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Alberto Spadolini Exhibition

Bolero-Spado': Una Vita Di Tutti I Colori

by Rosella Simonari

10 and 15 August 2007 -- Sala Imperatori, Porto San Giorgio (Fermo), Italy

Alberto Spadolini (1907-1972) was a versatile artist who travelled and toured to many places in Europe and in the United States. He was a famous music hall dancer in the 1930s and ‘40s who then  became an affirmed painter in the 1950s and 1960s. No wonder the exhibition to celebrate the centenary of his birth was called “Bolero-Spado’: una vita di tutti i colori” [a life of all colours]. Bolero-Spado’ refers to the dancer’s signature piece set to Ravel’s famous composition and the nickname his friends gave him, Spado’. The subtitle recalls the title of one of Josephine Baker’s autobiographies (she wrote more than one!),  "Une vie de toutes les couleurs" (1935) and it is particularly suitable for Spadolini who also danced with Baker at the beginning of the 1930s. This exhibition was curated by Marco Travaglini, nephew of the artist, in collaboration with the town of Porto San Giorgio and it ran from August 10th to September 9th. 

The poster for the exhibition features the painter-dancer in one of his most fascinating photographs, standing naked with his chest out and his arms highlighting its sculptural shape. It is a photo from the 1930s when Spado’ reached fame as a primtivist dancer. In this sense he resembles contemporary ballet dancer, Roberto Bolle, who created a kind of scandal by dancing semi-naked in the latest production of Zeffirelli’s “Aida”. As an étoile of the La Scala Ballet, Bolle does not usually appear in his underwear, but in “Aida” he embodied an Ethiopian slave and his costume was a tiny thong, an ornamental large jewel-like object placed on his chest plus some feathers on his head. In both cases we have the explicit display of a male athletic body through dance. 

While travelling by train to reach Porto San Giorgio, where the exhibition is and where Spadolini used to go on holidays, I think about his adventurous life and as the train marches on, it feels like travelling back through time to the 1930s when his career as dancer began. As I enter the Sala Imperatori I find myself immersed in the glittery and exciting world of the Parisian music hall. Along  the perimeter of the large room there are eleven black and white photographs, one caricature of Spado’ and Baker, three of his illustrations and eighteen of his paintings; in the centre there are many programmes from different performances, postcards, other photos, music sheets, books and other memorabilia. In spite of all these beautiful and evocative objects, the first thing that attracts my attention is one of the original costumes Spadolini wore in his version of  “Bolero”. It was a present from Carmelo Petix, a friend of Spadolini. It is a black sequin shirt, open in the front, a leather belt and a pair of fringed black sequin trousers. I can almost imagine Spadolini in his flamenco style performance, his posture, his braceo [flamenco arm movement], and his intense attitude. 

Among the photos, there are a couple presenting Spadolini in a Spanish costume, one of which resembles the above-mentioned one. According to Travaglini this photo was taken during the shooting of a documentary called “Nous les gitans”(1951) dedicated to gypsy culture. In other photos, Spadolini dances semi-naked in his pants, like the two by S. Enkelman’s Atelier or the one by Condé Nast where he wears a pair of leopard briefs and  resembles the Tarzan figure which was so popular at the time. Thanks to these images and performances which partially survived in films like “Marinella” (1936), he came to be called ‘the naked dancer’. Another photo by Joe Pasen presents him in a powerful jump, with a leg bent and the other straight up. He wears a white Greek-like drape, a Greek-style wig and a pair of sandals. This photo was taken in the 1940s, but it recalls Spadolini’s very first appearance on stage. It was at the Eldorado Casino in Nice on April 9, 1932. Apparently, the impresario had seen him dancing while decorating a ballroom and  immediately decided to hire him. However, Spadolini did not have a costume and decided to use a white sheet as Greek-style drape. As the above mentioned photo underscores, he probably returned to this imagery again in future dances. Significantly, this image has also been chosen as the cover of the elegant exhibition catalogue.  Other photos include a couple showing Spadolini and Liane Daydé, étoile of the Opéra Ballet. She ‘plays’ the roles of the ballet dancer, he is the painter who is going to capture her moving image. These are very beautiful photos and a perfect way to move to his paintings where dance often plays a central role. 

Interestingly, he began painting a series of works dedicated to ballet towards the end of the 1940s, when his dancing career was drawing to an end. In the exhibition eight paintings are dedicated to dance. Most of them present a group of ballet dancers in white long tutus, set against a neutral background of drapery that resembles the curtain of a theatre. These are very different ballerinas from those depicted by Edgar Degas, who placed them in realistic settings, like theatre stages and ballet studios. However, in both cases the light and chromatic focus resides in the tutu, which becomes blue, violet, green and many other colours, especially in Degas. In Spadolini, perhaps  there is more interest in representing movement, like in “Gruppo danzante” [dancing group] (1950s), an approach he might have learnt from the Futurists painters he met during his formative years in Rome in the 1920s. 

Other paintings deal with countrysides, towns and cities in which Spadolini lived, such as Ancona, the town of his birth, and Paris, his adopted home. There is also a beautiful portrait of his mother, Ida Romagnoli, quite austere and intense. In the centre of the room, there are other interesting documents, taken from what Travaglini has called the Bolero-Soado’ Archive, an archive originally consisting of material personally selected by Spadolini and curiously left in a box in the attic of his aunts in Fermo. To this material Travaglini has, in the course of many years, added other pieces found around the world. The journey through time continues thanks to leaflets of exhibitions Spadolini had in as different places as Luxemburg, Paris, Bruxelles and Rome. There are also other photographs, postcards, programmes notes of revues at the Casino De Paris and the Folies Bergère, books and a record of Baker’s famous song “J’ai deux amours”. 

Emerging from the eclectic world of Alberto Spadolini, I understand that it was not just a question of success and glitter, but also of deep commitment to a professional approach to dancing and painting as is clear from the intensity and dedication he showed in his artistic achievements.

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