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Massimo Campigli (neé Max Ihlenfeld) was born in Berlin in 1895 but spent much of his childhood in Florence before the family moved to Milan.
In Milan, he worked on the Letteratura magazine and he was published by the Futurist magazine Lacerba in 1914. During World War I, he was captured and imprisoned in Hungary where he remained a prisoner of war from 1916–18, until he escaped to Russia.
After the war, he worked as a foreign correspondent for the Milan daily paper, Corriere Della Sera, who sent him to Paris in 1919 and he continued working for them for nine years until he married. He also frequented the Café du Dôme where he met artists like Giorgio de Chirico and Gino Severini.
He had produced drawings during the war but it was in Paris that he started to paint. His first works were figurative and reflected the influence of Picasso’s classical works of the 1920s and Léger’s Cubism with their geometric figures applied to the human figure. In 1923, the Galleria Bragaglia in Rome gave him his first one-man show. It was around this time that he changed his name to Massimo Campigli.
By the mid-1920s, Campigli painted monumental figures in near-symmetrical compositions, which paralleled the work of Le Corbusier’s Purism, which was promoted in the journal, Esprit Nouveau, where order and tradition were in line with the post-war sensibility. In 1927, the artist gave up his job with the Corriere to devote himself solely to painting.
Extended visits at the Louvre developed his interest in ancient Egyptian art, which became a lasting source of inspiration in his own work. On a visit to Rome in 1928, he studied the Etruscan collections in the Villa Giulia that motivated a series of works, which evoked a nostalgic, archaic world, inhabited by female figures. Furthermore, he put his archetypic figures in narrower and narrower spaces and this way, he added them a hieratic character. He also became interested in Roman wall painting.
In 1929, an exhibition at the Galerie Jeanne Bucher included such works, with wasp-waisted women akin to archaic statuettes. The isolated figures, plaster-like colours, and contrasts between heavily worked areas and lightly sketched backgrounds stressed his connections with the art of the antique world. In 1930, Campigli was commissioned to illustrate Virgil’s Georgics, of which there are five prints. It was around this time that his work received considerable acclaim. The Artist had four exhibitions in New York, and he showed with the Novecento in Zürich, Amsterdam, Berlin and Bern.
Before he left Paris for Italy in 1933, he signed the Manifesto della pittura murale with Mario Sironi, Carlo Carrà and Achille Funi and entered a successful period as a muralist. The most notable public commissions were for Milan’s Palazzo di Giustizia, the University of Padua and the Italian exhibition pavilion in New York. He also painted a fresco of mothers, country-women, working women, for the V Milan Triennial which, unfortunately, was later destroyed. His style and subject matter, women calmly going about their daily activities, remained a consistent theme for the rest of his life.
At the beginning of World War II, Campigli left Paris and moved to Venice, where he devoted himself increasingly to literary graphic works. His career blossomed thanks in part to his collaboration with Piero Fornasetti who printed his lithographs. His last major collaboration with Fornasetti was in 1948 with lithographs for André Gide’s Theseus. The book was published by Giovanni Mardersteig’s Officina Bodoni the following year. Through the 1950s he remained dedicated to these literary etchings as well as his motif-world full of ethereal female figures and an archaic and symbolic picture language.
After the Second World War, he returned to Paris, then moved to Rome in 1951, and finally went to St. Tropez in 1963 where he remained. During the 1960s, his figures were mainly coloured markings on almost abstract canvasses. In 1967, a retrospective exhibition was dedicated to Campigli at the Palazzo Reale in Milan. He died in 1971 in Saint-Tropez.