Italy's Imprint on 20th-Century Art. EXHIBITION: PAINTINGS

IT'S a myth, of course, that modern artists throughout our century have not been concerned with the past. It would, in fact, be hard to name just one who, however avant garde, is unaware of a tradition of one sort or another, even if it's only as a thing to fight against.

This is overwhelmingly true of Italian artists, with their gargantuan cultural heritage.

Before World War I, the country's Futurist movement took as its battle cry ``Destroy the Museums!'' But just as vigorously after the war, some of the Futurists, as well as artists who, like Giorgio De Chirico, were never part of the movement abandoned modernity in search of a traditional form of art involving classicism or early Renaissance primitivism.

It's also something of a myth that art in our century has become increasingly and inexorably international. In fact, national character has not merely survived in art; it has positively flourished.

That, at least, appears to be the thesis behind the exhibition ``Italian Art in the 20th Century'' on view at the Royal Academy of Arts here in London (through April 9). The show provides a long, thorough look at the art of Italy as it has developed in the last 88 years.

TWENTIETH-CENTURY artists, generally, are far less restricted in immediate awareness of new art outside their own countries than their predecessors. This international consciousness has sometimes appeared to fuel a kind of bland sameness in new art throughout the world. Perhaps exhibitions like this one are a reaction against such internationalism.

Anyway, what this one fascinatingly proves is that these artists have never really abandoned the ethos of their birthplace, even when they have become voluntary or involuntary exiles. The implication is enlightening and rather encouraging: Internationalism - the hoary old ``global village'' clich'e - need not lead to a loss of distinct national, or personal, character.

While Italian artists such as the Futurists - who, while transforming French Cubism into something aggressively dynamic, produced their own international following - or the ``metaphysical'' De Chirico, or the recent Postmodernist painters Sandro Chia and Mimmo Paladino have been perfectly knowledgable about art in Paris or New York, they have nevertheless created their own potently original and individual visions.

In Italy, it seems, vision rather than fashion is the hallmark of one 20th-century artist after another, and it may well be that their cultural heritage has a strong bearing on this.

Not that artists like the Arte Povera sculptor Mario Merz - whose ``Double Igloo'' fills its own space to extraordinary effect, fragile and dangerous but somehow protective - exist in a parochial backwater. Far from it.

Consider Alberto Burri - who, in the '60s carried ``collage'' or ``assemblage'' to his own extremes of abstraction and rough, expressive boldness. He is certainly part of a tendency found in many countries. But there is a wholeness and richness about Burri's version - a kind of cultural confidence, perhaps - that has considerable value.

IN addition, there are in Italy, as elsewhere, those artists of unique and powerful sensibility who seem to exist within their own world and time-scale.

Giorgio Morandi is one obvious example, and it is a failing of this show that the selections from this profound still-life and landscape painter have been deliberately confined to early works, which are unresolved and crude when compared with the quiet transcendence of his later achievements. A visitor who does not know Morandi's work will go away with a completely distorted and unfair view of it. Unfortunately, this shortcoming may be the result of a silly bias against an artist who had unpretentious aesthetic aims, with which the show's organizers are not in sympathy.

But on the whole ``Italian Art in the 20th Century'' succeeds in conveying an impressive comprehensiveness.

Its organizers even devote an entire small room to the sensuous and primitive art of Amedeo Modigliani - who is, after all, Italian, despite the inspiration he drew from from ``Negro Art'' and Parisian Modernism. That he is given such breathing space in this Italian potpourri says much for the show.

BACKGROUND BRIEFING `Italian Art in the 20th Century' is the third in a series of large-scale survey shows. The earlier ones featured German and British art. The figure behind all three is Norman Rosenthal, who was also closely involved with the 1981 exhibition which prompted the series: `A New Spirit in Painting.'

This show, which was international in scope, posited that the '80s were seeing a revitalized interest in some of the more traditional aspects of painting - the figural, the anecdotal, and the allegorical - as well as in brushwork and draftsmanship. Whether the `newness' of these propositions was real or imaginary, it gave the Royal Academy a new rationale for examining the modern art in which it had long lacked confidence. Certainly the `new spirit' had many things about it that actually suggested an `old spirit.'

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