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Genoa Is the New Home of Decorative Arts Collection
RODERICK CONWAY MORRIS
The New York Times

GENOA, Italy - With a vast heritage of fine arts to conserve, Italian public collections have given scant attention to the applied and decorative arts, especially to those of more recent times.
But Genoa has just opened a museum that is endowed with a remarkable private collection of more than 20,000 pieces dating from between 1880 and 1945. It includes paintings, sculptures, furniture, glass, ceramics, wrought iron, textiles, architectural projects (built and unbuilt), graphic design, political and publicity posters and leaflets, books, periodicals and newspapers.
The collection was amassed over several decades by Mitchell Wolfson Jr., who acquired some 100,000 objects from the late 19th century and first half of the 20th century. He decided to divide them between the Wolfsonian, the museum he founded in Miami (now a department of Florida International University), and the Wolfsoniana, which has been given the bulk of the pieces relating to Italy.
Genoa's Gallery of Modern Art already contains paintings and the furnishings of two historic interiors donated by Mr. Wolfson - one in the Art Nouveau style from around 1902 and another of a distinctively Italian take on Art Deco. The gallery is in a villa dating to the early 17th century, expanded and updated over the centuries, in a lovely, semitropical park at Nervi, on the rocky Ligurian coast east of the city center.
To accommodate the large new donation, a former school building in the park has been remodeled and refurbished.
Mr. Wolfson's association with Genoa goes back to 1968, when he was posted to the United States Consulate there, "one of the first to be opened after American independence," Mr. Wolfson said. When he left the foreign service in 1972, he bought a house here and has spent part of his time in the city ever since. He is reputed to have something of a love-hate relationship with the city, but he has a profound affection for the local inhabitants. "The Genoese are a bit like the Japanese," he said, joking. "They're always very pleased to see you, but are not quite sure they want you to stay on."
Born in 1939, Mr. Wolfson began to collect at an early age. The first collectibles he spotted, he said, were room keys from the hotels where he stayed when he toured Europe with his family as a 12-year-old schoolboy. When he came to Italy in the mid-1950's, he said, he felt a particular affinity for the country.
"I began to build up a personal archive of pieces, because I came to believe in the language of the object," he explained. "I was fascinated by the relationship between objects, cultures, the times and indeed the languages that created them."
About 30 years ago, he started to concentrate on the late 19th century and the period encompassing the two world wars, partly, he said, because other collections seemed to neglect these years but also because those decades represented the transition between the Old World and the New World, the world of artist-craftsmen and that of industrial design and mass production.
Visitors to the museum are greeted in the lobby by 1890's marble statues of Garibaldi, Mazzini, Count Cavour and Victor Emmanuel II, politically contrasting faces of four of the principal founders of unified Italy. At the same time, the statues are reminders that Italy was still a very young nation at the time that the Wolfsoniana collection's story begins.
The display is divided into sections covering late 19th-century Exoticism, Art Nouveau, Futurism, Art Deco, murals and so on. Some sections and pieces will be permanent while others will be rotated over time, to expose the full richness of the collection.
There are some astonishing pieces, like "Pyramid Bed" by the architect brothers Alberto and Fabio Fabbi's "Pyramid Bed" - an elaborate, sumptuously detailed one-off designed for the fantasy bedroom of a palazzo near Mantua in around 1890. The high quality of object after object leaves one in no doubt that Mr. Wolfson managed to track down and acquire superb examples of design and craftsmanship potently redolent of their various epochs.
Individual artists and craftsmen, now little known outside specialist circles, are brought to life again. Among these is the Roman Duilio Cambellotti (1876-1960). A follower of the English Arts and Crafts movement and a painter, sculptor, potter, illustrator and designer of furniture, interiors, textiles, jewelry and stage sets, he produced a distinctive form of Art Deco, paradoxically informed by rustic and folkloric themes. One of the most arresting objects in the museum is his 1925 cabinet, known as "La Notte" ("The Night"), inlaid with ivory and ebony decorations. They appear at first to be clouds floating above the Roman campagna at night but on closer inspection reveal themselves to contain finely carved animal motifs. Mr. Wolfson said he spent 20 years trying to persuade the owners of this gem to part with it, until he could finally allay their fears of its leaving Italy.
The room devoted to Exoticism evokes the fin-de-sicle era of decadently inclined smoking rooms, bedrooms and grand hotels and spas, with ancient Egypt, the Islamic Middle East and even Japan and Thailand drawn on to conjure up a kind of composite mystic Orient. Later sections illustrate "Rationalist" art - architecture and design of the Fascist period of organized communal vacations and public gymnastics, when furniture took a functional turn, as evidenced by the popular classic "S.5" tubular steel and plywood stacking chair.
The influence of politics on design is illustrated on a grander scale by a model of the Fiat showcase, the ultramodern Littorina train, a result of Mussolini's push to replace, with diesel and electric power, steam engines powered by coal. One of the final pieces is a 1949 model of the Vespa motor scooter, introduced in 1946, symbol of postwar Italian design and herald of the peninsula's economic miracle that brought with it the promise, at least, of la dolce vita.

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/28/arts/design/28geno.html


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