Ubaldo Oppi was born in 1889 in Bologna to a family of merchants who then moved to Vicenza three years after his birth. His parents ran a shoe shop and hoped that their son would be able to continue their business. For this reason, Ubaldo, still only seventeen years old, travelled to Austria and Germany to attend some courses in commercial technique. During this trip, however, he came into contact with the Viennese Secessionist group and followed his passion for art by enrolling in 1907 in the free nude course at the Vienna Academy, directed at the time by Gustav Klimt. This course was to change the rest of his life, as he decided to no longer follow the path dictated to him by his parents, but chose to devote himself to art.
His first works are characterised by a clear Impressionist influence and he exhibited 16 pastels from this period for the first time at the Ca’ Pesaro in 1910, thanks to the acquaintance of Nino Barbantini who had discovered him in Venice, the city where Ubaldo Oppi settled upon his return to Italy.
In 1911 he moved to Paris where he came into contact with the European avant-gardes and especially with Severini and Modigliani, continuing to exhibit at Ca’ Pesaro and showing his works at the Paul Guillaume Gallery for the first time. During this period, his painting was still influenced by the late Impressionist and Secessionist influences that would soon be diluted by his knowledge of Picasso’s blue and pink period.
In 1914, he participated in the Second International Art Exhibition of the Secession with 7 works (Old Man and Girl, Figures of Women at the Café, Portrait of a Seated Woman, Figures in a Café, Women with Shawls, Woman Seated at the Café, Standing Figure of a Man).
The Outbreak of the First World War and the “Return to Order”
With the outbreak of the First World War, Ubaldo Oppi returned to Italy, enlisting as an officer in the Alpini. During the war, he also spent a period of imprisonment in Mathausen. The subjects painted during these years contemplate the misery of human beings, they are subjects charged with melancholy.
In 1919 he returned to Paris where he exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants and in 1922 married Delhy Leone from whom he separated in 1928. From their union his son Guido was born.
At the end of the war, Ubaldo Oppi was among those artists who became spokesmen for the so-called ‘return to order’, joining the group of the ‘Seven painters of the 20th century’, which included Mario Sironi, Achille Funi, Leonardo Dudreville, Piero Marussing, Gian Emilio Malerba and Anselmo Bucci, led by Margherita Sarfatti. The group’s first exhibition was organised by Sarfatti at the Galleria Pesaro and was inaugurated with a speech by Benito Mussolini in 1923.
The new style is characterised by a return to craftsmanship and a modern reinterpretation of the Italian Renaissance. The forms become more statuesque and sharp, and the painting more classical. The subjects are characterised by an icy inexpressiveness and immobility.
Participation in the Venice Biennale and the break with the group
In 1924, he participated in the 14th Venice Biennale with a solo exhibition of 26 works including The Young Bride, Piazzetta di Valle di Cadore, The Friends, October Rain, Sunday Afternoon, August Full Moon and The Awakening of Diana.
Participation in the Biennale with a solo exhibition caused dissension within the group. In fact, Margherita Sarfatti had managed to obtain a room for the group’s artists thanks to Mussolini’s support, but Oppi’s solo exhibition and its success had overshadowed the whole movement, causing its failure.
Oppi was instead at the peak of popularity, won the prize at the Pittsburg International Exhibition in 1925 and exhibited in various European cities (Brussels, Zurich, Dresden, Paris, Vienna and Munich).
In the years that followed, he continued to participate in the various editions of the Venice Biennials and in exhibitions organised mainly in Milan, such as the 1927 exhibition together with Italo Griselli and Emilio Malerba that featured 39 works by the artist including Neve d’ottobre, I chirurghi, Paese dal mio studio, Giovani donne al mare, Pastorella, Nudo, Il cieco, Adamo ed Eva, Donne sotto gli ulivi.
The 1930s and the Mystic Crisis
In the 1930s, Ubaldo Oppi moved to Vicenza and we witness a sudden change of subjects: a mystical crisis brought Oppi closer to religious painting. Between 1927 and 1932, he painted the frescoes with Franciscan stories in the chapel of St. Francis in the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua; then in 1934-1935, he devoted himself to the frescoes in the church of Santa Maria in Bolzano Vicentino. He also realised many altarpieces and religious subjects for private commissions.
During the Second World War he was called up to arms, but was soon discharged because he was ill. He died in 1942 in Vicenza.
Emanuela Di Vivona