gian maria lepscky

The beauty of forgotten Venice art

Gian Maria Lepscky. Self portrait, 1934. Oil on canvas, 50 x 40 cm. Padova (Italy), private collection. On sale

“Exhibition of the fighting artists of the Three Venices” at Royal Palace in Venice 1925

Mercato a Chioggia (Market in Chioggia)

canvas purchased by King Vittorio Emanuele III for 400 lire, as documented by a short paragraph that appeared on Gazzettino of May 29th

To date, it is part of the personal endowment of the President of the Republic at the Quirinal Palace in Rome.


Postcard with a work (Notturno) by Lepscky published on the occasion of the XXI International Exhibition of Venice, 1938. Private collection of the Cassa di Risparmio di Venezia

The martyrdom of St. Bartholomew

Il martirio di San Bartolomeo, 1944, charcoal on cardboard, cm 280 x 170. Study for the fresco of San Bartolomeo's Church ceiling in Resana (Treviso, Italy)

Gian Maria Lepscky Expositions 2011-1015

July 16th – August 28th, 2011: “As a suspended spell…” Monselice Municipality (Padova, Italy), St. Paul Museum

June 22nd – October 28th, 2012: “Gian Maria Lepscky in love with Friuli“, Cividale del Friuli Municipality (Udine, Italy), St. Jhon’s  Church, Monastery of Santa Maria in Valle 

May 11th – June 16th, 2013: “Gian Maria Lepscky, metamorphosis of an artist“, Padova Municipality, Cavour Civic Gallery

May 9th – June 3rd, 2015: “The man, his nature, his faith“, Quinto Vicentino Municipality (Vicenza, Italy), Gallery of Villa Thiene

The Artist

"We will therefore make the introductions of this painter who would very much prefer the shadow of silence and the carelessness of others, in brief words, only out of due respect towards the foreign gentlemen: a hint of a beard that jokes jokingly on his chin, a hat broad brims that decorate the solemnity of his forehead, a sweeping gesture that sculpts the warmth of images that are always alive and ready, two eyes illuminated by a pale smile, always attracted by the power of distant things, and a slow step that seems to follow the rhythm of an inner music… “Were you born in Poland?”, I asked him once. “No, I'm Venetian; only my grandfather and my ancient ancestors belonged to that distant region”, he replied…
A. Poli, The painter Gian Maria Lepscky, in “Il Pensiero”, June 18th, 1927

Gian Maria Lepscky: a painter of value among the aporias of the twentieth century

by Virginia Baradel

The human and artistic story of a twentieth-century painter always presents complex paths crossed by two world wars, from epochal changes, from very acute tensions intestine to the art world, from clashes, aesthetic and ideological battles.

It is no coincidence that the first post-war Venetian avant-garde movement was called the New Front of the Arts: the war, the real, devastating one, had been over for a year.

So no surprise if examining the life and works of Gian Maria Lepscky we find impervious biographical paths and rugged, made even steeper by his presence in Spain at the outbreak of the civil war.

However, in the Venetian painter there is something more painful, perhaps elusive, but certainly such as to jam the course of a career that had started under the best auspices both professional and educational, as an artist and as a teacher at the Venice Academy of Arts.

Certainly the three wars count for a lot: two lived at the front and the third fraught with pitfalls for an Italian anti-fascist who happened to be temporarily in Spain hosted by his sister, but a self-effacing character who preferred concentration and work to group debate and choral initiatives also did not help his affirmation.

In the aftermath of the First World War Lepscky, who was the son destined and given to art by a notable family, after completing his academic training, began to participate in the post-war exhibitions of Ca’ Pesaro making himself known for the search for his way to the twentieth century which does not give up the soft and tonal chromatisms inherent in the Venetian painting, but rather stretches out the high material and brings together the short brushstrokes of the en plein air beginnings.

His, is a warm and luminous painting, the chromatic ductus rests its color on an underlying design system that warns and supports the composition even when it is not perceived directly. 

