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).
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