Renato Guttuso: pictor diabolicus, “devilish painter”?

Self-portrait, 1936
Self-portrait, 1936

I was introduced to the work of Renato Guttuso back in 1996, when Whitechapel Gallery in London exhibited some of his paintings.

Today I pay tribute to the great realist painter, whose vibrant colors remind me of the Mediterranean, the Sea, the Countryside, the smells and the tastes.

Crucifixion, 1941
Crucifixion, 1941

Crucifixion was the painting that led the Vatican to declare that Guttoso was a pictor diabolicus, a devilish painter.

Crucifixion - detail
Crucifixion – detail

The naked Mary Magdalen leans on the crucified Jesus.

Only the Holy Mother is dressed in her blue gown.

Crucifixion - Guard
Crucifixion – Guard

The Roman guards are riding their horses naked.

The influence of cubism is felt all over the landscape and the almost sculptural bodies.

Landscape with Lovers (pastel on paper);Guttuso, Renato ;pastel on paper;600 X 419;Estorick Collection, London
Landscape with Lovers (pastel on paper);Guttuso, Renato; pastel on paper; 600 X 419;Estorick Collection, London

The “Landscape with lovers” is another type of landscape. Guttuso here is almost poetical. And I like this more than the loaded and symbolic and rebellious “Crucifixion”.

The market of Vucciria in Palermo is one of the most colorful places on this Earth. Guttuso painted it in a glorious way.

La Vucciria, 1974
La Vucciria, 1974

“The Vucciria market, Guttuso said, was one of his first discoveries when he moved to Palermo as a student in the early 1930s. “When I began to paint, among my first subjects were those colors, those planes of light.” But his great painting of the market was not done until 1974, when he was living in Varese, Lombardy, “under the pallid light of the north.” He said the picture was “a great still life” imbued with all the noise, the energy and the violence of “the markets of poor countries.” In order to paint from life, Guttuso had an agent ship him the eggs, the cardoons, the tuna, by air from Palermo to Milan. He then persuaded a local butcher to loan him a side of beef  “for no more than two hours” so he could sketch it into the composition. The minutes ticked by, and then the hours. The butcher was counting how long his beef would survive without refrigeration.  Guttuso, meanwhile, was molding those ribs and haunches into his most powerful memento mori.” (1)

La Vucciria - detail
La Vucciria – detail

The curves of a Sicilian woman blend with the cuts of swordfish.

La Vucciria - detail
La Vucciria – detail

The beef carcass demands respect, next to the feeble rabbit.

La Vucciria - detail
La Vucciria – detail

Cheese and cured meets are plentiful.

This is why I consider Guttoso primarily a painter of the Senses. Looking into these details one cannot help but sense with her whole existence the magnificence of the goods of the market and the  pleasure of being alive.

Portrait of Mimise with Red Hat, 1940

You smell the rose, you sense the presence of Mimise, even though she is looking down. The sensual overflows and overpowers everything else. Guttuso does this almost magical transformation by using colors as he has perceived them since he was born in 1912 in  in Bagheria, near Palermo (Sicily).

Guttuso was a communist, and a member of the Italian Communist Party (PCI).

Guttoso painting "Telephones" - Image ReferenceSCF1973001W00002/15(PAR378338)© Ferdinando Scianna/Magnum Photos
Guttoso painting “Telephones” – Image ReferenceSCF1973001W00002/15(PAR378338)© Ferdinando Scianna/Magnum Photos

He was aware of the impact of technology on everyday life, and he painted it in his own unique way.

Telephones 1982
Telephones, 1980

In 1946 with Birolli, Vedova, Morlotti, Turcato and others formed the group Fronte Nuovo delle Arti. Made frequent visits to Paris to study modern French art and for a time was influenced by Picasso. Many of his works have been inspired by the poverty and struggles of the Sicilian peasantry. His later works also include large paintings of the student riots in Paris in May 1968, the funeral of the Italian Communist leader Togliatti. (2) 

Santa Panagia (Sicily) 1956 by Renato Guttuso 1912-1987
Santa Panagia (Sicily) 1956 by Renato Guttuso 1912-1987

I close this short tribute with another landscape painting. Santa Panagia, in Sicily. “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.” (Tate Gallery).


1. Renato Guttuso: Frederika Randall reviews exhibit at the Vittoriano

2. Renato Guttuso. Artist Biography. Tate Gallery.

3. Guttuso. Thams and Hudson. 1996.


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