Italo Valenti, His life
Despite only ever intermittently engaging in conversation, Italo Valenti was a relaxed and perceptive talker. He loved to recall places, people, sensations and circumstances, and would reminisce in detail about emotive and often premonitory events. These fragments of his past, preserved by the memory of friends and, more importantly, crystallised in the notes kept by his wife Anne, fill out and enliven the written documents in the Italo Valenti Archives in Ascona and, of course, that other fundamental source for the biography of an artist his works.
In 1961 he went to the United States to take part in a group show at the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburg, and in 1962 he was in London for a one-man show at the Waddington Galleries. Other exhibitions followed that year at the Modern Art Gallery, Basel, at Oldenburg in Germany and again at the Lienhard gallery, Zurich. More importantly he was included in a selected group show of work by a number of major older artists Arp, Bissier, Nicholson and Tobey. According to Willy Rotzler in the catalogue, these artists' works all had "the meditative element, the fundamental issues for the human spirit". At another show in the Zurich gallery, Valenti met the critic and publisher Manuel Gasser, marking the beginning of a friendship based on great mutual respect. The same may be said of his friendship with another important French critic and writer Christian Zervos. In 1964 there was a show of collages at the Waddington Galleries, and one of the works shown, Palestrina, was purchased by the Tate Gallery. In 1965, in addition to Swiss exhibitions, there were also shows at the Kunstverein, Esslingen, Germany, the Dawson Gallery, Dublin, the Osborne Gallery, New York, and a selected group show at the Rigelhaupt gallery, Boston (followed up by a one-man show at the same gallery the following year). In 1967 a travelling exhibition took his works to several cities in the United States. Valenti would have acquired much greater fame, but he was retiring, fragile and at times depressed. When this melancholic side to his nature took over, he turned to meditation, to books and his canvases. The sweeping Dutch countryside, admired by the painter during a trip with his wife and other acquaintances in Holland, is reflected in some large paintings in 1966-68. In 1967 he began working in the Locarno atelier of François Lafranca, a printmaker, paper craftsman, publisher and artist. Here he embarked on his first experiments in colour lithography. At the same time he established relationships with the collectors William and Agnes Schöning and Sergio Grandini, the generous publisher of a high-quality series of books which included two works dedicated to Valenti: Lunes (1975) and Magiciennes (1982). A short story by Piero Chiara, I Re Magi ad Astano, published by Grandini in 1978 was illustrated with collages by Valenti, and was an opportunity for him to meet the celebrated writer from Luino. Through Chiara he was to meet Franco Vercelotti, a keen art-lover and promoter in Milan and the Lake Maggiore area. In 1967 he also married his companion, the artist Anne de Montet, after his previous marriage had been annulled. This provided the opportunity for a new trip. Valenti had always longed to go to Brittany and his journey was to inspire a number of works with the subdued colours of a harsh landscape of sea and rocks. Intrigued by the descriptions and urging of Alfred Andersch, he made an equally stimulating and fascinating trip to Bruges and Gand, where he explored first-hand the Flemish painters, especially Van Eyck and Memling. Another source of inspiration that year were his conversations with a young student of art history at the University of Geneva Anna Beretta-Piccoli. They were occasions to reconsider at Anna's prompting his development over almost forty years, first in the Corrente and then through the various personal experiences, at times coming into contact with other movements and personalities. He thus elaborated on the issues of painting, retracing a tradition, interpreting modernity and returning to the perennial themes of humankind. In all this time he had evidently never lost his youthful enthusiasm and spontaneity or his powerful but difficult creativity in the struggle to achieve such limpid results on canvas, if introverted and deeply meditative as he was, he blithely played with his student's young children or mixed with those at work in the small room adjoining his new atelier in Ascona. In late 1967 Valenti participated in the