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For the first time in Italy, works of art from the Jonas Netter Collection on view at Palazzo Reale
André Derain, Le grandi bagnanti, 1908. Olio su tela, cm 178 x 225© Pinacothèque de Paris /Fabrice Gousset© André Derain by SIAE 2013.

MILAN.- “These works have not been shown to the public for over seventy years, and today they appear almost as if by magic, from another world”. With these words Marc Restellini, curator of MODIGLIANI, SOUTINE And the damned artists. The Netter Collection, sets the tone for the exhibition opening today at Palazzo Reale in Milan, presented by the Culture, Fashion and Design Office of the Municipality of Milan, Palazzo Reale, Arthemisia Group, and 24 ORE Cultura – Gruppo 24 ORE.

Over 120 works on display trace the steps taken by Modigliani, Soutine, Utrillo, Suzanne Valadon, Kisling and many others: a group of artists who lived during a fascinating period in the history of art in Montparnasse at the beginning of the 20th century.

Modigliani arrived in Paris in 1906, sensing this was the place where he could “save his dream”. He settled in Montparnasse, which in those years would become an artists’ quarter, home not only to painters, but also to authors, intellectuals, and political refugees such as Hemingway, Miller, Jarry, Cocteau, Lenin, and Trotsky.

They met in cheap restaurants and run down taverns where the painters could stay until late, discussing art and politics – discussions that more often than not would turn into brawls. Living conditions were wretched, but it was the sacred passion for art, and the awareness that their works were changing the rules of aesthetics, that gave Modigliani and his companions the strength to carry on.

If Impressionism had revolutionized the way of painting, albeit without trespassing on the limits of Naturalism, with Modigliani, Soutine and Utrillo art became autonomous from the depicted subject and independent from the cultural and artistic traditions of the countries of origin of the individual artists, thus producing the first true revolution in art, and overturning its accepted canons.

As curator Marc Restellini states, it was against this background – which soon after would be defined bohemian – that “these tormented spirits expressed themselves with painting nourished with despair. Ultimately their art was not Polish, Bulgarian, Russian, Italian or French, but completely original; it was only in Paris that these artists all found the means of expression that better translated their own vision, sensuality, and dreams”.

And Restellini adds: “Those years corresponded with a period of emancipation and ferment that was somewhat unique in the history of art. Everywhere in Europe there was an aesthetic revolution going on, a prelude to a cultural change; and it was in Paris, ‘the only place in the world where this revolt had the right of citizenship’ – first in Montmartre and then in Montparnasse –, that all these Jewish artists met and took their chances”.

Jonas Netter, who was also Jewish, proved to be a key figure for these artists, many of whom would not have known how to make ends meet without his help; the exhibition is structured in six sections, displaying the masterpieces that Jonas Netter, fascinated with art and painting, bought during his lifetime. Thanks to the encounter with a Jewish art dealer and poet, the Pole Léopold Zborowski, Netter became an illuminated follower and an insightful talent scout.

Netter met Modigliani, Soutine, and Utrillo, and came into contact with Valadon, Kisling, Krémègne, Kikoïne, Hayden, Ébiche, Antcher, and Fournier. Their art captivated him and induced him to generously support them by buying their works from the art dealer. Netter became a sort of inspired and brilliant “patron” to the point that when Modigliani had to move to the French Riviera due to health problems, Netter bought a sufficient number of his paintings to pay for his journey, which turned out to be a very prolific one for the young Italian artist.

Netter admired the originality of Modigliani’s artistic genius, and was deeply fond of his stylized female faces resting on long and slender necks, such as the 1917-18 Elvire au col blanc (Elvire à la collerette), and Fillette en robe jaune (Portrait de jeune femme à la collerette) painted in 1917, both on display together with Portrait de Zborowski (1916) and Portrait de Soutine painted in 1916 after the two artists met and became good friends – it was in fact Modigliani who introduced Soutine to Netter. The exhibition includes over twenty oils by Chaim Soutine, a real show within the show, including L’Homme au chapeau, L’Escalier rouge à Cagnes and La Folle.

Thanks to Modigliani, Netter also discovered paintings of Utrillo’s so-called white period – mainly landscapes – including Place de l'église à Montmagny, Église de banlieu and Rue Muller à Montmartre, also in the exhibition. Netter decided to take care of Utrillo, a disenchanted eternal child and a heavy drinker since his teens who was in love with his mother Suzanne Valadon, also a fine and original painter, also represented in the show with Ketty nue s'étirant and Église de Neyron.

If today we admire these works as absolute masterpieces, we must not forget that at the time they were painted they were considered utter monstrosities. This is why Netter’s intuition, besides being a selfless and daring endeavour, stands as a real prophecy. He led such a discreet life, that very little was known about him. But today thanks to Restellini’s reconstruction and the study of old family photos, we know more about him, including the fact that he is the man depicted in Kisling’s portrait also on display. It was Modigliani himself who introduced Kisling to Netter, or so the story goes.

Due to his discretion, Jonas Netter left no personal belongings, only the works he loved and collected, and that today we too can appreciate.

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