“We cannot only be Italian during soccer games!” explains Giancarlo Biferali, who was the curator of Montreal’s Dominion Gallery for 30 years. “Reading and growing through exposure to art is a way to evolve and embrace the world. It is one of the best ways of enriching our community,” argues the art enthusiast who has always toyed with the idea of opening a museum dedicated specifically to Italian-Canadian artists. Biferali, who also served as director of the Leonardo da Vinci Cultural Centre in Montreal, said he has often faced stubborn indifference when organizing cultural events and exhibitions, and perceives the Italian community’s general disinterest in the arts as disheartening.
The good news, according to Corrado De Luca, owner of the De Luca Fine Art Gallery in Toronto, is that Italian-Canadian artists are now seen as part of the mainstream. De Luca believes, however, that there is still much work to be done to raise awareness in the Italian community at large. “For many Italian- Canadians, art is mostly limited to traditional, decorative or hyper-realistic paintings.” Fortunately, notes De Luca, things are slowly changing among the community’s artists and collectors who are increasingly open to contemporary art.
“Overall, the Italian community has succeeded quite well in Canada, but its members do not seem to support its artists as much as they could and should,” remarks De Luca, who is using his gallery to try to address that very issue. “Art leaves its mark in history, which is more important than buying a painting to match one’s sofa,” adds De Luca. Biferali agrees, “The community has a significant number of wealthy people, but few of them seem willing to acquire works of art. A few buy because they love and appreciate art, and others do so for speculative reasons, but the practice is far from common among Italian-Canadians.”
Although there is no actual Italian-Canadian art per se, the works of artists with Italian origins have nevertheless contributed to the legacy of Italians in Canada. For Biferali, Guido Nincheri (1885-1973), known for his famous fresco of Mussolini in the Our Lady of Defense church in Montreal, is undoubtedly the most important Italian-Canadian artist. “His impact on the religious heritage of Ontario, Quebec and New England is considerable. But we must not forget more recent landscape artists like Umberto Bruni or Littorio Del Signore,” insists Biferali.
Close-up Stainglass, Guido Nincheri
L'érablière, St Jacques de Montcalm, Qc (1979) by Umberto Bruni
For De Luca, the highest accolades should go to the Montreal abstract artist Guido Molinari (1933-2004) whose works are now exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “His works are present in most major Canadian museums and sold in excess of $600,000 at Sotheby’s a rare feat among Canadian artists,” he insists.
G.M.-T-(1951-53) by Guido Molinari
“Cosimo Cavallaro, famous for his ephemeral installations made from melted cheese and giant jellybeans, is another contemporary Canadian artist of Italian origin recognized abroad and worth paying attention to,” De Luca adds.
Love Your Bean, Cosimo Cavallaro
Toronto artist Tony Calzetta never felt that his Italian origins had any impact on the perception of his works. “I just wanted to be an artist. But, I want to say that it has never limited me to be identified as an Italian-Canadian artist. In fact, it has always been a plus. For example, it allowed me to be part of the Padiglione Italia Nel Mondo project of the Venice Biennale in 2011 and to be approached by your magazine.”
Antoine Tavaglione (Tava), the Montreal artist who created our magazine’s cover design, recalls similar experiences: “I think it’s always nice to be recognized by the Italian community. It is a token of appreciation. From another point of view, I do not think that the interest garnered by our work usually has much to do with our ethnicity.”
The first Italian-Canadian artists of the 19th and 20th centuries were often hired by wealthy individuals and parishes who sought that “Italian touch” in their work. Certainly, religious art by Ontario artist Antonio Caruso, or Guido Nincheri before him, helps maintain a link with Italian religious identity. But, can we really speak of some sort of “creative Italian genius” or of an “Italian spirit” that somehow, as contends Mauro Peressini, curator at Quebec’s Canadian Museum of History, embodies a culture and a special artistic and technical sensibility of which all Italians, including Italian-Canadians, are the heirs?
While it may seem a tad abstract, the notion is not frivolous according to Biferali. “It exists, but it is not manifest in everyone. Many artists, not just Italian-Canadians, are inspired by Italian art and others draw true inspiration from sojourning in Italy.”
Beyond the old time nostalgia experienced by the first generation of Italian immigrants, are there any significant links remaining between the motherland and this new generation of artists? “Italian art is best known for its classical period and it obviously influences me, even though my work is very different in comparison,” explains Tava. “I am of Italian origin, but as a Canadian living in Montreal, I am very influenced by the people and the reality surrounding me, as well as by American popular culture. I would say that my art is influenced both by Italian art and contemporary Canadian art.” Such mixtures are what makes everything so interesting explains De Luca. According to Giancarlo Biferali, artists do not espouse a particular nationality: “I do not think that Italian-Canadian artists self-identify as such. Ultimately, it is our community that defines these artists as Italian-Canadians.”
But even accepting these artists’ tenuous connection to their Italianness, they nevertheless reflect the talent and creative diversity of our community. Bearing that in mind, we, at Panoram Italia, have consciously chosen to do our best to highlight the Italian origins of the exceptional Canadian artists featured in these pages.
Bob Was Quite Leery of the Jibber Jabber Jimmys (2012) by Tony Calzetta
Heart On My Sleeve (2014) by Tava