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 Mario Bacchelli  (1893 - 1951)

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Lived/Active: Tennessee / Italy/Argentina      Known for: landscape and landmark painting, teaching

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Mario  Bacchelli
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following article was written and submitted by Ken Hall.  It was published in The Downtowner Magazine, Memphis, September 2002.

From Bologna to Beale Street
By Ken Hall
 
Mario Bacchelli’s road from Bologna to Beale Street was as adventurous and unpredictable as any novel or screenplay. But to Memphis he finally came and he embraced his new home with a passion.
 
From 1948 until 1951 this internationally renowned Italian painter captured the spirit of earthy, vibrant, largely ignored ethnic cultures of Memphis on canvas and paper.  During this time Bacchelli was a favorite party guest, zipping around town on his red motorcycle from art opening to cocktail party to juke joint and back to cocktail party, engaging and entertaining Memphians of all social strata with his charm and wit. One anecdote has him attending the 1950 Memphis Academy of Art costume ball in a Roman senator’s toga and leaving at the end of the evening, toga fabric flying around him as he sped off on the motorcycle to another party.
 
Bacchelli was born in Bologna in 1893 and by 1913 was an accomplished, self taught painter. He went on to study in Florence, in Germany, and in Paris where he was influenced strongly by the work of Cezanne. Bacchelli gained notoriety when exhibiting with fellow Bologna School artists including Giorgio Morandi, Ottone Rosai, Filippo De Pisis, Severo Pozzati. Bacchelli went on to teach in Florence. One source indicates that Bacchelli served in the Italian army during World War I, however, there is little information to elaborate on this or to even confirm it. Between the wars, a time of interesting transition in arts movements, Bacchelli painted and taught in Rome and later South America.
 
Italy entered World War II as part of the Axis and Bacchelli again served in the Italian military, by some accounts it the artillery and by others in the cavalry. He served as an officer in the North African campaign and was captured by Allied troops in 1943 in Tunisia. Sent to prisoner of war camps first in Centerville, Tennessee and later in Monticello, Arkansas, Bacchelli became interested in the South.
 
Through the intervention of  friends in the arts community, including violinist Albert Spaulding, Bacchelli, was sent to New York and worked with the U.S. Office of War Information. Never an admirer of Fascism, Bacchelli readily agreed to broadcast pro-Allied propaganda to rally the Italian people.
 
After the war and a brief stay in  Italy, Bacchelli returned to the U.S. via Canada and gave a series of art lectures  at Harvard and also taught  in Colorado. On the recommendation of Spaulding’s friend, Memphian  I.L Myers, Bacchelli was invited to come to lecture at the Memphis Academy of Art (now Memphis College of Art) in the spring of 1948 by Academy Director Mildred Hudson.  His stint as a guest lecturer being successful, he was hired as a faculty member in the fall of 1948.  He also taught courses at Southwestern at Memphis (now Rhodes College).
 
With his wife and children living in Buenos Aires, Bacchelli devoted his time outside the classroom to capturing Memphis on canvas and sketchpad. He was fascinated by ethnic cultures in the city, particularly Beale Street and the Pinch District. He mounted his first out-of-town exhibit of Memphis scenes in 1949 at the Niveau Gallery in New York.
 
Two things made Bacchelli’s work of this period notable: his continuing experimentation with perspective and the vibrancy of the ethnic life he depicted.
 
Never given over to abstraction , Bacchelli evolved out of modernism his own peculiar and fascinating ideas on perspective. He thought of perspective as a means of communication between artist and viewer and liberally altered scenes, adjusting proportions and framing the view for effect. Some of his pieces use a three-quarters perspective, leading the eye to an almost panoramic view. One of his Fourth Street pieces was six feet wide to create a sort of mural effect. A piece focusing on North Main was eight feet long and 20 inches high. “Modern painting is possible because of Einstein. Modern painting is a reality not of itself but relative to how and what we are, “ said Bacchelli.

Art theory aside, Bacchelli’s  subject matter is even more fascinating for the layman. The six-foot Fourth Street piece centered on Johnny Mills’ barbecue restaurant, a legendary institution just off Beale.  Watercolor studies were done of the Mississippi and Wolf Rivers, of Mud Island and animals at the zoo.  The Church of the Humble depicts Burning Bush Missionary Baptist Church, which still stands at 213 N. Dunlap. His fascination with black churches also led to painting of St. Paul Baptist Church and Jackson Avenue Baptist among others. Bacchelli loved Beale Street, especially the Panama Club which he both painted and frequented. In the Pinch he painted Kosher Deli, Pinch District, North Main Street, centering on Albert’s Deli; We Outfit the Entire Family depicted long gone small stores, and more.
 
In 1950 Bacchelli was commissioned by Pantheon Books to create a dust jacket for a books called The Mill on the Po by twice Nobel Prize- nominated Mario Bacchelli, his brother. (Mario lost on one occasion to T.E. Elliot).
 
Bacchelli died tragically in a motorcycle accident on the night of October 19, 1951. Since arriving in Memphis he lived frugally. He rode a motorcycle and lived in a rented room on North Parkway (and later a modest apartment on University Street) to minimize expenses so that he could send more money support to his family in Argentina.
 
Bacchelli was prolific in his work, often creating multiple takes on scenes of interest such as his five renditions of the Panama Club. As a result, he was able to show new work often and even after his death, retrospectives often showcased hitherto unseen works. A show of his Memphis painting had opened at the Ruth Dickens Gallery in Chicago just 10 days before his death. A show of his work was put together at the Academy one month after his death, in January of 1952 at LeMoyne College (now LeMoyne –Owen College), and in April of 1952 at the Brooks Memorial Gallery of Art ( now Memphis Brooks Museum of Art).

With many of his paintings taken by his family to Buenos Aires and many more dispersed to private collections on three continents, there was little left locally to keep the legacy going save one painting in the permanent collection at the Brooks. In January of  1988 the University of Memphis Gallery mounted an exhibition co-curated by Dr. James Ramsey and Dr. Marcus Orr, a friend of Bacchelli’s.
 
This article was inspired by and is dedicated to the memories of the late Mildred Hudson and the late Annie Rose Buchman.


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