Neo-realist or chocolate boxer?

In the upper pink room of the Circolo dei Forestieri in Bagni di Lucca villa there is an exhibition of paintings by Carlo Calvi until 7th April. Calvi, a Ligurian, is classed as a neo-realist painter: his work is almost photographic in effect and deals with people, landscapes and everyday scenes. If photography is supposed to have liberated painting from dutifully copying reality then Calvi hearkens back to a pre-photographic age, (where there was no genuine alternative to paint, watercolour or pencil for representation) although freely admitting he uses photographs to build up his compositions. Whether this fact will entrance or irritate visitors is a matter of taste and opinion.

My favourite Calvi canvases are portraits of Ligurian fishermen and peasants pursuing their daily tasks by the beach or at sea. Indeed, the different temperaments of the sea play a naturally important part in the work of this painter from Liguria. As an old biker I was also taken by the Harley-Davidson dynaglide sequence painted with extreme precision and set against a rolling sea. In one painting, appropriately called horse-power, the American dream machine is combined with a herd of horses to an effect which some may find awesome and others merely kitsch.

Calvi seems to turn his back on the modern art movements stemming from Picasso’s seminal “Demoiselles d’Avignon”. In a clear message, expressing his distaste, two women playing lutes are portrayed opposite each other. The woman on the right is painted in a Caravaggesque pose and style whereas, the one to the left has a typical cubist composition with an aggressive (realist) seagull attacking her. The painter told me he’d seen Picasso at work and asked him why he painted that way (instead of, presumably, his more “realist” blue and pink periods) Picasso replied “because it brings in more money”.

The portrait of the artist’s wife, painted à la Reynolds, shows Calvi’s fluency with eighteenth century style – indeed, his preferred painters come from that period, including his favourite Canaletto.

There can be no doubt of Calvi’s great skill (learnt from his many years apprenticeship in an art restorer’s studio) and, despite his distaste of more recent art movements, Calvi does admire painters like Dalì who, according to him, show a real mastery of painting technique.

For those who find abstract and modernist painting either difficult or boring the temptation to have one of Calvi’s paintings hanging in their living-room is virtually irresistible.

Some of the paintings mentioned above are here for you to view and make up your minds about:

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