continuing to manage a painting style with lyrical intonations that were part of compositions free from any official constraints and intensely connected with antiquity.
The link with esotericism and the Manifesto of Plastic Primordialism
It is not a redundant antique, but reasoned, thought out, reworked, in Cavalli’s case, through the filter of certain mystery implications that arise from his trip to France. In fact, in Paris, he became interested in theosophical and esoteric theories, and was initiated by the Brotherhood of Miriam, a secret society founded by Giuliano Kremmerz, a scholar of hermetic theories who died in France in 1930.
From this point of view, it is possible to understand some unusual iconographic references or the choice of a light tonalism that is supported by minimal and very elegant balances. Working in the same studio as Capogrossi, he got together with him and Roberto Melli to draw up the Manifesto of Plastic Primordialism, published in 1933. In it, they express the need for an agreement between plasticism and spiritualism, to access a dimension that is cosmic and intimate at the same time, in which colour is no longer just “natural expression” but is governed by an order in which painting is equivalent to a spiritual substance and determines, on the canvas, agreements, spatial architectures, essential formalisms.
Primitive colourism and archetypal formalism
With these assumptions, he continued to exhibit at the most important exhibitions. At the 1931 Quadriennale in Rome, he exhibited Rest, and at the 1935 Quadriennale his most significant works of the 1930s The Bride, The Dress, Bather, Woman, Maternity, Landscape and Friendship. In the meantime, he also exhibited at the Galleria del Milione in Milan and at the Jacques Bonjean in Paris and, above all, at the Galleria in Rome, at the invitation of Pier Maria Bardi, who united Milanese and Romans and determined primordial, mythical, lyrical expressions supported by Cagli, Capogrossi and Cavalli himself. In fact, after Cagli’s trip to Pompeii and Paestum, there was a substantial shift towards even more mysterious and archaic figurations, with light-sensitive colours and poses that could not fail to derive from the motionless and timeless solemnity of Pompeii’s frescoes.
This is evident in some of Emanuele Cavalli’s specific works, such as Composition, exhibited at the Sindacale del Lazio in 1936, The dressing the following year, At mirror at the Bergamo Award in 1940 and Accademia at the Bergamo Award in 1941. Formal and chromatic harmonies can be seen in the open sheets, the nude bodies, the light-coloured fabrics and the absorbed faces, but also in the opaque handling of the dense brushstroke that allows the contours to vibrate as soon as another tone is applied.
All this leads to a pure essentiality of both form and colour, which accompanies the artist in all his works that seem to depict mysterious rituals, but also images taken from a silent and reflective everyday life, such as the female figures presented at the Quadriennale in 1943, which play on the musical alchemy of colour. In 1945, Cavalli had an important solo exhibition at the Galleria Lo Zodiaco in Rome and was appointed teacher of painting at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, which he held until 1949. After the war, he embarked on abstract experiments, like Cagli and Capogrossi.