Close to Magic Realism and the symbolic style of the Vienna Secession, the works of the Italian painter Felice Casorati of Turin (*1883 Novara | † 1963 Turin), are unique in Italian Modern art. Over the years, Casorati evolved a calm, studio art of which the nude figure was a principal subject. Within a purposely ‘artificial’ ambiance, his figures have a memorable and not at all stilted poignancy. Of all modern artists, he may have most tellingly depicted the angular uncertainties of adolescence. Casorati concentrated on a physical, almost Mannerist tension of pose. As an admirer of artists like Georges de La Tour and Ingres, he was a stern classicist, but with the temperament of a romantic.
Felice Casorati was born in Novara on 4 December 1883. His father, a career officer and amateur painter came from a family known for its mathematicians and scientists. Casorati spent his childhood in Milan, Reggio Emilia, Sassari, and finally Padua, where he devoted himself to musical studies with such intensity that he suffered nervous exhaustion at the age of eighteen. During a period of rest in the Eugancan hills of Praglia, he began to paint, producing his first known work, Paduan Farmhouses, in 1902.
In 1906, he graduated in law from the university of Padua, but decided to follow a career as an artist. Portrait of a Lady, an elegant image of his sister Elvira, was accepted by the jury of the 1907 Biennale. The decorative, symbolic style of the Viennese secession became the formative influence on Casorati's work. His adherence to this style was strengthened by seeing Gustave Klimt's installation at the 1910 Venice Biennale, where he also met the Austrian painter in person.
From 1911-1915 he lived in Verone, and where he co-founded the journal La Via Lattea, to which he contributed woodcuts that recalled the Art Nouveau manner of Jan Toorop. He was also closely associated with a group of young artists, including Gino Rossi, Pio Semeghini, and the sculptor Arturo Martini, all of whom made prints and who showed in Venice at the Ca' Pesaro. Its director, Nino Barbantini, encouraged them in their rebellion against the conventional academicism then dominant in the Veneto. Before being called up into the Italian army in 1915, Casorati made his first sculptures in varnished terracotta, a medium favored by Martini.
During his career, Casorati experimented with a wide variety of techniques of printing, although very few of them were published during his lifetime. He used papyrus, slate, and terracotta matrices, as well as more conventional methods. Casorati made his first etching in 1907. Some of these etchings were influenced by the early woodcuts of Kandinsky.
After the death of his father in 1917, he moved with his family to Turin, and soon became a central figure in the city's intellectual circles. He befriended the composer Alfredo Cassella and the political activist Piero Gobetti, whose group Rivoluzione Liberale he joined in 1922. His close association with the anti-Fascist Gobetti led to Casorati's arrest in 1923, but after this, he avoided open conflict with the regime. After the war, he broke with the avant-garde figuration of the beginning of the century, the geometry and formal simplicity of his works from the twenties exhibited a certain return to order. He drew his inspiration from Renaissance masters. In doing so, he developed modern formal imagery with abstract and dreamlike elements. In his mature works of the post-war period, such as Portrait of Silvia Cenni (1922) and Midday (1922), decorative detail was replaced by meditation on essential form, influenced by the mathematical spatial constructions of Quattrocento painting and, in particular, the still atmosphere of Piero della Francesca's work.
In 1924, Casorati had a one-man exhibition at the Biennale, accompanied by an influential catalog essay by Lionello Venturi. The crystalline purity and enigmatic tone of Casorati's compositions helped to define the style of Magic Realism, which he shared with the early Novecento group. Although he participated in the Novecento exhibitions of 1926 and 1929, he maintained a profile distinct from the movement.
During the twenties, Casorati assumed a leading role in Italian cultural life. In 1923, he established the Scuola Casoratiana for young artists in his studio on the Via Mazzini, where he trained several of the painters who later formed the Gruppo di Sci. In 1930, he married Daphne Maugham, who had frequented his school since 1926. Their son Francesco would also become a painter. Much of Casorati's work during these days was in the field of decorative art and he showed a great interest in interior design. This was encouraged by his friend and principal patron, the Turin industrialist and collector Riccardo Gualino. It was Gualino who commissioned Casorati to work with Alberto Sartoris on the Piccolo Teatro attached to the Gualino house. He also designed stages and costumes for the Teatro dell'Opera in Rome, La Scala in Milan, and the Maggio Musicale in Florence.
From the 1930's on, several of Casorati's subjects were biblical and their compositions were again often reminiscent of late fifteenth and sixteenth-century Italian painting. The female nude in repose or asleep and bathers were other motifs he frequently painted. He also executed a few very striking and schematic landscapes. The severity of Casorati's earlier style softened somewhat and his palette brightened. In 1938, Casorati won the Prize for Painting at the Venice Biennale. He also received awards at exhibitions in Paris, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco in the forties. In 1962 he died.
His works can be found in the collections of Museo d'arte moderna e contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto, Trento; Civic Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art, Turin; Galleria nazionale d'arte moderna e contemporanea, Rome; and Ca' Pesaro, Venice, among others.