This seems to me the singular mastery of Lepscky that will accompany him until the forties in the arena of postwar, when the worst blows of life, disappointments and illness, will break that secret loom, that inner and undeclared strength, not ostentatious, leaving the painter the freedom to move without drawing in the vaporous fluidity of watercolor tempera on paper (…)

His is a popular, effective realism with a domestic solemnity, not heroic but narrative, as if he had ennobled with an increase of expressive realism, the nineteenth-century anecdotal genre(..).

I believe that Lepscky treasured these lines of development of Venetian painting and put them to good use above all in the frescoes.

Basically his artistic career doesn’t measure itself against the trends in vogue, but with a reflective interiority, as if he wanted to find a deep, authentic reason to paint, and he didn’t have accepted the idea that painting was only, above all, a formal fact.

A counter-proof of this attitude lies, in my opinion, in the originality with which he employs the prevailing idioms from time to time, adapting them to his sensitivity.

I pellegrini di Emmaus (Emmaus pilgrims), 1945. Tempera on cardboard, cm 27 x 41 

The chapter of the great sacred decoration is essential to fully understand Lepsky value

Lepscky seems to know deeply, within himself the dignity of pain, without pathos and theatricality that never appear in his paintings.

The chapter of the great sacred decoration is essential to fully understand the Lepsky value.

He painted large-scale church interiors and chapels since the 1920s, but his fame as a fresco artist is widespread and the requests were increasing over the years thirties and forties.

To the sacred wall paintings of great dimensions he dedicated not only skill and craft, which he was rare commodity already during the last century, he was able to give an imprint, a chromatic shot and an architectural setting monumental that modernized the inescapable Tiepolesque canon in the venetian region as it clearly appears in the ceiling of the church of Fossalta di Piave with the fresco The definition of dogma of the Immaculate.

In the ceiling of the Church

of Resana (Treviso, Italy), rear of three years (1944), there is a significant variation. The architecture of the temple, stairs in the centre, pronaos on the left and loggia in the background – is more complex and supports the entire spatial arc of the aerial breakthrough of the ceiling in the Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew.

The figures that are arranged on this solid structure much less flamboyant and soaring.

Indeed, we note a summary of ideas that are not limited to the Tiepolesque model, rather the chromatic plasticity of the figures, their weighting on the scaffolding marble is very little attributable to the Venetian master.

Lepscky seems to draw on a plurality of non precedents only Venetians who do not exclude, in his way, not even Michelangelo on closer inspection of the executioner “at rest” with the axe, lying in the foreground with a growling dog turning towards him.

Il martirio di San Bartolomeo (the Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew). Fresco on the ceiling of the Church of Resana (Treviso, Italy)

The three degrees of martyrdom are all there: at the furthest, in time and space, the last act with the hatchet, the two executioners behind Bartolomeo are raising the cross, while those in front with the scimitar wait for the skinning (…)

In applying to sacred themes, Lepscky seems invest all his culture and artistic expertise: he masters the notions on the figurative structure he musthold up even if it seems made only of color; stairs chromatic and the relationships between contrasting colors, between the light and shadow; the syntactic pagination where has good game a non-a priori perspective depth, but based on the figures and chromatic variations. 

When the Resana cycle ends (which includes, in addition to the ceiling, two large wall mirrors), also closes the tragic parenthesis of the war and for Lepscky starts the last season of his production, closely connected to the most fragile phase of one existential parable marked by great moral rigor.  At that epochal juncture, every artist set himself the problem of how to continue to paint, to sculpt, where to place oneself, what art was more: profession, talent or reasoning, ideology?

The first post-war years

There is a work, a still life of bottles, dated 1945 which accounts for his independent position, in his own way provocative, which manifests a lucid awareness of one’s work.

The painting is in dark colors, even the transparencies of the glass are evident but rather deaf, veiled or not filtered. Volumes are created by color and marked as plastic forms. Let’s see the title that Lepscky gives this picture: Homage to Matisse. Does Matisse have anything to do with those shapes?

