A beach that is colored with sound. Moses Levy's "Tidal Wave."

Moses Levy (Tunis, 1885 - Viareggio, 1968) was a versatile and eclectic painter, and is best known for being the artist of Versilia: his beaches, such as the one in "Mareggiata," are iconic images of summers by the sea.

There are paintings to be heard as well as seen: paintings that have such evocative power that they lead us to imagine the voices and noises of what the painter has decided to show us on canvas. The synaesthetic power of Moses Levy’s paintings may not be the first quality one associates with him, but when one admires one of his paintings, especially those executed in Versilia’s first happy season, between 1918 and 1924, one almost seems to hear the sounds of what we see. A crowded waterfront in the evening. A conversation in a caf. The streetcar running along the streets of the Viareggio loved and sung about by the artist. And the beaches, of course: when we admire the 1920 Mareggiata , which is one of the best-known seaside paintings by the great artist who linked his name to that of Viareggio, it is like being on the beach. Certainly: Moses Levy was an eclectic, versatile painter, capable of trying his hand at the most disparate subjects, always managing to turn everything into poetry. Tunisian by birth, English by name, Italian by culture, Jewish by religion and cosmopolitan by mentality: such an artist, who, moreover, traveled extensively and throughout his life continually updated himself on the latest developments in European painting, could not remain pinned to a single genre. But there is no doubt that beaches are his most famous subjects, and that his art contributed greatly to forming in our feeling a very specific image of Versilia.

Riccardo Mazzoni recently spoke of the “mythopoiesis of the beach and Viareggio life,” tracing the stages of the elaboration of the epic of that Versilia in which Moses Levy discovered his world: the days under beach umbrellas, the bathing in the sea, the haunts of the vacationing upper middle class, the evenings at the Kursaal gardens, the masquerade parties, the little orchestras entertaining restaurant patrons, the crowds strolling the seaside boulevards. Summer in Versilia is a ritual, and Moses Levy is its officiant. “It is when the naked summer leads in rhythm the dance of its amber hours under the pines or harmonizes the beach, with the greenish loads of water,” wrote Elpidio Jenco in 1923, “that Moses frees himself to his throat-filled hymns. Then the artist is in his plenitude, and fervent together with all the emotional and representational possibilities that differentiate his work among a thousand.”

Moses Levy, The Swell (1920; oil on canvas, 60 x 120 cm; Private collection)
Moses Levy, The Swell (1920; oil on canvas, 60 x 120 cm; Private Collection)

And Moses Levy’s emotional and representational possibilities are indeed endless. His art is a "spontaneous and meliclaus vitae elevated to the serene and blue sky from the moonlit shores of the Tyrrhenian Sea," Carlo Ludovico Ragghianti would have written in his 1975 monograph. In the phase of his career where this praise of life reaches its climax, Levy’s beaches celebrate the Viareggio that was experiencing a perhaps unrepeatable juncture, the height of its worldly splendor, the moment when it was the undisputed capital of summer tourism, capable of attracting even illustrious vacationers from every corner of Europe. But at the same time, these paintings are also snapshots of identical beach days each day, in a continuous and happy repetition to which Levy has hymned with paintings that also often appear similar and repetitive to us, but which envelop us with an unrestrained feast of fresh, crystal-clear colors, with their quick and sudden flashes, with their simple spatial constructions. These are the elements that also characterize Mareggiata of 1920.

It is a painting kept in a private collection in Viareggio, but it has a long exhibition history: it is difficult for an exhibition on Moses Levy to do without it, because it is one of the canvases that best represent the production of the Versilia painter’s best-known and most familiar period, and also because it is one of the artist’s greatest achievements on large-format works. It depicts, with that extreme but not trivial simplicity that characterizes the paintings of these years, a day of rough seas on the beach of Viareggio. The cut, with the perfectly horizontal planes and the line of the horizon twice as long as the figures standing on the shoreline, is unrealistic, but what is important is not to present a photograph to the viewer’s eyes: what really matters to Moses Levy is to restore the sense, the lightheartedness, the emotion of a day at the beach. And to make the task easier for us, Levy studies a painting that appears to our eyes as a kind of stage of reality, a frank and genuine theater where the figures do not know they are such.

The sea is rendered in different shades of blue, as it is when the wind stirs it: a cobalt blue in the distance that becomes a dirty sky blue near the beach. The foaming of the waves is arranged along horizontal lines with fluffy white touches of color that are lost in tiny filaments along the ripples of the sea. In the middle, the bathers. They are a colorful mosaic: this is the impression one gets from almost all of Moses Levy’s beach paintings, a product of a period when the artist was developing a personal neo-divisionalist manner updated on the syntheticism of Matisse and the Fauves.

Levy arranges bathers in groups that follow the lapping as they enjoy diving, swimming, and throwing themselves under the breakers. There are a few who seem to be getting ready to catch the waves, as they say in these parts: you watch the sea waiting for the good wave, wait for the moment when the crest has reached its maximum height, being careful, however, that it is not too high to prevent momentum with your legs, and then you dive facing the shore, letting yourself be carried away by the rush of the maroso. Usually among friends there is a race to see who can get closest to the beach. And among the swimmers, then some skates also pop up: there is one that is taking off, another that instead makes its way back to the shore, with a man already off pushing it. Then, children, mothers on the shoreline watching them within sight, friends chatting, all wearing swim caps as was customary at the time. There is all the typical sampling of an August afternoon at the beach.

And, it was said, we seem to get auditory sensations from Levy’s brushstrokes. The incessant roar of the waves, the children’s cries of joy, the calls of mothers trying to get them out of the water, the hubbub of the colorful array of bathers and the dull thud of their dives, the lashing of the waves on the skate. Moses Levy’s seaside views are colored with sound. It is the force of a painting unleashed by a palette immersed in full reality, and reality is also perceived through voices and noises. But it is a mediated reality, proper to a modern artist who exalts “the autonomy of the rendering of form and color,” as Alessandra Belluomini Pucci has rightly pointed out. Levy draws and paints from life, and considered himself, by his own admission, a man born with a palette in his hand. Levy operates a free, festive, radiant and happy synthesis between reality and the avant-garde. Levy, wrote Alessandro Parronchi, “never sacrifices completely to instinct,” but “composes, balances, in a measured and penetrating observation of the real.” Thus adding to the painting of that time “some pages from which one will not fail to draw happy derivations.”