exhibition entitled "Corrente Thirty Years On", a retrospective at the Galleria 32, Milan, and a book entitled Corrente: 30 litografie, published by Teodorani. Other exhibitions followed over the next few years at the Museo Civico, Turin, at Olten and Winterthur. In a catalogue Manuel Gasser stressed the extremely essential forms, the greater perseverance and the spiritual tension in his work. In 1970 there were selected group shows in England, Switzerland and Milan, where Scheiwiller, another fervent admirer of the artist, published the volume Italo Valenti, consisting of twenty-two collages with a text by Manuel Gasser. In 1971 in a d'après exhibition at Villa Ciani, Lugano, Valenti showed a collage with a detail of the fourteenth-century Virgin and Child by Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti a highly imaginative and refined modern interpretation of the sinuous line of the Sienese tradition. The same year a large one-man show at the Galerie Kornfeld, Zurich, crowned the artist's career, confirming the widespread recognition. Anne and Italo then set off for Greece, on another eagerly awaited trip and inevitable stage in his spiritual, cultural and artistic development. This time he plunged into the sunny Mediterranean landscape, exploring the roots of myth and the fountainhead of so many masterpieces of poetry, drama and philosophy, which he had already become acquainted with as a boy. With a writer's flair for rendering lively details and arousing emotions, he would always delight in recounting his Greek trip (although he actually returned a second time in 1974 with his old friends the Bechtlers, art collectors from Zurich). He felt the presence of the Western soul much more keenly in the ancient Greek world than in the Christian tradition. This experience led to a series of remarkably poignant works: Antenati, Battello di Ulisse, Oracolo, etc. In addition to the sublime emotional Greek reason, in his reading and meditation, he also explored poets and mystics from the other side of the world. Valenti responded to Oriental ideas, especially because of the rarefied emotion and stark style he found in Japanese writers and artists. But his intellectual interests were genuinely remarkably wide-ranging. For example, he once gifted me a book entitled Jeux et sapience du Moyen Age (Pl é iade 1978) a work full of fun and intelligent games, inhabited by people and animals, saints and clowns, fables and morality, subtly portrayed even in all their most instinctive aspects. This volume was kept with other small books and objects on a long narrow shelf in his new house, a cottage in the centre of Ascona, half-hidden by a small garden with a vine pergola, shady trees, flower beds, green gate and stone walls, where the Valentis had come to live in 1973. The Ascona house was the couple's lasting home, an oasis of intense calm isolated from the world's hubbub where visitors were given a festive welcome. Here he mainly explored variations of the moon: the enigmatic nocturnal element and inseparable companion of the sorceresses in many of his works from 1938, and then from 1958 and the Chaos series, the absolute protagonist in small canvases, and individual or series of collages and engravings. Valenti often visited the Locarno-Monti observatory. He read the poems to the moon by Li Po and the Pleasant Hours by the 15th-century Japanese philosopher-monk Urabe Kenko. He may even have been influenced by the first sputniks. A 1975 exhibition at the Galleria Portico d'Arte at Omegna, owned by Luciana and Luigi Alberti, led to another highly polished book, printed by an equally enthusiastic publisher: a "multiplied collage" in hues of night blue; this was followed by the Lune in the above-mentioned Grandini series. Other publications that year included Otto poesie by Eugenio Montale with a collage by Italo Valenti, and Le pied de I'alouette (1976), poems by Anne de Montet with a drawing and a "multiple" of a collage, both published by Scheiwiller and printed by Lucini. In 1977-78, François Lafranca also printed poems by Montet with aquatints and etchings by Valenti in Locarno. Eugenio Montale and Valenti were brought together again in the publication of Mottetti, commented by the philologist and friend Dante Isella, and illustrated by two aquatints; the result was a superb edition published by Valdonega (Verona 1980). The major exhibitions in this period were held at the Vismara gallery (1974), Milan, the Kornfeld and Klipstein galleries in Berne (1974), the Pudelko, Bonn (1975) and the Brinkman, Amsterdam (1975). At a