In the portrait painted by his friend Graham Sutherland the Italian writer Giorgio Soavi, who passed away yesterday here in Milan aged 85, has his hands tied behind his back because, Sutherland said, you're bound forever by your talent.
It's a wonderful, slightly kinky way of depicting Soavi's manifest destiny -- the gift for observation, the wit, the deep knowledge of the visual arts (that he sweetly downplayed calling himself "as ignorant as an old mole"), the talent for creating perfectly crafted little stories -- an imaginary walk to his local café with Raffaello Sanzio (Raffaello doesn't drink espresso, obviously) discussing the "Triumph of Galatea", a riff about his beloved mountains in Cortina d'Ampezzo or a dinner at Harry's Bar, a reflection on Guido Cagnacci's "Death of Cleopatra" ("I tremble at the thought that Cagnacci's nude women once upon a time actually walked this earth") or on Antonio Possenti's painting -- "an explosion of paint" -- of young Puccini playing the piano in a bordello to make ends meet. Or his theory that electric light has actually been invented by Seurat, so that he could draw his "Eden Concert".
Some of his opinions could make you argue with friends all night at a dinner party -- like Soavi's famous smackdown of a giant like Giorgio Morandi whose "fateful bottles have a poetic grace, but his repetitions tire me. I'm more attracted to a little bridge of Van Gogh's or to his bedroom at Arles, because life invades them. Same thing for Giacometti: his ghosts cheer up my life. Morandi soothes, but the stillness in his paintings never moves me to dream".
Soavi wrote short stories and novels and poetry, and was friends with Giacometti (who painted his portrait, like Sutherland), Balthus, Alechinsky, Ferroni, de Chirico, Topor, Mitoraj, Theimer, Sutherland, Folon. He could fascinate with an anecdote about a dinner in a Rome trattoria with Henri Cartier-Bresson, eating and simultaneously taking photos whipping out the Leica he held in his lap all night. But Opera Chic came to know him -- and love him -- thanks to his (mostly short) pieces in the arts pages of august Corriere della Sera, a delicious treat for Italy's art lovers. You're entertained by his wit, informed by his knowledge, and fascinated by the shining elegance of his style (nevermind the goofy translations that I have performed here).
Friends very dear to OC's heart and of serious, informed judgment consider Soavi one of the greatest stylists in the Italian language of the post-WWII era, and very likely the greatest of the last 35 years (since the death of Carlo Emilio Gadda). OC has come late to Italy and late to Soavi's writings in Corriere della Sera -- he stopped publishing, because of his illness, at the beginning of 2007 -- but in this short period she has read a lot of his criticism, his fiction and even his poetry -- mostly out of print, hence rare as all vintage vines have to necessarily be -- but if anyone has written more cogent, deeper, more beautifully crafted criticism about painting in the twentieth century than Soavi did, well, Opera Chic can only think of one other name -- Roberto Longhi, il maestro assoluto.
One of the great joys of the next few years will be to trawl second hand bookstores for his out-of-print gems (OC already has everything that's still in print from him) and hopefully one day his newspaper pieces -- he wrote for Corriere then for Il Giornale and eventually back to Corriere in his last years -- will be collected in volume.
Until then, Corriere della Sera gracefully makes available online for free his most recent work for the paper. It's all here.
If you cannot read Italian, it's worth it to learn this beautiful maddening language just to spend some precious time with Giorgio Soavi.