"When I started out, I absolutely fell in love with Surrealism; it got into my blood."
Some artists have the good fortune to appear at exactly the right time and place. One mid-century beneficiary of this fortuitous conjunction of talent and timing was a young and exceptionally gifted Italian artist who had moved from Paris to New York in 1940. Thoroughly trained in traditional painting methods and fully aware of the latest developments in avant-garde European art, Enrico Donati (b. 1909), nevertheless, was completely unknown to the art world at large. That would soon change, however. Recognition of his abilities by the renowned art historian Lionello Venturi led to a meeting with André Breton in 1942. Impressed by Donati's paintings, Surrealism's founder and pontifical grand master pronounced him a Surrealist on the spot. Breton's final stamp of approval came in 1944 when he wrote an enthusiastic preface for the catalogue accompanying Donati's third New York exhibition [when he] proclaimed, "I love the paintings of Enrico Donati as I love a night in May." With these words and his continued personal and "official" support, Breton helped launch Donati's long and successful career—a career that not only survived Surrealism's unfortunate demise a few years later but that also has continued on unabated and in increasingly significant and fascinating ways right down to the present.
An aspiring musician originally, the early 1930s found [Donati] hard at work in a ninth-floor walk-up studio in Montmartre writing avant-garde music. Much as he tried, however, success would not come his way. It was not that what he wrote lacked quality, he insists, only that it failed to impress the right people. It was at the former that he first saw the work of the Surrealists whose ranks he would join a few years later. [Eventually] Donati finally committed himself wholeheartedly to painting. He enrolled at the "very academic" École de la rue de Berri, not because he expected to like it there but because he wanted a solid professional background upon which to build his future career as a painter. He was right on both counts. His years at the school were not happy ones, yet he acquired as thorough a technical background as anyone could wish.
When war broke out in September 1939 the United States seemed the safest place for a young family of four—[his wife, Claire Javal, and their] daughters, Marina and Sylviane—and so the Donatis packed their belongings and headed for New York. Donati was glad to be back in the city that was fast becoming the temporary home for many of Europe's finest and most advanced painters and sculptors—all of whom had fled their respective countries because of Hitler. The presence in New York of Marc Chagall, Salvador Dali, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Fernand Léger, Jacques Lipchitz, Piet Mondrian, and Yves Tanguy—to name only a few—transformed it almost overnight from a provincial art city into one of the most cosmopolitan art centers of the Western world.
[As a painter, Donati] was particularly fascinated by the cyclical process of regeneration, by the passage from life, through death, into life again that occurs regularly in nature but also in art and myth. The relationship between myth and nature had always intrigued him, and in that context, he remembered something that had struck him forcibly when he had first come upon it. The process of transformation [for his artistic career] began with Donati's friendship with Camilo Egas, an Ecuadoran Surrealist, who was co-director of the gallery at Manhattan's New School for Social Research. Egas liked his Italian friend's latest paintings and exhibited them in his gallery. The art historian Lionello Venturi saw the show, liked it immensely, and gave Donati his card as an introduction to André Breton. Donati remembers it this way: "I was just a kid, . . . but Breton accepted me into the Surrealist movement. Suddenly I was surrounded by giants—Max Ernst, Tanguy, all of the big guys. Matta and I were the youngest of this group of the most impossible characters. But we got along very well. From then on I started having shows."
Few painters of his generation had as direct a line into their subconscious as Donati—or as uncanny an ability to make the nature and substance of that communication known to others. Donati produced remarkably authentic and only slightly edited accounts of what he had sensed and "seen" at his deepest, most intuitive level. In 1945 Duchamp and Donati collaborated on the installation of a window display at Brentano's New York bookstore for the second edition of Breton's book Le Surréalisme et la peinture, which included a chapter dedicated to Donati's paintings. Donati's major contribution consisted of a startling half-feet/half-shoes sculpture entitled Shoes, which was based on the Magritte painting that graced the book's cover. Even more disturbing—at least to the bookstore's owner—was a headless female manikin reading a book. Outraged, Mr. Brentano demanded the entire display be removed. Delighted by the trouble they had caused, Duchamp and Donati immediately transferred the display to the Gotham Book Mart. A much more significant event was the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme, which Donati helped Duchamp organize in 1947 at the Galerie Maeght in Paris. This would prove to be Surrealism's last big public event before it entered the history books.
