The Metamorphoses of Alberto Savinio

“Child prodigies usually have the fate of soap bubbles,” wrote Giorgio de Chirico in 1952, before observing that in the case of his recently deceased younger brother ...

“Child prodigies usually have the fate of soap bubbles,” wrote Giorgio de Chirico in 1952, before observing that in the case of his recently deceased younger brother, Alberto Savinio, “the prodigy … continues tirelessly on his path. The rages and constant [Fascist] boycotts [against him] of some fifteen years ago have given way to a certain calm. And the prodigy advances irrespective of any friend or enemy, of any praise or reproach”1

Fate has not been kind to Savinio, the multifaceted artist, musician, and writer who accompanied de Chirico in his “metaphysical” reinterpretation of painting, from the feverish years before World War I to the birth of surrealism. Savinio’s outsized role in the movement has until recently escaped wider notice, but de Chirico’s prophecy about his brother might yet prove timely. All of Savinio’s work, from fiction to set design, from music to painting, approaches times of crisis and uncertainty as occasions for higher intellectual inquiry. His art resists simplification by combining multiple points of view and mixing complexity with humor—a vivid lesson for today’s polarized zeitgeist.

One of Savinio’s recurrent themes is the instability of existence, and thus the impossibility of encapsulating life in a set form. In his paintings as well as his writing, he transforms established identities—from gender to national belonging—into grotesque, enigmatic figures. In his writings of the 1930s and early ’40s, composed at a time when fascism was thriving all over Europe, he cheerfully dismissed institutions such as the traditional family based on fixed gender roles, which he considered deeply imbued with authoritarian logic. His literary works of those years, most of which have yet to be translated into English, speak to us today with the freshness of a new voice, one that upends established conventions while aiming at a more nuanced understanding of civil society. Savinio’s radical aesthetics emerge in service to what he calls “a mental democracy,” free of prejudices stemming from “things that have lost all meaning but still believe themselves to possess one.”2

Long overshadowed by his brother, Savinio was himself a protagonist of the 20th-century European avant-garde, equally acclaimed by Guillaume Apollinaire for his shocking musical soirées in cubist Paris and by André Breton in the interwar period as a forefather of his own révolution surréaliste. Savinio’s literature and paintings uniquely blend ancient Western mythology with modern anxieties through humor, irony, and a profound awareness, similar to that of more celebrated modernist masters such as Joyce or Duchamp, of the conventionality of artistic languages.


Kafka Transformed

By Saskia Elizabeth Ziolkowski

A recent exhibition dedicated to Savinio at the Center for Italian Modern Art (CIMA), in New York, the artist’s first in over 20 years in the United States, was an important step toward recognizing his distinctive contribution to modernism.3 Yet paintings alone cannot sum up his tireless creativity. Savinio was also a prolific and highly original fiction writer. And one of the best sources for appraising his legacy may be the critical articles he published. Always piercing, often pioneering, these reflections encompass the most disparate topics, from aesthetics to politics, with a special focus on the contradictions of bourgeois and emerging mass culture.

His early 1920s writings on art, for instance, are crisp critiques of the Wagnerian ideals then fashionable in avant-garde Europe. Savinio interpreted the “total” work of art and the monumental sense of unity advocated by the influential German composer as relics of a dead world. Following his beloved Nietzsche, he despised unifying ideas as empty cages, preferring a plurality of truths to any ultimate revelation. Savinio depicted and theorized himself as a dilettante, considering dilettantismo the supreme achievement of civilization.

Only in the past few years has Savinio’s legacy been appreciated outside national borders. The postponed recognition is curious for a cosmopolitan like him, an Italian born in Greece and partially schooled in Munich, who had lived for long periods in Paris and for whom geographical and national limits bore little meaning. In her review of the CIMA show, New York Times art critic Roberta Smith hints at a possible overall reappraisal: “The vitality and prescience of the best paintings here make you wonder what would have happened had Savinio devoted more time to painting, while making it clear that his interests remained peripatetic and polymorphous, even within one medium. Nonetheless his unsettled, unsettling work may feel more alive and useful to our moment than his brother’s.”4

As a polymath artist, Savinio was unafraid of dispersing his talent among many diverse creative endeavors. For they all bear witness to a constantly changing reality, in which past and present coexist. Mythological figures converse with modern bourgeois interiors in both his fiction and his visual work. Throughout his oeuvre Savinio pursued a spirited rediscovery of the limitless guises of existence. He repeatedly evoked pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus and his enigmatic fragments of texts—such as “Everything flows” and the peculiarly obscure “Nature loves to hide”—as a guiding light for his own difficult voyage.

