Corrado Cagli

The Artwork of Corrado Cagli

Born in the city of Ancona in February of 1910, Corrado Cagli was an Italian painter of Jewish heritage. Little information on his formative years is available; however, it is known that, at the age of five, his family relocated to Rome. Cagli grew up in a largely assimilated secular family, who had come to terms with its Jewish religion as antisemitism became more aggressive in Fascist Italy. His ties to his Italian heritage were always strong; even in his later years of exile from Italy, it was important for him to maintain a tie with his homeland. 

Corrado Cagli’s first commissioned work was a 1927 mural painted on a building in Via Sistina, the street at the top of  Rome’s Spanish Steps. In the following year, Cagli received another commission in Rome for a mural in Via Vantaggio. He had a remarkably early success in Italy; still in his twenties in the early 1930s, he was already famous nationally. Cagli had his first solo exhibition in 1932 at Rome’s Galleria d’Arte Moderna and showed at the Milan Triennale in 1936.

Along with other artists such as Emanuele Cavalli and Giuseppe Capogrossi, Cagli was a member of the Scuola Romana, an art movement of Expressionist painters in Rome who were active between 1928 and 1945. A rising star of the Scuola Romana, Cagli was supported by Italy’s Fascist regime despite being both Jewish and a homosexual.  He was chosen to represent Italy at the 1930 Paris Exposition, the Venice Biennale, and other prestigious expositions. 

In 1938, the Leggi Razzial were promulgated by the Fascist government; this series of laws enforced racial discrimination in Italy, directed mainly against Jewish Italians and inhabitants of Italy’s colonies. Two of Corrado Cagli’s murals were censored by the government as they did not fit with the regime’s rhetoric and stylistic preferences. With the enactment of the Racial Laws, Cagli was forced into exile, first to Paris, a place he had visited as a young star painter from Italy, and then to the United States, where he later became a citizen. His first showing was at the Julien Levy Gallery, a source for surrealist work. 

Corrado Cagli rarely had a proper studio during his exile years, which made painting difficult. Most of his work done in the United States is on paper. Cagli had always valued drawing as an art form; in his exile, they became the primary instrument of his artistic search. His use of paper as a medium was also the result of a crisis he went through with his idea of painting. In the 1930s, despite having been forced into exile, Cagli still retained the artistic ambitions of Italy and saw painting as a public art essential to constructing an Italian national identity.

Cagli enlisted in the United States Army and was recognized for his artistic talent. During his training he painted barracks, made his own drawings, and illustrated a military magazine. Later during the war, he worked as a military artist drawing scenes from the campaigns. Cagli fought at the 1944 Normandy landings and, later, in Belgium and Germany. Near the end of the war, he drew a series of dramatic drawings based on the liberation of the Buschenwald concentration camp. 

After the war, Cagli returned in 1948 to Rome and made it his permanent residence. Because of his past as a former regime-endorsed artist and a Jewish exile from Fascism, Cagli did not fit into any of the factions of Italy’s post-war heated cultural disputes. He arrived into Italy’s art world with a metaphysical route towards abstraction which was opposite to the Neo-Cubist trend that dominated postwar Italian painting. Settled in Italy, Cagli began a series of experimental works  in multiple mediums, including ceramics, mosaics, tapestries, architectural decoration, ballet scenery, and costumes. 

Corrado Cagli helped organize the Gallleria La Cometa in Rome and, along with poet Libero De Libero, created an artistic circle of musicians, writers, architects, painters and sculptors. He was involved with New York’s Museum of Modern Art’s 1949 exhibition, “20th Century Italian Art” and facilitated the 1950 opening of the Catherine Viviano Gallery in New York City. In August of 1972, Cagli was commissioned as the official banner painter for the Palio di Siena, the twice yearly equestrian competition held in Siena, Italy. 

Cagli was awarded the Guggenheim Prize in 1946 and, in 1954, the Marzotto Prize, given by the Marzotto fashion company for his contributions to the cultural rebirth of Italy after the war. Corrado Cagli died in Rome in 1976. 

Notes: An article on Corrado Cagli’s 1936 mural “The Battle of San Marino”, now housed in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery,  can be found in a previous posting on this site.

An interview between author Raffaele Bedarida and Alessandro Cassin, Director of Centro Primo Levi, entitled “Corrado Cagli, the American Years” can be found online at Printed_Matter located at: http://primolevicenter.org/printed-matter/corrado-cagli-the-american-years/

Top  Insert Image: Photographer Unknown, “Corrado Cagli”, Circa 1930s

Second Insert Image: Corrado Cagli, “Ritmi Cellulari in Chiave di Giallo, 1949, Mised Media on Canvas on Paper, 90 x 70 cm, Private Collection

Third Insert Image: Corrado Cagli, “narcissus”, Date Unknown, Silkscreen Print, Edition of 50,, Sheet Size 90 x 85 cm, Private Collection

Bottom Insert Image: Photographer Unknown, “Corrado Cagli in His Studio in Rome”, December 1969, Radiocorriere Magazine, Gelatin Silver Print

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