Secession and Avant-Garde at The National Gallery of Modern Art

Secession and Avant-Garde at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome

Art in Italy Before The Great War

With the exhibition Secession and Avant-Garde. Art in Italy Before the Great War, 1905–15, the Galleria nazionale d’arte moderna (GNAM) investigates a phase of particular innovative ferment in Italy’s artistic and literary culture immediately prior to World War I: a short period, ideologically characterized by political and social friction and growing nationalism, during which artists and critics addressed the concepts of modernity and the avant-garde.

With the end of “the long 19th century” and the enthusiastic faith in progress of the Belle Époque, a generation of young artists rose up against the consolidated official system of art exhibitions (as organized in Rome by the Società degli Amatori e Cultori di Belle Arti and in Venice by the Biennale) and its conservative criteria and selection processes in the name of freedom of expression and alternative channels.
As had already happened in Munich, Berlin and Vienna, groups of young and not so young Italian artists chose to unite in a Secession, interpreted both literally as separatism, sharp and antagonistic division, and as a movement that rallied the most innovative forces together around modernist concepts that were, however, soon penetrated by avant-garde elements.

Secession and Avant-Garde at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome
Gino Severini: Danseuse

The exhibition begins with the year 1905, in which Severini and Boccioni organized at the Ridotto del Teatro Nazionale of Rome an Exhibition of Refused Artists that constituted a first seed of opposition. The needs for a renovation and for an international opening were focused on between 1908 and 1914 in Venice and in Rome, in the demonstrations of Ca’ Pesaro and of the Secessione Romana, while the shocking originality of the Futurists found a new site for exhibitions, also in Rome, at the Sprovieri Gallery.

Ca’ Pesaro and the Secessione Romana represent, therefore, the poles of a ‘moderate’ avantgarde, opposed, not without contradictions, to the radical avantgarde of Futurism, which intended to influence, in a revolutionary way, the artistic language and the social and political reality.
The exhibition closes, therefore, on the tabula rasa that the world conflict realised in regard to every avantgarde aspiration, absorbing that vital passion. With the enthusiastic interventionism of the Futurists, with the new, highly modern iconography of the war, it opposed the poetry of silence and absence, the omen of the imminent drama, of the early De Chirico.


The literal meaning of Secession is “Separation“. In the artistic field the definition indicates those associations that, between the end of the 1800s and the beginning of the 1900s, controversially separate from the officialacademic institutions, joining together  the young people who aim the renewal of the artistic languages and forms.

This trend arises in Monaco in 1892 with Van Stuck and take hold in other capitals of the middle Europe such as Berlin and Vienna. The Austrian group, born in 1897 and guided by Gustav Klimt, is certainly the most famous and the most representative movement speaking about Secession in general.

Secession and Avant-Garde at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome
Ferdinand Hodler: Il sentimento

Nevertheless, starting from 1912 Rome too has its own Secession, between 1913 and 1916 four exhibitions were organized in Palazzo delle Esposizioni: they show, beside the different forms of the most innovative Italian art, an important selection of contemporary artworks by international artists, starting from the impressionists, to Cézanne and Matisse, to the less known Russian association Mir Iskusstva.

The Roman group is initially composed by almost thirty artists – including Balla, Innocenti, Lionne, Noci – who share the need to open the roman art system  to the international contest and promote the awareness of the youngest, rather than a common poetic,  in open controversy with the conservative management of the Society of Amateurs and Connoisseurs, the institution that held the monopoly of the roman art policy and regulated the participation to the exhibitions and the purchases of the public museums and of the monarchy.

Secession and Avant-Garde at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome
Mario Cavaglieri: Interno


From the end of the nineteenth to the beginning of the twentieth century, the military term Avant-garde is attributed to those European art and literature trends radically opposed to the contemporary dominant ones.

Antagonists to the late symbolist and bourgeois culture of the Belle Époque, all the rising trends of the early 1900s are equipped with real manifestos where they state their poetics and action inspiring principles.

The so-called historic avant-gardes – Cubism, Futurism, Abstractionism, Dadaism, Surrealism – present themselves as an alternative to the standard models, proposing experimental forms of expression. Their aim is not to reform, but rather to overturn the current social values system.

The focus of the debate is the art in itself and its role in the relationship with the society.

Secession and Avant-Garde at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome
Ivan Meštrović: Guerriero con la lancia

The avant-garde movements tend to anticipate trends and styles of the time, involving every creative expression form: painting, sculpture, design, music, literature, theatre, cinema, advertising.

The subversive character of some avant-garde forms also arises in the language used, in the communication forms chosen for the spread of their ideas, in the provoking actions that go with the demonstration of the groups.

In the Italian context, and with reflections and contacts with the most innovative international trends, the needs of a total renewal are mainly expressed by the futurist group guided by Marinetti and by the metaphysical researches made by Giorgio de Chirico since the early 1910th.


The Futurism is born on February 1909 with the public release of the Manifesto signed by the intellectual and poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti.

After this one, many other manifestos will follow, as per a common practice of the avant-garde, with which artists, architects, men of letters, dramatists, musicians announce their own poetics.

The futurism aesthetics exalts the dynamism of the modern way of living, the beauty of the speed, of the technology, of the mechanic and industrial culture that from the end of the 19th to the early 20th century rebuilds the production and communication media and the human being perception in the surrounding environment: “A racing car.. a roaring car, that seems racing on a machine gun, is better than the Winged Victory of Samothrace…” Marinetti affirms.

The movement – that interlaces relationships with the most innovative trends of the European culture, from Cubism to the Russian Rayonism – considers obsolete every expressive form of the past and go so far as to consider, in the provocative declarations of its founder, the war as the only hygiene of the world, emphasizing the will to have a blank slate, without compromises, of everything antecedent.

The first exponents of the futurism themes in the figurative arts field are Boccioni, Carrà, Russolo, Balla and Severini, everybody coming from the divisionism trend with their different shades.

In their works the futurism basic theoretical ideas of dynamism and simultaneity find different interpretations: the subjective synthesis by Boccioni, the elaborated initial sequences of images or indications of path by Balla, the “cubistic” fragmentations and intersections of shapes and colors by Severini, the structured compositions by Carrà.

Secession and Avant-Garde at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome
Francesco Cangiullo: Grande folla

The Futurism is also applied in the architecture field in the projects made by Sant’Elia and Chiattone who aim the redesign of the shape of the contemporary city in its every aspect, from the power station to the factories, from the private dwellings to the institutional buildings.

The research of an effective synthesis of art and life, constitutes the basis of the Manifesto of 1915 for theFuturistic reconstruction of the universe, signed by Balla and Depero, which close the futurism of the beginning with the Great War outbreak and the active involving of the futurists on the interventionist frontline.


Till 15 February 2015

The National Gallery of Modern Art

Viale delle Belle Arti, 131

Tue-Sun 10.30am-7.30pm. Fri 10.30am-10pm

Entry Fee €13/10.5

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