Omaggio a Matisse (Omage to Matisse), 1945. Oil on panel, cm 68 x 46

Matisse is the opposite of that composing for volumes and Lepscky knows it. He probably had seen Matisse’s paintings from life in Paris on the trip he made around 1930 and now that artists start talking about the avant-gardes, the Cubists and the Fauves also in Italy, and at Ca’ Pesaro exhibitions are starting up on the avant-garde and everyone rushes hungry for novelty, Lepscky grants himself a nonconformist approach. 

With this well-made picture launches a catilinaria in the form of a still life against the avant-gardes about to spread on the ridge of the year zero of modernization, rapid and global, in the immediate post-war period. But how, seems to ask the painter, for at least three decades the figuration has reigned supreme, unchallenged, sometimes more neoclassical, times more popular, and now comes the word of the avant-garde that all of a sudden, with a clean slate, they erase good painting, craft, the museum.

The first post-war years

marked a very painful vulnus for the artist who, in the Second World War, more than forty years old, was recalled as an officer to Tunisia and Libya and remained there for almost two years.

As soon as he returned he was arrested by the Germans, the day after the armistice. He managed to escape but certainly the accumulation of suffering and the dust breathed in Africa had seriously undermined health and irremediably burdened with the weight of life.

However, around 1945, a new life seems to flow in his paintings that take up the verse of the Thirties painting with a certain taste for composition and palette, preferring the theme of still lifes.

The appearance of the Indios theme and the consequent stylization of the form has to do with the willingness to make a clean slate of his pictorial expertise and return to a zero degree, to that figurative simplification that is anchored to the primitive, naive tradition as Piepaolo Luderin has clearly seen and to the corresponding subjects who could identify themselves, also as a content, with those elementary, primitive forms, such as the Indians indeed.

Cesto con cipolle (Basket with onions), 1944. Oil on panel, cm 67 x 76

The masks and masquerades

In the same context he develops a theme also surfaced sporadically in previous years: le masks, masquerades.

Widespread theme of course, that Lepscky himself had already attended in the years before the war, but now he introduces this iconographic motif, full of symbolic values, in the context of the simplification taking place in his painting.

The masks that are presented in 1959 at the Bergamo Prize are in fact a lot schematic, linear and thin, almost devoid of matter and with soft colors. 

It seems to us that in this era of uncertainty, in the more complete expressions, those that have the legitimacy of opera, Lepscky demonstrates a certain shyness in adopting vaguely neo-cubist stylistic features, starting rather an essential, linear and chromatic shaping, where the inlay dominates rather than the plastic decomposition. 

Arlecchino e Brighella (Harlequin and Brigella), 1953 Tempera on paper, cm 35 x 50

The line of development of his work, which appears to us as the most authentic and effective, it is also that of papers, temperas and watercolors, wherever they can take refuge both the interiority and the skill of the artist, without stylistic hesitations.

Works on paper do not work understood as residual activities with respect to easel paintings, they rather assume a diary function, they record the movements of the soul, feelings, judgments;

show, in the imprint and in symbolic synthesis, its point of view on the theater of the world which appears to him rather petty, if not violent.

Due quadri per un sarto (Two paintings for a tailor), 1953. Tempera on paper, cm 52 x 70

Lepscky finds the strength to break free from the grip of "should be"

The postwar years were disorienting and anxious for everyone, especially for a fifty-year-old artist, a veteran of the war, physically weak and dazed by the ferocity of the debate that flared up in Venice; debate that Lepscky was unable, or perhaps did not want to, to oppose.

He abandoned the field, left Venice and his professorship at the Academy of Fine Arts, and in 1954 started to teach at the Art College “Selvatico” in Padua, while continuing to live and paint in Venice. 

Despite the didactic commitment, very serious and burdensome given the worsening of his health conditions, Lepscky finds the strength to break free from the grip of “should be” and decides to open the doors to the imagination, without the anxiety of critical judgement.

He does it for himself: apparently light things, pleasant, but instead, on closer inspection, intense, that don’t silent about his skill but move it to a level of immediacy, of parody, perhaps of confession.

