Ugo Martelli was born in Ferrara in 1881, the city where he received his first painting training. In the early years of the 20th century, attracted by new trends in painting, he moved to Milan to attend the Brera Academy of Fine Arts. His first paintings were strongly permeated by the Symbolist vein, influenced by Nordic painters such as Böcklin, whose silent and allegorical atmospheres Martelli took up.
Landscapes and silent, suspended atmospheres: between Symbolism and Divisionism
One of his first works was Satyrs in a Pine Forest in 1906, in which myth, mystery and poetry combine with the description of a naturalistic landscape, also veiled with personal and lyrical notes. In these years, and at least until his first solo exhibition in 1912 at the Famiglia Artistica in Milan, the painter from Ferrara devoted himself almost exclusively to the depiction of trees, surrounded by enigmatic atmospheres, often nocturnal, in which his Symbolist vein became increasingly evident.
His first participation in the Venice Biennale was in 1912 with the painting March Evening, while Solitary Trees appeared in 1914. In these years, Ugo Martelli combined Symbolist themes with a very personal Divisionism, similar to the language of Gaetano Previati, full of crepuscular sensations. The divided colour is particularly dusty in the rendering of the atmosphere, while in the representation of landscapes and figures it takes the form of filaments or elongated strokes, which contribute to giving the image a sense of emotional suspension.
1919-1921: a balanced and synthetic formalism combined with secessionist memories
At the Permanente in Milan in 1918 he presented Flowers, The cloud and Evening, while the following year he had a solo exhibition at the Galleria Pesaro in Milan, together with Arrigo Minerbi. On this occasion he presented no less than 55 works, including the enigmatic Light Kisses Shadow, The Calvary of Motherhood, Dante and Beatrice, Moonbeams, The Oak Tree, Rain and Sun, Afternoon and Apple Picking. There are also several works inspired by the tragic Avezzano earthquake of 1915, including The Abruzzo, Abruzzo Lake and Abruzzo country.
Carlo Bozzi, author of the text in the catalogue, writes about the painter: “It is enough to note in each painting the certainty of the expedient, the perspicuity of the expression (this is meant for those who have souls that accompany eyes that see) and, as for the form, the happy decorative function that in larger dimensions would become monumental; the balance of the cut; the contribution of the rhythms of the figures and the outlines of the landscape; the recurrence and recall of lines from one painting to another; the tone – base or the agreement and contrasts that make the variety of lights worthwhile; the transparent ethereal depths and the sober indication of the opacity of the material… “.
Whilst remaining faithful to the almost opaline rendering of the pictorial material, Martelli, with the arrival of the 1920s, abandoned Divisionism in favour of a formalism influenced by the return to order. The synthesis of volumes, rendered through a balanced and sober chromatism, is already evident in the seven works he presented at the Venice Biennale in 1922, among which The three Maries, Bread, Soil and Water stand out. Contact with the writer Corrado Govoni, who dedicated to him the book Ugo Martelli, ossia il primo incontro dell’uomo del bosco (Ugo Martelli, the first encounter with the man in the woods), brought the painter back into contact with Ferrara. He was responsible for the illustrations in Govoni’s Libro del bambino: l’arcobaleno (Children’s book: the rainbow), in which he tackled a decorativism that recalled expressionist memories.
The exhibition at the Pesaro Gallery in 1919 had allowed Martelli to come into contact with Mr and Mrs Fogliata, who became his main collectors. They also commissioned him to decorate their villa at Sirmione on Lake Garda. In this true work of total art, the artist not only painted frescoes on the walls depicting views of Lake Garda, but also designed the furniture. Although only photographic evidence of this undertaking remains, it is possible to see how Ugo Martelli reached the pinnacle of mixing Symbolist and Secessionist tones, without excluding references to Renaissance cycles.
He died after an accident in Desenzano del Garda in 1921, aged just forty.