Tower of the Alchemist: Creation of the Sun
Oil on canvas, 98 x 71 inches, 1947
[At this point, however,] World War II was over, many of Donati's Surrealist friends had returned to Europe, and Surrealism itself was dying. Furthermore, he had begun to have misgivings about his own work. He felt that his paintings had become too romantic, too pleasing in color, even a bit too sentimental, and that it was time to discipline himself, to impose certain restrictions on how and what he painted. But while he realized the need to break away from a creative mode that was threatening to engulf him, and to experiment with other methods and approaches, he found such a move easier to contemplate than to put into effect. For one thing, there was the matter of his reputation. Would he still be held in such high regard by those he admired most? Or would they and the art world turn their backs on him if what he painted failed to meet their expectations? It was a difficult decision but one he could not avoid making. What he could avoid, however, was public awareness of what he was attempting.
And so, from 1947 to 1949 Donati withdrew within himself to experiment. [Eventually], quietly and on his own terms, Donati entered the mainstream of American art. One of his first acts was to join the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York, then undoubtedly one of the best places in the world for a member of the avant-garde to show his work. There he exhibited alongside such gallery regulars as Pollock, Rothko, Barnett Newman, Richard Pousette-Dart, and Theodoros Stamos, all founding members and leading lights of the New York School. Obviously, his timing was once again superb. With hardly any greater effort than it had taken a few years earlier to become a Surrealist star, he now found himself accepted into equally exalted company by individuals whose critical opinions were respected throughout the international art community.
[An important event for Donati took place] in 1949 on a beach at Dover, [when he] picked up a small smooth stone that caused an "odd vibration" to pass through him. His suspicion that it contained a fossil was verified by Yves Tanguy, who also showed him how to open it without doing any damage. Donati resisted doing so, however, because he feared that what he found inside would too closely resemble what he recently had been painting out of his unconscious. Nevertheless, he kept the stone until, in 1960, following Tanguy's advice, he tapped its edges and opened it. The fossil he discovered within the stone did indeed strongly resemble some of his personal imagery. Not surprisingly, this was an unsettling but oddly exhilarating experience. "Once again," he states, "I was in touch with the cycle of creation, destruction, and rebirth." Holding the halves of the stone in his hands, he understood finally the depth of the fossil's hold on him, and that it "had always been my true myth and metaphor, my guide from the very beginning of my career."
Throughout his career, it has been merely a matter of time before the need to attempt even better and more effective forms of painterly magic has reasserted itself. That was true at the height of his Surrealist period when he realized the necessity for greater technical discipline and control in his work, and it has been the case at every other critical point along the way. And whenever that need manifested itself, he invariably pulled up stakes and moved on. Not to have done so would have been inconceivable to an artist of his drive and imagination.
That imagination has served him well. It led him from the primal, darkly provocative Surrealist images of his early days to the witty and colorful iconoclastic paintings of the 1990s. And it did so by inducing him to concentrate his major efforts on producing works characterized by ever greater degrees of paradox and enchantment. But then, Donati's creative roots go deep into Surrealist soil. As he often says, "Once a Surrealist, always a Surrealist."
But whatever its source, Donati's art is a rare and valuable creation whose various manifestations have enriched American art. From its Surrealist days to the present it has followed its own path, garnering honors along the way, but most important, providing meaningful aesthetic experiences for large numbers of artloving individuals. One must, in other words, seek that significance through whatever means are most truly at one's disposal. For Donati, of course, that would be through paint, color, shapes, textures, and lines—and through whatever imagery promises to yield the most clues and fleeting insights.