Beneath the Surface: Osvaldo Licini at Pinacoteca di Brera

Two paintings by the 20th-century artist now on display at the Pinacoteca di Brera have one thing in common: they conceal secret and little-known aspects of his work.

"Rebel Angel with a White Moon" by Osvaldo Licini is the protagonist of the 10th 'dialogue,' an initiative by the Pinacoteca di Brera that compares a work from the collection with a work on loan.

Although he was very attached to his hometown, the Italian painter Osvaldo Licini travelled a lot during his lifetime. He first moved to Bologna where to attend the Academy of Fine Arts and where he met a group of Futurist artists, and soon later he moved to Florence. He often visited Paris for short periods and spent many months in his hometown, Monte Vidon Corrado, on the hills of the Marche region in central Italy. After World War I he made an important trip to Sweden, Germany and again to Paris, where he experimented with new trends in abstract art. Throughout the years, his work had been featured in the first three editions of the Quadriennale in Rome and the 1958 Venice Biennale. If there is an under-researched artist who deserves new attention, that is Licini.

He was considered one of the leading Italian artists of the early 20th century, his works ranged between different genres in the early figurative period – landscapes, portraits and still lifes – and then moved – in the 1930s – to abstraction and to a very personal eclectic genre called “fantastic” by the artist himself. For Licini, the painting was not meant to be rational, but rather to arise from creative impulses.

His creative urges were always just around the corner, and due to the limited availability of canvases – Licini was often immobilized by heavy snow and unable to buy new materials to work with – he painted over previous paintings, overlaying layers of colours to create new compositions.

Thanks to a comparison of two works at the Pinacoteca di Brera, his contribution to art history can be re-discovered. The museum’s endeavour to compare works from its collection to a ‘guest’ that has stylistic, compositional, and iconographic parallels is continuing after the last “dialogo,” devoted to Caravaggio. In this instance, “Rebel Angel with a White Moon,” a painting from the Pinacoteca’s collection, is on display beside “Rebel Angel on a Dark Red Background,” a work loaned by the Osvaldo Licini Gallery of Contemporary Art in Ascoli Piceno.

Titled “Osvaldo Licini’s Rebel Angels and Hidden Paintings,” and curated by Luca Massimo Barbero and Marina Gargiulo, the latest juxtaposition of works invites visitors to discover more about Licini’s enigmatic pictures. “In 2016 we have started this series that compares paintings to tell the audience that even simply in just two works there is so much to discover and so much to investigate,” said James Bradburne, the director of the Pinacoteca di Brera. “Thanks to this ‘dialogue,’ we discovered a work by Osvaldo Licini beneath the surface of a well-known work.”

“Rebel Angel on a Dark Red Background” by Osvaldo Licini from the Gallery of Contemporary Art in Ascoli Piceno is now on display at the Pinacoteca di Brera. Photo courtesy of Pinacoteca di Brera.

Indeed, the dialogue investigates the well-known aspect of Licini’s art: endless altering and repainting. In this case, thanks to a restoration done in 2020 and a careful analysis of both works, it turned out that both canvases were made by repainting over an earlier portrait, dating back to the 1920s, now no longer visible to the naked eye.

“With this project, we are giving visitors a new way of looking at the works also thanks to science that has allowed us in this case to make sensational discoveries,” Mr. Barbero said.

The Pinacoteca di Brera’s restoration laboratory found a portrait of a girl under the painting in the Brera’s collection. She is possibly Nella, a friend of Licini who often frequented his home and the protagonist of many of his paintings. Painted in the 1920s, the hidden image is substantially similar to another portrait of a young girl found underneath “Rebel Angel on a Dark Red Background,” according to Professor Mattia Patti, who studied the painting.

In the work from the Pinacoteca, the warm grey veiled painting reveals how Nella’s silhouette has been covered by the figure of the rebel angel. With free and sign-like strokes, the angel, positioned on the right, directs the gaze to the moon.

More quietly and imperceptibly, the rich and intense red painting of the work from Ascoli Piceno hides a similar secret below the textured brushstrokes, as for the other angel: a portrait of a girl.

Why does Licini return years later to cover these works? And why does he cover them with the same subject? With these questions in mind, visitors are invited to pause and reflect in front of his puzzling paintings.

Tenth Dialogue “Rebel Angel by Osvaldo Licini and hidden paintings” is on view until 22 January at the Pinacoteca di Brera.

Jessica Capretti is a frequent contributor to Milano Art Guide since 2021. She graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Milan and has worked on several projects including “L’Arc de Triomphe Wrapped” by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, in Paris. She lives and works in Milan.