Savinio did not consider Heraclitus’s hermetic statements as principles for a new esoteric knowledge; rather, he saw them as incentives to explore his lived reality, marveling at its unceasing metamorphosis. Savinio’s figurations are thus purposefully unstable, relentlessly dynamic, always on the verge of turning into unprecedented shapes. In this way, they present an alternative to the motionless atmosphere of de Chirico’s claustrophobic piazzas, such as the celebrated painting Mystery and Melancholy of a Street (1914).

Giorgio de Chirico, Mystery and Melancholy of a Street (1914)

In the same vein, Savinio’s painterly subjects defy classifications, veering toward hybrid forms. Monstrous appearances conceal multiple meanings, embracing mythical references and a parody of late 19th-century criminal anthropology in the mode of Cesare Lombroso. At a time when positivist scientists with unflinching faith in Darwinism tried to predict, through measurements of facial features or racial pedigree, whether a person would become a criminal, Savinio represented Greek deities, then considered the paragon of ideal perfection and beauty, as monstrous and polymorphous.

Positivistic science is also mocked in one of his tales, the philosophical journey “Our Soul,” in which the protagonists visit a modern museum where Psyche, the Greek mythological heroine, is held in captivity and gaped at like Native Americans had been at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The question regarding Savinio’s relevance for the present moment thus finds a first answer: his disparate production, his own lighthearted dispersion against the heaviness of the unique form is a counterargument against simplifications. Indeed, his “mental democracy” is the capacity to accept multiple, contrasting, contradicting ideas at the same time, a “personal hygiene” that he deems a prerequisite to political democracy.

Another answer might be sought in Savinio’s idiosyncratic relationship with autobiography and memory. The surrealist movement, beginning with its first manifesto in 1924, declared dreams a critical inspiration for modern art—bringing together Freudian interpretation and late Romantic reminiscences, from Poe to Lautréamont. For his part, Savinio, in articles published in 1921, asserted the centrality of memory to modern art, contending that dreams, due to their inconsistency, cannot provide any aesthetic foundation.5 Walking a tightrope between absurdity and insight, he argued that not only his own memories but those of all the human beings of this world, living and dead, constituted the premises of the new art.

Far from an attempt to bring to the fore a more profound reality, his arresting creations are a conspicuous attempt to build an imaginary autobiography in which his own memory conflicts with the multiple memories that haunt things, objects, landscapes, and, of course, other people, past and present. Recollections of ancient civilizations and erudite citations are employed to cheerfully dismantle a stable image of reality. The author visualizes the specters of everyday life through striking images and revealing linguistic puns, like the drawing titled My Parents (1946), in which the faces and bodies of Savinio’s parents have become one with the armchairs in which they spent their evenings.

Alberto Savinio, My Parents (1945). Private Collection. (c) 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS) / SIAE, Rome. Photograph by Dario Lasagni

Almost all of the bewildering visual works presented at CIMA belong to Savinio’s second period in Paris, between the two wars. In The Dream of Achilles, from 1929, blue forests contrast with the strikingly colorful toylike abstraction of the background. Respectable bourgeois families and enigmatic classical statues are equally disfigured by hybridization with the animal realm, becoming like Egyptian animal-headed divinities who mimic eminent themes and postures of art history (The Annunciation, 1932). In his family portraits, sophisticated visual citations engage in a dialogue with the humorous deformation of traditional and modern canons (Reception Day, 1930).


In the imposing Self-Portrait as an Owl, the sitter’s 19th-century bourgeois garments somehow soften the disconcerting gaze of the owl and the monstrous size of his hand (an echo, perhaps, of Parmigianino’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror?). The painting is a memory puzzle, made up of references to art history, reminiscences of the artist’s father (evoked by the 19th-century clothing), and an allusion to the city of Athens, as symbolized by the owl, which is also an image of death.

