Giuseppe Capogrossi was born in Rome in 1900 into a family of Roman aristocracy. After receiving his classical diploma during the First World War, he was immediately enlisted and fought on the Adamello. After returning from the war, he enrolled in law school and graduated to follow his mother’s wishes.
At the same time, however, he was driven by a deep artistic feeling and, through the intercession of a Jesuit uncle, was introduced to the studio of the painter and decorator Giambattista Conti in the early 1920s.
Felice Carena School and the exhibition at the Hotel Dinesen in 1927
These were the years in which he devoted himself to copying 15th-century masters, especially Paolo Uccello and Piero della Francesca. From 1923 onwards, he was one of the pupils at Felice Carena’s school at the Orti Sallustiani, a crucial moment that brought him closer to other painters who would later become fundamental friends, including Emanuele Cavalli and Fausto Pirandello.
It was in the mid-1920s that the technical and stylistic approach that distinguished all of Giuseppe Capogrossi’s early work before the Second World War took shape. Between the composition of still lifes, delicate portraits and suspended, silent landscapes, he began to frequent the environment of the Casa d’Arte Bragaglia and, in May 1927, made his debut in an exhibition that marked the birth of Roman tonalism in the 1930s, the one at the Pensione Dinesen, together with Emanuele Cavalli and Francesco di Cocco.
Three young revolutionaries united by the oracular suspension of Piero della Francesca paintings and dominated not by the redundant and now prevailing classicism of the Novecento return to order, but by the natural recall to some aspects of Valori Plastici, reworked through a modern and expressive lyricism.
The Tonalism of the thirties and the Manifesto of Plastic Primordialism
After repeated stays in Paris at the end of the 1920s, Capogrossi took part in his first Venice Biennale in 1930 with a Figure that already contained in nuce the tonal research of the following years, conducted together with Cavalli, Cagli, Gentilini and Janni. These investigations into colour, which is interpreted through a solution of magical, simplified architecture in archaic, dreamy forms, are expressed in the works presented at the 1932 Sindacale in Rome: Seascape, Woman with veil, Harlequin and House in demolition.
The chromatic preciousness, conferred by a tonalism that is silent and suspended almost towards abstraction of the masses, returns in his most significant works of the 1930s, By the river, Boat trip, The swimmer, Full on the Tiber, Dancer, some of which were exhibited at the Galleria del Milione in Milan in 1933 and are now conserved in the Cerasi collection at Palazzo Merulana. In the Manifesto of Plastic Primordialism, signed together with Melli and Cavalli, he formalised the ideas around the tonal painting of the Roman School, highlighting a strong spiritual and archaic component. Young virile bodies, reminiscent of Piero della Francesca’s volumes, delicately display enchanted atmospheres, with a dreamy flavour, crystallised in moments of immobility, as seen in the canvases The Poet of the Tiber (1934) and Dance on the River, with which he won the Carnegie Prize in Pittsburgh in 1937. Two years later, he held a solo exhibition at the III Quadriennale in Rome with sixteen works, including Dialogues, Carnival Objects, Peasant Woman, Fairground Shed, Harlequin and Country Theatre. In them, the colours are light and set as in the works of the 15th-century masters, the movements slow and set in an almost timeless balance and tonal harmonies that fall within the poetic union of light and colour.
Capogrossi’s figurative research continued into the 1940s. In 1943, at the Quadriennale in Rome, he exhibited some figures of Ballerinas concentrated in their preparatory gestures, such as Dancer combing her hair, very close to some of Cavalli’s or Ziveri’s figures. It was not until the post-war period, on the threshold of the 1950s, that Giuseppe Capogrossi’s first research into neo-cubist and informal painting appeared, inaugurating his personal and signic alphabet, known throughout the world, the iconic “comb” or “fork” which represents the artist’s new poetics and which was seen for the first time in 1950, at a personal exhibition at the Galleria del Secolo in Rome.