The gallery of masks, the circus, the dancers, the dancing parties, the bride and groom, some hints of Arcadia, form a joyful repertoire that Lepscky also revisits with a corrosive flair and with an emotional investment between the dramatic and the ironic absolutely worthy of known and such as to justify a remarkable production also in terms of style.

In passeggiata (Promenade), 19452. Oil on paper, cm 50 x 41

Signora si nasce (Lady, one is born), 1948. Oil on cardboard, cm 50 x 65

L'uccellatore (The birdcatcher), 1948

Particularly significant is L’uccellatore (The birdcatcher) of 1948, one of first works of its latest trend we could define “deconstructive”.

An oil, not a watercolor or a tempera. So it is from there that he starts, from oil which has always considered the material of finished paintings, portraits, landscapes, urban and natural and still lifes, but which he knew could slim down and even dissolve almost until the cancellation, as had happened in many artists starting with Herman Anglada y Camarasa who he could have seen both at the Biennale and in Spain.

It starts from there and manages to dissolve the form, leaving only a simulacrum of a figure in sight.

The colors are more liquid and melts, the background even more indefinite.

L’uccellatore (the birdcatcher), 1948. Oil on paper, cm 70 x 46


And it’s amazing the subject chosen for this disarmament with a figurative form: a young fowler, a young man who wanders alone in a desert of brown and livid colors with stick on horseback of the shoulder, like medieval wayfarers, which holds the ends the aviaries with the captured birds while holding in hand the cage with the decoy bird.

Throughout the imprecise but clear scene, the white profile of the plant of the right foot is the punctum (Barthes would say) of the composition, the firm point, the center without which the rest would lose energy, balance.

Ballerina spagnola (Spanish dancer), 1955

The second painting we want to focus on is Ballerina spagnola (Spanish Dancer) of 1955, which at first glance looks like a picture of Spanish costume and instead, on closer inspection, reveals craftsmanship such as to express a joyful memory now tinged with nostalgia.

Ballerina dancing pose is athletic, the bending is very pronounced backwards: the green slipper coming out from the red cloud of the wide skirt can alone balance the strong dynamic twist of that young body?

Maybe yes, maybe not. That’s not what matters.

Ballerina spagnola (Spanish dancer), 1955. Tempera on paper, cm 48 x 67

It matters most all the green background with merged solutions of darker shadows, which weighs on the diagonal close to the bright and warm colors of the ballerina – that’s the background that accentuates her back bend as well as enhances hers energy, athleticism and aesthetics, able to withstand the impact.

The green shade is also on the back and under the long eyelashes and the two guitarists who accompany his “wear” it dance.

That triumph of bright red and that elegant gesture and peremptory will have the better of the realm of the night of which those shadows are harbingers.

In these works Lepscky interiority is revealed with freedom and truth, as only an artist who knows painting and its secrets very well can indulge

I don’t think I’m wrong in considering these works as a sort of diary where Lepscky’s interiority is revealed without hesitation, giving his sign a freedom and a truth that only an artist who knows painting very well and all its secrets can indulge.

We are so convinced of this that while appreciating much this last production of Lepscky, we want to leave with a traditional picture, full of light and space: Bragossi in laguna (Bragossi in the lagoon) of 1930.

There are boats painted with descriptive precision, reflexes included. Nothing special. But there is something special in that motionless water that reflects the pinkish light of the early morning that also permeates the salt marshes.

In short, it is a triumph of calm light due to the chromatic micro-texture.

If all that space of boundless depth descends at Ciardi, that motionless dust of tones is a bet of Lepscky who returns to reality, to en plein air without haste, without lively brushstroke, to savor and feed on all the light of sun that is born without any obstacle blocking its expansion and which increases in extension by mirroring itself in the water of the lagoon.

Perhaps that light that he also frequented as a young painter full of future and illusions is still able to chase away demons of the night.

Bragossi in laguna (Bragossi in the lagoon), 1930. Oil on panel, cm 80 x 100

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