Italian Cityscape with the Figure of a Woman (Spanish Stairs in Rome)

Italian Cityscape with the Figure of a Woman (Spanish Stairs in Rome)

1922–1923Oil on canvas70.7 × 57.3 cmPrivate collection

Konrad Mägi’s scepticism about modernity and progress, which he countered with the power of the imagination and transcendental, stands out overall in his oeuvre and more specifically in his city scenes. He never depicts technological progress in his city works – this is like hubris, an excess, a materialistic destroyer of fantasies and has no place in his paintings.

One of the few trappings of modernity that Mägi does allow to appear in his paintings is streetlamps (see also Venice, 59.6 × 67.6 cm, Art Museum of Estonia). These are probably electric streetlights, which were depicted by futurist Giacomo Balla ten years earlier in paintings of Rome. But on the Balla painting, the streetlight was just as dominant as the sun in Mägi’s Saaremaa paintings. Balla’s work was informed by the Futurist Manifesto – they saw the lights as a sign of progress and rejoiced over them. Balla himself said in commenting on the painting that it “demonstrated how romantic moonlight had been surpassed by the light of the modern electric street light. This was the end of Romanticism in art. From my picture came the phrase (beloved by the Futurists): ‘We shall kill the light of the moon.’”[1]

For Mägi, such a slogan, and the Futurist idea of razing Venice in order to replace obsolete Romanticism with a technological worldview, was alien. Instead, Mägi’s Italian period could be seen as a nostalgic project, where in various big cities but also on Capri, he finds and longs for places untouched by the modern age.

On this painting, the vibrating halo of the streetlights does not have an expressive or dominating influence as in the Balla painting, but is more like a faint marginal comment from the modern world.

[1] See [19 August 2022].