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Medardo Rosso (Italian, 1858–1928)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

Italian sculptor. In 1870 he moved with his family to Milan, where from 1875 to 1879 he attended the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera. After military service he resumed his studies at the Brera in 1882, but he was expelled the following year for protesting against the traditional teaching methods. During this period, in which he produced his first sculptures, he was in contact with the Milanese literary and artistic avant-garde group gli Scapigliati, which fostered in him the desire to produce naturalistic art. Rather than traditional historical, literary or allegorical themes, Rosso therefore preferred contemporary subjects: ordinary people and the destitution of modern urban life, which he captured faithfully with photographic accuracy (e.g. The Urchin, bronze, h. 240 mm, 1882; Turin, Gal. A. Mod. Viotti).

Notably, however, this ‘search for truth’ was not synonymous with a sterile representation of phenomena; rather, particularly in these early works, the same lively emotional involvement that generally characterized late 19th-century humanitarianism can be detected, still permeated by vestigial Romanticism. Nevertheless, at this stage Rosso’s formal models were still the scapigliatura painters Tranquillo Cremona and Daniele Ranzoni and, in particular, the sculptor Giuseppe Grandi from whose work Rosso learnt to produce shapes with frayed outlines and surfaces susceptible to variations in light and atmosphere.

After taking part in the Esposizione Internazionale di Belle Arti in Rome in 1883, Rosso found an alternative to the formal sculptural solutions inherited from tradition in such works as Another’s Flesh (plaster version, h. 500 mm, 1883; Barzio, Rac. Rosso priv. col.) and, especially The Concierge (wax, h. 385 mm, 1883; Milan, Gal. A. Mod.). These were no longer sculptures in the round but were images on the border between sculpture and painting. The figures appear to be fused with their surroundings as a result of the dissolution of contours and the abolition of empty spaces, and, to be correctly understood, it is necessary to view them from a single angle. Rosso’s attempts to bring sculpture closer to painting and to achieve formal ‘dematerialization’ by means of light became even more marked with Impression of an Omnibus (1883–4; destr.), the iconography of which recalled Honoré Daumier’s Third-class Railway Carriage (1864; Ottawa, N.G.). The work portrayed five half-length figures fused together in a single ‘impression’; empty and filled spaces possessed the same value and were represented in the same formal way. When Degas saw a photograph of the group and mistook it for a photograph of a painting, Rosso felt he had finally been understood.

Also dating from 1884 is the maquette (lost) for his monument to Giuseppe Garibaldi in Milan, in which Rosso, commemorating an encounter between supporters of Garibaldi and the forces of law and order, proposed an anti-celebratory and anti-official approach to this public monument, at the same time confirming his adherence to the democratic, left-wing ideals of Gli Scapigliati. As a result of the need to meet the requirements of those commissioning them, there is a more traditional quality to the four bronze portrait-busts of Carlo Carabelli, Elisa Rognoni Faini, Vincenzo Brusco Onnis, and the music critic Filippo Filippi, which were executed by Rosso between 1886 and 1889 for funerary monuments in the Cimitero Monumentale in Milan. The works are, however, still enlivened by an unconventional painterly style of modelling.

After exhibiting in Paris in 1885 at the Salon des Champs Elysées and in 1886 at the Salon des Indépendants, in 1889 Rosso moved to the French capital, where he stayed until c. 1915. At the Exposition Universelle of 1889 he met Emile Zola, who bought The Concierge. In the same year, after a stay in hospital, he modelled Invalid in Hospital (plaster version, h. 235 mm; Barzio, Rac. Rosso priv. col.), which in its fusion of three different elements, the invalid, the sofa and the floor on which it rests, may be regarded as a link between former work and the major works of the 1890s. Also in 1889 Rosso met the collector Henri Rouart, who commissioned a portrait of himself (wax, h. 1.40 m; Milan, Gal. A. Mod.) and thereby established the artist’s position in the Parisian art world.

Through his contacts with the Post-Impressionists, between 1890 and 1893 Rosso began to make an even closer study of psychological dynamics (e.g. Laughing Girl, bronze, h. 355 mm, 1890; Paris, Mus. Rodin; and Large Laughing Girl, wax, h. 270 mm, 1891; Milan, Gal. A. Mod.) and of the relationship between the figure and its surroundings (in his series of images of children, the most outstanding of which is Child at the Kitchen Stove, wax, h. 455 mm, 1892–3; Barzio, Rac. Rosso priv. col.); he did this, however, without contradicting his constant interest in the concrete nature of visual sensation. In fact his studies resulted in plein-air-type ‘impressions’, such as Man Reading (wax, h. 360 mm, 1894; Milan, Gal. A. Mod.) and Conversation in a Garden (bronze, h. 320 mm, c. 1896; Rome, G.N.A. Mod.), which are views of everyday life depicted from bold angles—either from far above or from the side—and dominated by a strong feeling of tension in the synthesis between figure and setting. This same feeling of tension was taken to extremes of abstraction in Madame X (wax, h. 300 mm, 1896; Venice, Ca’ Pesaro).

Rosso’s friendship with Auguste Rodin dates from 1894, and, in exchange for his Laughing Girl Rodin gave him his own bronze Torso. There was a sharp rift in the relationship between the two sculptors in 1898, however, when, on the occasion of the public exhibition of Rodin’s Honoré de Balzac (Paris, Mus. Rodin), critics drew attention to the ways in which Rosso had influenced the Frenchman, a phenomenon that Rodin refused to admit. Rosso’s creative period was by now drawing to a close. After his exhibition (1896) with the Pre-Raphaelites at the Goupil Galleries in London and the execution of his portrait of Madame Noblet (bronze, h. 515 mm, 1897–8; Milan, Gal. A. Mod.), Rosso devoted most of his efforts to promoting his own work, partly with the critical and financial support of Etha Fles, a Dutch woman whom he had first met at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900 and with whom he enjoyed a long relationship. In 1901 he took part as the only sculptor in a travelling exhibition of Impressionists organized by Fles in the Netherlands. He subsequently exhibited at Berlin and Leipzig (1902), at the Secession in Vienna (1903), the Salon d’Automne in Paris (1904) and in London (1906), where he completed his last sculpture, Ecce Puer (bronze, h. 425 mm; Venice, Ca’ Pesaro), the only work of his to show any conformity with the Symbolist movement.

In 1908 the campaign to promote Rosso in Italy was begun by the critic and painter ardengo Soffici in the literary review La voce. Soffici organized the Prima mostra dell’Impressionismo e di Medardo Rosso in Florence in 1910, which opened the way for Rosso to participate in the principal Italian exhibitions, the Internazionale di Belli Arti (1911) in Rome and the Venice Biennale (1914). In 1913 he met the art critic and friend of Mussolini, Margherita Sarfatti, who after World War I (which Rosso spent in Paris and Milan) took the sculptor under her wing, inviting him in 1926 to participate in the Prima mostra del novecento italiano in Milan. In the same year his works were also exhibited in New York in the Exhibition of Modern Italian Art at the Grand Central Art Galleries Inc. Rosso’s sculptures were particularly highly appreciated by the Futurists, especially Umberto Boccioni, who identified in them the premises for a dynamic conception of plastic shape in relation to its surroundings.

Marica Magni
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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