Renato Guttuso

Santa Panagia (Sicily)


Not on display
Renato Guttuso 1912–1987
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 691 x 781 mm
Presented by Gustav and Elly Kahnweiler 1974, accessioned 1994


Viale Santa Panagia is a street which runs through the ancient Greek quarters of Tyche and Akradina in Siracusa, a Sicilian city that Guttuso was fond of and visited frequently in the 1950s.

In 1956, when he painted this work, Guttuso visited an exhibition in Aix-en-Provence, France, commemorating the fiftieth year of Paul Cézanne’s death and reviewed it for the Italian art periodical Il Contemporaneo. Although it is unclear whether his visit to Aix predated this painting, it is evident that at the time Guttuso was thinking about Cézanne’s work, particularly what he described as the French artist’s formal search, ‘which is not troubled by intellectualism, which is not an end in itself (formalism), rather it is always bound to its object.’ (Quoted in Crispolti 1984, p.xxii.) Here Guttuso depicted a group of houses as simple blocks of geometrical shapes, often completely devoid of details such as door of windows. He used somber shades with occasional accents in vibrant red, his signature colour, and applied the paint with a combination of palette knife and paintbrush, handling it more loosely in the painting’s foreground than in the areas of the houses themselves and the sky.

A prominent artist whose work had been deemed controversial by the Italian fascist regime, in 1955 Guttuso was described by the British critic John Berger in 1955 as ‘the most significant European painter of the post-war period’ (quoted in Fabio Carapezza Guttuso et al, Guttuso, Milan 1999, p.29). By this time he had became one of the main protagonists in debates about figuration and abstraction in Italy and abroad. In March 1955 he took part in a high-profile debate over realism versus abstraction, with the British painter Patrick Heron putting the case forward for abstraction and the philosopher Ernst Gombrich as chair, at the Italian Institute in London. In 1956, the year he painted Santa Panagia, the artist wrote about creatively reconstructing ‘the real’ and ‘the necessity to give shape to general situations of revolt, of horror, of joy, of eroticism, of destruction, in a panic order in which feelings are no longer tied to the man or the fact that generates them, but to a general human condition’ (quoted in Crispolti 1984, p.xxvii).

Further reading:
Enrico Crispolti, Catalogo ragionato generale dei dipinti di Renato Guttuso, vol.2, Milan 1984, pp.xxii-xxix
James Hyman, ‘A “Pioneer Painter”: Renato Guttuso and Realism in Britain’, Guttuso, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1996, pp.39-53
Giorgia Bottinelli, ‘Renato Guttuso’, in Jennifer Mundy (ed.), The Gift of Gustav and Elly Kahnweiler, exhibition catalogue, Tate, London 2004, pp.45-6, reproduced p.47 in colour

Giorgia Bottinelli
March 2004

Display caption

Viale Santa Panagia is a street which runs through the ancient Greek quarters of Tyche and Akradina in Syracuse, a city that Guttuso visited frequently in the 1950s. His depiction of houses as simple geometrical blocks could be seen as an attempt to discover their ‘essence’ as houses. Guttuso used sombre shades with occasional accents in vibrant red, his signature colour, and applied the paint with a combination of palette knife and paintbrush. The paint is handled more loosely in the painting’s foreground than in the houses themselves and the sky.

Gallery label, September 2004

Technique and condition

The painting was executed on a single piece of medium weight linen canvas, attached to a stretcher with thin 1 steel nails. The nails were hammered into the stretcher to about half way and then bent over to permit the fitting of the painting into its frame. The present stretcher is the original. The canvas was a commercially prepared one, with a white oil-based primer applied over an initial layer of animal glue size. The first layer of paint was a further white coat, which has not discoloured to the extent of the ground layer.

The coloured paint was subsequently applied over this. Two application techniques were used; brush and palette knife. The majority of areas seem to have been created by both techniques. Most of the paint was used in an unmodified form, probably straight from the tube, although there are a few areas around the sides which appear to have been painted with a slightly thinned paint, and much of it was applied using a wet-in-wet technique. There are one or two areas of minor cracking which are quite typical when a quicker drying layer is applied over a slower drying one which had not completely dried. The cracks would have appeared soon after the painting's completion.

There is a thin layer of varnish over the paint layers, probably a natural resin which has yellowed only very slightly. However, it is not felt to have discoloured sufficiently to justify a proper cleaning of the work. The frame is not thought to be original. The painting is in a very good condition, with the paint surface still vibrant. The canvas was slightly slack and it was not felt advisable to key out the stretcher any further. The painting was therefore re-stretched on its present stretcher and attached with stainless steel staples. The canvas was still strong enough not to need any reinforcing for this process. A slight build-up of surface dirt and a few fly spots were recently removed which has renewed the intensity of many of the colours.

Tom Learner
September 1997

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