Villa Franceschi, Riccione – one of the Ligabue exhibition venues

Portrait of the artist with dog.

Antonio ‘Toni’ Ligabue ( 1899 – 1965) had the kind of face that makes you think he was either a crazed serial killer or a mad artist. The fact that he spent his life in and out of psychiatric hospitals signifies that he was not considered sane in the conventional sense but he was no murderer.

An excellent exhibition at Riccione (on until 6th October 2013) shows that he was, and is, a remarkable, and seriously underrated artist.

He is regarded as a ‘naive’ artist, although ‘primitive’ would be a more accurate term. He is often referred to as Italy’s Van Gogh;  the type of bold comparison which is, for once, warranted. There are also similarities with Henri Rousseau particularly in paintings of wild animals in jungles.

In two galleries (Villa Francesca & Villa Mussolini) you can see about 80 works – paintings, drawings and sculptures. The subjects are either himself or a highly individual representation of the animal world.

ligabueHis self portraits are particularly intense – he gazes at the viewer with a haunted look in his eyes. Ligabue made no attempt to hide to signs of self harm; he apparently cut his nose regularly to try to look like an eagle!

The animal pictures are just as disturbing,; beautiful too, through their visual power and primal energy.

They show farm animals, big cats (tigers, leopards, lions), gorillas and birds of prey all ferociously defending their territory, hunting for food or fighting each other. Even chickens appear as fierce creatures.

The scenes may be technically imperfect but convey real life and death violence and drama. The smaller details of these paintings are fascinating too – with flowers, trees and insects depicted like a warped version of the Pre-Raphaelitism. An oversized beetle is a recurring image. Sculptures in bronze, and one in wax, are equally remarkable.

This exhibition was a revelation for me. I knew the name but had no idea he was such an amazing artist.

[By the way, in the unlikely event that you’re wondering, Toni Ligabue is no relation to the rock star and film director Luciano Ligabue!]