1909 – 2000
Twin sister of Rita Levi-Montalcini, the 1986 Nobel Prize winner for physiology, and the sister of architect Gino (b. 1902), Levi-Montalcini trained as a painter in Turin (1928–1929) in the atelier of Felice Casorati (1883–1963), where the Jewish Giorgina Lattes was also among the pupils. These were the years during which a number of artists who had attended Casorati’s atelier started the so-called “Group of Six,” which drew inspiration from French Impressionism and opposed the “retour à l’ordre” promoted by the Novecento Italiano movement, initially supported by Mussolini. However, Levi-Montalcini shaped her own direction, her indebtedness to Casorati consisting of a moral engagement rather than a style. In fact, as she recalled in an interview of March 1991, she derived from him only “the geometrical structure and the architecture of figures.”
A good portraitist, she debuted as a painter at the first Quadriennal of National Art of Rome (January–June 1931) with a portrait, Anna Maria. Her aim at a synthetical expressiveness, so uncommon in Italian women painters of the time, was such that the most important critics immediately noticed her. In 1935 she exhibited at the second Rome Quadriennal, a year later she exhibited Red Cloth at the Twentieth International Biennial of Art of Venice, and in 1937 the Paris Musée du Jeu de Paume invited her to participate in the exhibition Les Femmes Artistes d’Europe (European Woman Artists). In 1939, no less an authority than Giorgio de Chirico (1888–1978) wrote the first monograph on her, extolling the strength and the almost theatrical conception of the paintings of the thirty-year-old Levi-Montalcini.
As a Jew born in Italy, Levi Montalcini was only partially affected by the Fascist anti-Jewish laws. Able to continue living in Florence, she had to endure the German occupation of the city but suffered no personal harm. She resumed her exhibiting career after the war with a solo show at the Florence Gallery Il Fiore. In 1948 the Venice Biennial invited her to participate, and she exhibited there again in 1950 and 1978. She also took part in the Rome Quadriennal in 1955, 1959, 1965 and 1986.
As a result of a personal meditation on post-Cubism, Levi-Montalcini meanwhile had abandoned figuration for Concretism and by 1950 she was already one of the protagonists of the Turin section of MAC (Movimento Arte Concreta), an abstractionist movement started in Milan in 1948. Basing herself on her concretist experience, she created a series of works named The Letters and the Pots (1953–1954). Later, like other MAC followers, she adhered to Informal “art autre” (a movement born in France and elsewhere in Europe in the 1940s) while however retaining a personal gesture and sign that echoed an alphabetical mimesis. In 1962, the movement’s theoretician, Gillo Dorfles (b. 1910), published the second monograph on her. Levi-Montalcini continued to enrich her graphical morphologies, as indicated in the series of films on Plexiglas (Nets, 1965–1967), and the ensuing polyhedrical Plexiglas shapes of 1968. The polarity of her instinctual gesture decreased, giving way to experiments in a more rational and scientific direction. In 1968–1969 she was creating kinetical and luminous structures in the form of columns, with elements of Plexiglas spreading light through internal mirroring surfaces.
Strongly attracted by scientific and mathematical research, in the 1970s she experimented with engravings in copper and white metal, in which dynamical systems of curves, Archimedes’s spirals and wide or concentrical spaces alternate. New variations appeared among both her interweaving and linear works, from Catastrofe a farfalla, inspired by René Thomas (1923–2002) to Anamorphosis (1976). At the same time she interwove writing on the one hand and bending lines on the other, as in Writing Rhythms and the series Broken Curves. In the mid-1970s she applied her inventiveness to the size of the plates and to setting bending lines on triangles, ovals and trapeziums, while dialogues between lines and alphabets were located on round plates (Galaxy Gutenberg, 1978; Interferences, 1979). This was an experiment which Levi-Montalcini clarified in critical texts. “Dürer’s magical figures engraved in his Melancholia,” she wrote in 1979, “add to the piece an unknown element which is kept in the background to point out the limits of the human condition and contrast them with the light infusing shining symbols of knowledge and power. ‘Time is for language its internal way of analysis.’”
Concurrently with these experiments, Levi-Montalcini made “a secco” engravings on white paper, whose reliefs produced variations of light. She returned to this technique twenty years later, in 1981, when she was one of the exhibitors at the Biennial Exhibition of San Paolo, Brazil. In 1989–1990 the need for optical relief in her art led Levi-Montalcini to aluminium sculptures (Structures) whose surfaces play with reflected light in space. However, she never abandoned linear itineraries. After the iterating rhythms of Vertical Wave (1990), made of Amazonian nut, and in almost direct opposition to Picasso’s famous bull’s head, in 1991 Levi-Montalcini assembled bicycle handles and bars, thus “drawing” in space linear modulations whose chromium-plated surfaces interact with light. In fact, light is still the artist’s main interest in this work, together with metamorphical graphism. Such sculptures, named Mechanical-Organic, could be seen at the important retrospective exhibition entitled Paola Levi-Montalcini: Metamorphosis, which the Rome Institute of Enciclopedia Italiana devoted to the artist four years after her death.
1950: First prize for the poster advertising the XXV Venice Biennial Exhibition; 1956: Florence, “Il Fiorino” Prize for Graphics; 1957: Rimini (Italy), Morgan’s Paint; 1961: Arezzo (Italy), Prize “Arezzo.”
de Chirico, Giorgio. Paola Levi Montalcini. Turin: 1939; Galvano, Albino. “La pittura a Torino dal ’45 ad oggi.” In Letteratura, n. 43–45 (1960); Dorfles, Gillo. Paola Levi Montalcini. Turin: 1962; Argan, Giulio Carlo, Nello Ponente, Italo Mussa, eds. Paola Levi Montalcini, exhib. cat., Rome: 1981; Poli, Francesco. “Gli anni dell’Informale a Torino.” In L’informale in Italia, exh. cat., edited by Renato Barilli and Franco Solmi. Milan: 1983; Di Genova, Giorgio. “Informale.” In 3^ Biennale Nazionale d’Arte Contemporanea Generazione Primo Decennio, edited by Giorgio di Genova. Rieti/Bologna: 1985; Di Genova, Giorgio. Storia dell’arte italiana del ’900: Generazione primo decennio. Bologna: 1996; Fanelli, Franco. Movimento Arte Concreta. Torino 1948–1957, exh. cat., Turin: 1996; Levi Montalcini, Paola. Paola Levi Montalcini. Opere 1957–1992, exh. cat., Rome: 1998; Lux, Simonetta (ed.). Paola Levi Montalcini. Metamorfosi, exh. cat., Rome: 2001.