If Pompeian still life frescos and Cubist still life paintings had a baby, Carlo Carra’s Natura Morta con la Squadra would be that child. Within the positivism of those Pompeian paintings and the analytic nature of Cubism lies the intelligence of this painting. I recently saw it at the Novecento museum in Milan and then walked next-door to the Palazzo Reale, where there was a show of still life frescos from Pompeii. It was startling to think how much had happened in those intervening 2,000 years, and yet how little had really changed. Italian artists and architects embraced Modernism as fully as artists anywhere, but they held onto their Greco-Roman roots.
For all the visual connections between Natura Morta con la Squadra and the still lifes of Pompei, the spirit of each could not be more different. The Pompeian fresco with its charming naiveté contrasts with Carra’s studied simplification and purposeful interplay of two and three dimensions. In the fresco, art looks to nature; in the painting, nature is shaped by art. We are clearly in the 20th C. with Carra, which he underscores with his title: the square (“Squadra”), an artist’s tool, says this is not an ordinary kitchen tabletop. And that self-conscious aesthetic is at the heart of the metaphysical structure of the painting.
What I love about this Carra is the combination of a cerebral metaphysical space and a plastic sensuality that I also see in the fresco. An array of luscious grays, set off by creamy white, charcoal black and one ochre triangle create a rich and restrained tonality worthy of a 17th C. Dutch still life. The variation of a tabletop as the inside of a box (or maybe a room) is ingenious, matched by the way the artist has so cleverly described and arranged the objects and their shadows. It’s an intense and complicated visual experience and, for me, a pure pleasure.
Amy Weiskopf is a still life painter who lives in Brooklyn. She is represented by Hirschl and Adler Modern.