I visited the Galleria d’Arte Moderna in Palermo this summer. The gallery itself was founded in 1910 and was originally housed in a gallery in the city’s Politeama theatre; it was relocated and re-opened in 2006 in the Complesso Monumentale di Sant’Anna. Its new home is stunning: the mostly seventeenth century buildings have been renovated beautifully and the collection now hangs in a series of lovely spaces.
The story of its relocation is itself an interesting one – it was part of the regeneration of Palermo’s city centre in the first decade of the twenty-first century that’s been discussed by Ola Söderström, Debora Fimiani, Maurizio Giambalvo and Simone Lucido in their book Urban Cosmographies.
And the collection was interesting too. It was pretty refreshing to visit a self-styled gallery of ‘modern’ art and not to see a single canvas by Monet or Renoir, Picasso or Braque, and to experience instead an assertively local version of the modern being celebrated; good to be reminded that ‘modern’ in 1910 meant something very different from what we now take for granted as modern; intriguing to see Symbolist canvases next to neo-realist social critique and society portraits, with a Futurist awaiting in the next room.
There are lots of fascinating things about the collection then, many of which I couldn’t fathom because the gallery guide sticks resolutely to a very traditional connoisseur-like approach to the pictures, which was pretty frustrating (though the translator of the explanatory panels in each room deserves an award for capturing both the density and exuberance of written Italian while also writing perfect English). In connoisseur mode, then, my discovery was a painter called Michele Catti. I can’t find out much about him – he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry – other than he was born in 1855 and died in 1914. But there are some stunning canvases by him in the gallery. My absolute favourites were the very large and very small urban scenes. A bit like Caillebotte (I did try to stop making comparisions with the French canon, really), but much more obscure and intriguing.
The light and the air in these paintings saturate the buildings and streets and people, making everything somehow absolutely recognisable as a particular place and time – he seems to have liked autumn especially, fading light and falling leaves and rain – but with no detail. Rather strange and very beautiful.