Monday, September 22, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Review: Salvatore Pinto’s Barnes connection

Since being hired as director in September, 2010, William R. Valerio has dramatically revitalized Woodmere Art Museum’s mission to concentrate on art created by Philadelphians.

In particular, recent exhibitions at the Chestnut Hill museum have restored public awareness of artists who, for one reason or another, are today either underappreciated or forgotten.

Salvatore Pinto (1905-66) is typical of the breed, although his story is somewhat atypical in being connected to two other threads of local art history.

One is these is the fact that Pinto was a member of a family of painters, several of whom achieved their own measure of renown.

This thread, in turn, connects to the history of the Barnes Foundation, where Salvatore and two younger brothers, Angelo and Biago, studied and received scholarships for travel and study from founder Albert C. Barnes.

Woodmere’s Pinto exhibition is described as a “retrospective,” which it is only in part, and further as a “celebration of the Barnes legacy,” which it certainly is.

The influence of being exposed to the Barnes collection, and of the European and North African excursions that Barnes subsidized, is readily apparent in the paintings from the 1930s that Woodmere is showing.Pinto not only responded strongly to the paintings by Henri Matisse that he encountered at the foundation, with Barnes’s help he was able to visit Matisse in his studio in the south of France.

Consequently, the Pinto brothers incorporated aspects of European modernism into their work, which became an important source for other Philadelphia painters interested in progressive currents.

Like the seven brothers of Philadelphia’s Martino family, the Pintos were a phenomenon, an Italian immigrant family who produced a generation of artists.

Salvatore, born in Italy, was the eldest of the three who succeeded as painters. Angelo, the next oldest, also born in Italy (the year before the family emigranted in 1909), was a long-time teacher at the Barnes, and the foundation’s official photographer.

Angelo and a third brother, Biago, born in 1911, are included in the Woodmere show with several works each. All three are represented in the Barnes Foundation collection.

Besides painting, the Pintos also made prints; as the exhibition indicates, Salvatore became especially adept in wood engraving. In 1941, he, Angelo and a fourth brother, Joseph, established a photography studio, specializing in color work.

This development might also explain why the Woodmere show focuses on the 1930s; the latest works are two small pencil drawings from about 1941.

Salvatore studied at the Barnes Foundation from 1927 to 1932, and again from 1934 to 1938. In the early 1930s he traveled to Europe three times and also, at Matisse’s suggestion, visited North Africa.

In the process he became a Matisse acolyte, most obviously in his use of bright but always harmonious colors, in his graceful, ecoonomical line, and even in his subject matter.

In several instances, the resemblance to Matisse is so striking it seems like homage. One example is a group of pictures with Moroccan themes, such as The Music Maker. There are odalisques — Woman with Yellow Pants— and a number of female nudes, drawn and painted.

A small still life, Lemon and Shrimp, is closely reminiscent of a similar suite of pictures with marine subject matter by Matisse. And, more typically European than American, there are trapeze artists and ballerinas (Pinto’s wife was a dancer).

Pinto’s nudes, drawn with the fluid ease one associates with Matisse, are otherwise noticeably more hefty. I suspect that Barnes’s Renoirs influenced Pinto’s thinking in these.

Generally, though, it’s his effervescent palette, near-Fauvish in some cases, that connects Pinto most directly to Matisse.

The core of the show consists of four large beach scenes, two made in 1929, before Pinto traveled to France, and two from 1932, after he had been to Europe.

These represent Pinto’s response to the “bathers” theme one associates not only with Matisse but with Cezanne and Picasso. It’s a European vision of Arcadia translated into a distinctly American idiom.

Ultimately, these carefully organized tableaus trace back to Matisse’sThe Joy of Lifeat the Barnes Foundation. Pinto’s interpretations of Elysium are more crowded and plebian, like Coney Island, bodies so tightly packed they blot out the ocean.

The two painted in 1929 are hieratically stylized; the figures are stiff and the water is unmodulated, in the style of a Japanese print. The two later versions are more voluptuous, more evocative of pleasure. They shimmer with striped fabrics, another Matisse reference.

As Valerio observed, Pinto came back from Europe “a changed painter.” The change is not only manifest, but uncomfortably close to Matisse.

What kind of artist was Pinto before the change? One more in tune with American realism of the period, even with illustration.

During the 1920s, he had attended the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art (now University of the Arts) and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, perhaps with a goal of developing as a commercial illustrator.

Two of the exhibition’s earliest works, the etching15th and Market Streets and a drawing called Man in Train, reflect this tendency.

Some striking wood engravings from the mid-1930s, Factory (Mills) andLocomotive, reveal a precisionist streak in Pinto’s thinking — that is, an interest in the industrial landscape.

These prints are so precisely rendered they speak of absolute mastery of this medium. Pinto was especially adept at coaxing images to emerge, minimally, from a field of velvety black, as he does in the wood engravings Ballerina of 1931 and Self-Portrait with Model of 1936.

Thus the exhibition shows us two Pintos, the conventional realist and the Matisse-influenced modernist, before Europe and after. Each aspect of his career is accomplished; the only unanswered question is whether the modernist Pinto persisted beyond the early 1940s.

Although the exhibition is labeled “retrospective,” it doesn’t tell us what kind of art Pinto made during the last 25 years of his life, or even if he made any.

After 1941, he was involved in the family photographic studio. In 1950, he was injured in an automobile accident and retired to a house on Long Beach Island.

Nevertheless, the Woodmere show offers a fascinating introduction to an artist who, despite being somewhat overshadowed by brother Angelo, who outlived him by 28 years, stood in the vanguard among Philadelphia modernists.


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Edward Sozanski Contributing Art Critic
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