second exhibition at the Kornfeld (1976), the artist chose a quote from Kenko for the catalogue: "The circle of the moon is only perfect for a single instant, before rapidly waning. Unless you are careful, you will fail to notice that the form changes so much in one night". In 1978 Valenti took part in the major retrospective "Corrente, Culture and Society, 1938- 1942" at the Palazzo Reale, Naples. In 1979 he showed at the Westend Galerie, Frankfurt. In a review of the exhibition in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Christa von Helmot used a strikingly perceptive analogy to describe the evolution of Valenti's art: "When you love music, you begin with Verdi and end with Monteverdi". In 1980 Italo Valenti received two major acknowledgements: a large retrospective of 107 works from the period 193979, held at the Kunsthaus, Zurich, from January to March, and an exhibition of miniatures a wide-ranging series of small-format collages shown at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, in June with the simultaneous publication of the book Piccoli Collages, Small Collages by Scheiwiller. On their way back from Scotland, Italo and Anne made a last emotional visit to Ben Nicholson in his Hampstead house. Another important exhibition of miniature collages was held at the new Pieter Coray gallery, Lugano. These were generally carefree years for the artist, and there were exchanged visits with Andersch and Golo Mann, as well as with the celebrated photographer (and water-colourist) Henri Cartier-Bresson, the naturalist and sculptor Alfonso Sella, a companion from the early Milanese days, who lived with his wife in a converted convent at Biella. In 1981 Italo Valenti was awarded Swiss nationality. The same year he was invited to take part in one of his most important selected group exhibitions: the "Peintres du silence" at the Musée Jenisch, Vevey, which also included works by Nicholson, Morandi, Bissier, Rothko and Tobey. In Germany his work was included in an exhibition dedicated to Italian art after 1945 at the Westend Galerie, Frankfurt. In 1982 his seventieth year was celebrated with a retrospective at the newly restored Museo del Borgo, organised by the Ascona City Council. Another retrospective was held at the Museo Comunale, Campione d'ltalia, under the patronage of Sergio Grandini. In 1983 he was included in a group show entitled the "Years of the Corrente" at Bergamo and in another exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh. Meanwhile two new books on the painter were published: Venti incisioni di Italo Valenti, with an introduction by S. Grandini and text by G. Bezzola (1983) and Walter Schönenberger, Italo Valenti (1984). As in 1981 the Schlégl gallery, Zurich, put on a show of gouaches and water-colours, again inspired by poems to the moon. In 1985 interest in the Corrente as an "opposition movement of art and culture" came to a climax in a wide-ranging retrospective at the Palazzo Reale, Milan. Valenti was present with twenty-four works. As with the other artists, the paintings on show documented not only his early years but also the development of his art. In the catalogue, Elena Pontiggia described Valenti's personality within the movement, focusing on his disposition to awe and enchantment as well as the tendency to evasion or quest for the essential. Shortly afterwards Valenti was deprived of speech and the use of his right arm by a stroke. But this in no way diminished the growing public interest in his life and art. Evidence comes from two fundamental events in 1987: the carefully documented and lavishly illustrated book edited by Sylvio Acatos and published by the Biliothèque des Arts (Lausanne and Paris), and a huge exhibition at the Fondation Pierre Gianadda, Martigny. He was also dedicated a whole room in the inaugural exhibition at the re-opening of the Musée Jenisch, Vevey, and in 1991 he was honoured with a splendid retrospective at the Civica Galleria d'Arte Villa dei Cedri, in Bellinzona, which later moved on to the Galleria Epper, Ascona. His eightieth birthday was celebrated in 1992 with an equally splendid exhibition at the Fondazione Querini Stampalia, Venice, a nostalgic visit to the places of his past. Meanwhile Valenti had been laboriously composing collages with his last remaining strength in a period he dubbed as the "epoch of the left hand". His health, however, deteriorated, especially after a car accident in 1994 deprived him of the caring company of his beloved Anne. He died on 6 September 1995 in Ascona, and was laid to rest in the local cemetery.