Alberto Savinio, Self-portrait as an Owl (1936). GAM – Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Turin. © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS) / SIAE, Rome. Photograph by Dario Lasagni

The self-proclaimed “dilettante” Savinio rejects “seriousness” as a requisite for art. His creations are confidently elitist: heedless of obscurity, Savinio is a vigorous defendant of art’s autonomy. His works are totally alien to any pedagogy, to any propagandistic goal. Like de Chirico (but in contrast to the avant-garde movements that courted him, such as the surrealists), he emphasizes irony and memory over agitprop and manifestoes. Unlike his brother, however, Savinio would never depict himself as an unmoving statue or monument, as de Chirico did in later paintings. Savinio is too invested in life’s constant metamorphosis.

Savinio’s anarchic reinterpretations of Heraclitus and Nietzsche not only look at the past with a playful eye but also anticipate significant directions in contemporary art. The attention to hybrid bodies and to monstrous beings were in the CIMA exhibition associated with the creations of Louise Bourgeois, for example. In 1986–87, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Italian artist Francesco Clemente showed The Departure of the Argonaut, a visual elaboration of the central chapters of Savinio’s most experimental novel, Hermaphrodito (1919). Still, Savinio’s uncompromising irony does not only address the monstrous and the extraordinary. He is probably most “alive and useful to our moment,” as Smith put it, when his corrosive gaze tackles the existential instability of our everyday life.

In the spring of 2016 the Guggenheim Museum of New York hosted How to Work Better, a vast retrospective on the career of Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss. It included a profusion of materials, media, and practices, from video art to clusters of artifacts defying any label. Of particular relevance to Savinio is Suddenly This Overview. Begun in 1981 and still growing, the work comprises hundreds of small-scale unfired clay sculptures. Some, such as “Peanuts” or “Microscope,” represent objects of everyday life. Some embody seminal philosophical questions, often through the interaction between sculptures and their titles.

The more conceptual of these represent common dichotomies, illuminating the linguistic structure of our perceived reality: “Possible/Impossible,” “Low/High,” or “Comedy/Drama.” Others ironically resort to history: epochal moments in pop culture like “The Invention of the Miniskirt” or “Strangers in the Night: Exchanging Glances” are located side by side with groundbreaking events in world history seen from unusual perspectives (“The Dog of the Inventor of the Wheel Feels the Satisfaction of His Master”). Some of the small sculptures are apparently completed while others are deliberately unfinished. All are exhibited on plinths that single out each from the others. When observed together, however, they constitute a visually and conceptually consistent assemblage.

Art critic Mark Godfrey describes Suddenly This Overview as “an endeavor to create an encyclopedic accumulation of material while at the same time recognizing the ludicrous nature of such totalizing projects.”6 Despite its ludicrousness, Suddenly This Overview conjures many sophisticated attempts to critically rethink the rationalist encyclopedic project that has been a foundational practice of modernity since the Enlightenment. From Dadaist Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau to post-surrealist George Bataille’s Encyclopedia Acephalica, accumulation and knowledge have gone hand in hand with corrosive irony and a conception of art as a revolutionary practice.

Savinio’s art resists simplification by combining multiple points of view and mixing complexity with humor—a vivid lesson for today’s polarized zeitgeist.

All of this is cited in Fischli and Weiss’s Suddenly This Overview. Yet another, more poignant, aspect of their assemblage is illuminated by Savinio’s Nuova Enciclopedia, posthumously published in 1977 and still untranslated into English. Savinio’s and Fischli and Weiss’s idiosyncratic encyclopedias both evince a certain uneasiness with the idea of art as a revolutionary practice. In fact, both the Italian artist and the Swiss duo are fully aware that such practices can lose their critical charge and become prescriptive instruments of ideology. This uneasiness sets their encyclopedias apart from the aforementioned avant-garde accumulations, which aim to substitute reality with art. Their irony is especially pungent when they undermine the totalizing claims that are typical of these earlier projects, concentrating instead on the partiality of our perception. Far from resorting to reactionary views, the works of Savinio and Fischli and Weiss strive instead to illuminate new facets of reality, beginning with a rediscovery of everyday life.

Savinio’s introduction to the Nuova Enciclopedia reads in its entirety: “I am so dissatisfied with encyclopedias that I made for myself my own encyclopedia, for my own personal use. Arthur Schopenhauer was so dissatisfied with histories of philosophy that he made for himself his own history of philosophy, for his own personal use.”7 As usual in Savinio, his explanations do not clarify much; nevertheless, they set a tone for the book—that of absurd, sophisticated humor aimed at dismantling the totalizing pretensions and clichés of high culture.

