Arturo Martini

Torso of a Young Man

1928, cast 1928 or 1929

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Not on display

Arturo Martini 1889–1947
Original title
Torso di giovinetto
As displayed: 800 × 360 × 150 mm
Purchased 1994


Consisting of a sheet of clay pressed into a mould, Torso of a Young Man represents the back view of a male body from hairline to thigh. The sculpture appears classical in inspiration: the emphasis on the skeletal structure, together with the hollowness of the cast, recall Roman body armour, while the work's fragmentary form evokes damaged ancient sculptures. However, such classical references are partly countered by the figure's stiff pose and elongated form which recall medieval, rather than ancient, prototypes. In addition, the back has a sensuous, almost feminine appearance, which undermines any suggestion of glorifying the male form. Martini himself seems to have seen this work as combining the human form with landscape. In a letter of 1944 he referred to the time when he 'set about making a back', explaining how, 'I saw that, with the minimum of reference to the human form, all these muscles I had shaped did not function as such, but rather as panoramic descriptions of a world, with resting places, mountains, valleys. It was no longer a back but a natural event' (quoted in G. Scarpa, Colloque con Arturo Martini, Milan 1968, p.14).

Martini made the original terracotta of Torso of a Young Man at Vado Ligure in Savona in 1928. Its whereabouts is now unknown. Soon afterwards he decided - as was his custom - to make further examples of the work in both terracotta and bronze. Four terracottas based on the same mould were made in the late 1920s or early 1930s. Two bronzes, in which the figure has been adapted slightly so that the genital area is more explicit, were cast in the 1930s. In addition, up to four further terracotta examples and a small number of bronzes based on the original have been cast posthumously. The different versions vary slightly in dimension.

The present work was made no later than 1930 when it was given as a wedding present to Giacomo Debenedetti, a prominent Turinese writer. In Debendetti's apartment it was housed in a specially designed wooden box or niche which had the effect of framing the torso within a quasi-architectural space. The original box was discarded in the 1950s, but in the 1990s a Milanese dealer had a replacement made to the same dimensions, in brown wood. Other examples of the work are known to have been exhibited freestanding during Martini's life-time: a photograph from Martini's first one-man exhibition at the Galleria di Palazzo Ferroni in Florence in 1932 shows the work displayed in this way. Following its acquisition by Tate, Torso of a Young Man has been displayed both in and out of the replacement black wooden box made especially for this purpose by the gallery.

Although Martini worked in many media, he was particularly noted for his use of terracotta. He relished its responsiveness to the hand, as well as its ancient connotations. In the late 1920s he made frequent visits to the Valle Guilia museum to see the Etruscan collection, and his major terracottas from 1928 onwards were expressly influenced by this archaic art.

Jennifer Mundy
May 2000

Further Reading:

Mario De Micheli and Claudia Gian Ferrari, Arturo Martini: the Gesture and the Soul, Milan 1989, another example reproduced p.151
On Classic Ground, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1990, pp.167-74, another example reproduced p.171 in colour
Arturo Martini 1889-1947: Sculptures, exhibition catalogue, Accademia Italiana, London 1991, another example reproduced p.85 in colour




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Display caption

The terracotta torso is by one of the most important artists of the Italian 'return to order' movement. This followed the First World War and was a reaction to the avant-gardism of the pre-war period. In some respects it appears quite classical: its emphasis on the young man's spine and rib cage, together with the hollowness of the cast, recalls Roman body armour; in addition, the fact that it is an incomplete figure suggests allusion to damaged ancient sculptures. The sculpture's classical references, however, are subtly countered by the figure's elongated form which suggests medieval, rather than ancient, art. Furthermore, it does not glorify male form: it has a sensuous, almost feminine appearance.

Gallery label, August 2004

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