What follows is a collection of random entries in alphabetical order, in which our cultural dichotomies (low and high, comedy and drama, and so on) are reduced to linguistic puns or mere pretext for Savinio’s humoristic digressions. Objects of the emerging mass culture of the 1940s, from “Abat-jour” to “Mosquito repellers,” follow entries such as “Anaxagoras,” “Mohammed,” or “Joan of Arc.” Conventions of bourgeois life are whimsically debunked (as in the exuberant entry “Beards”) alongside insightful detours into history, literature, and art. Savinio spells out his own intellectual agenda in the entry that epitomizes the whole volume: “Encyclopedia.” In it he concludes: “Let us abandon any sort of return to the homogeneity of our ideas, in other words to a past type of civilization. Let us instead strive to allow, in the least violent way we can, the most disparate ideas to coexist, including also the most desperate ideas.”

Rather than a retreat to the private realm, Savinio’s and Fischli and Weiss’s “personal encyclopedias” aim to destabilize set hierarchies in the language and ideas of our everyday life. Irony in these works does not amount to lack of accountability. These artists cheerfully embrace a heterogenous and unstable reality, yet they conceive their art as a serious intervention in the world of philosophical ideas, of cultural events, of political facts.8 What art critic Jean-Christoph Ammann argues regarding the Swiss duo’s work might equally have been said of Savinio’s encyclopedia: Fischli and Weiss’s practices “could also be qualified simply as irony, except that this notion seems to me inappropriate inasmuch as the artists constantly challenge not only the principle of irony in its traditional application but also their own explanatory model of their view of the world.”9

In his early writings Savinio ironically classified himself as a hypocrite, according to the word’s Greek etymological meaning of a “person looking underneath things.” Savinio’s iconoclastic attempt to enlarge the range of our perception and his personal inquiry into the instability of modern life are especially relevant in a present in which intellectual complexity is routinely disdained and seemingly out of fashion. Savinio’s prose and paintings counter simplifications with laughter, casting playful intelligence against the polarization of today’s public discourse.


This article was commissioned by Stephen Twilley. icon

  1. Giorgio de Chirico, “[Alberto Savinio],” in Il meccanismo del pensiero. Critica, polemica, autobiografia, 1911–1943, edited by Maurizio Fagiolo (Einaudi, 1985), pp. 366–68. All translations from the Italian are my own.
  2. Alberto Savinio, Maupassant e “l’altro” (Adelphi, 1975), p. 22.
  3. Barry Schwabsky writes that Savinio’s “evocation of myth … allows intimate perceptions a momentary grandeur, an implication of universal significance that Savinio always imbues with irony” (“Alberto Savinio: CIMA—Center for Italian Modern Art,Artforum, February 2018). One of the few other important Savinio shows in recent decades was Die andere Moderne: De Chirico, Savinio, curated by Paolo Baldacci and Wieland Shmied, shown in Düsseldorf and then Munich, Germany, in 2001–2.
  4. Roberta Smith, “Alberto Savinio: Emerging from Big Brother’s Shadow,” New York Times, November 2, 2017.
  5. Savinio, “Primi saggi di filosofia delle arti,” in La nascita di Venere (Adelphi, 2017).
  6. Mark Godfrey, “A Fine Balance,” in Peter Fischli David Weiss May 2013–February 2015, edited by Emily Wei Rales and Mitchell P. Rales (Glenstone Foundation, 2015), p. 15.
  7. Savinio, Nuova enciclopedia, (Adelphi 1977), p. 17.
  8. See, for instance, Savinio’s brilliant entry on Hitler, which revolves around the problem of education, or Fischli and Weiss’s many replicas of the squalid “Modern Settlement,” which represent the serialized housing projects that make many cities’ peripheries so anonymous.
  9. Jean-Christoph Ammann, conversation with the artists, in Peter Fischli David Weiss: How to Work Better, Guggenheim, February 5–April 27, 2016, edited by Nancy Spector, Nan Trotman and Ann Wheeler (Guggenheim–Del Monico, 2016), p. 49.
Featured image: Alberto Savinio, detail from Self-portrait as an Owl (1936). GAM – Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Turin. © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS) / SIAE, Rome. Photograph by Dario Lasagni