Obituary: Salvatore Fiume

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Salvatore Fiume was a fount of nonconformist colour in the critic- led world of post-war Italian figurative art.

He was born in the town of Comiso - an area of Sicily with a keen sense of history, relatively immune from the Mafia plague - but left at the age of 16, first for Urbino, where he studied book illustration, and then for Milan and Lombardy, which became his home for the next 60 years. Here he struggled to support himself and his family for over a decade, trying on different pseudonyms and even turning his hand to writing (a short- story collection, Viva la Gioconda, was published in 1943), before his market breakthrough came at last in the late Forties.

Fiume stressed in later years, when he was living in a converted spinning mill near Como, that the twin pulls of much of his work - now towards a crude archaicism, now towards a refined Arabian dreamscape - derived not from the mix-and-match cultural borrowings of modernism but directly from his early surroundings, in which traces of prehistoric civilisations were overwritten by North African leavings.

In the first part of his career Fiume was influenced by the geometric fantasies of De Chirico and the blank, archaic cityscapes of regime painters such as Mario Sironi and Carlo Carra, most obviously in the "anthropomorphic colossi" of his Isole di Statue paintings, which he exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1950. Later, though, he let the colour flow in, and the restrained decadence of Manet or Delacroix came to the fore; his paintings became more illustrative just as his book illustrations (for the Aeneid, for the Bible) strived for the painterly. Only in his sculpture did he retain a more archaic purity, working totemic figures that owe an equal debt to the prehistoric fertility statuettes of his native island and to the neolithic carving of the Val Camonica, near his adopted home.

Fiume was known above all as "il pittore delle donne" - the painter of women (but also the "women's painter"). He had no illusions about the origins of the religious awe and morbid fascination which the opposite sex provoked in him: it was a legacy, he said, of "the rigid, physical separation between men and women" which was still practised in 1920s Sicily. The artist's youthful epiphany, like Joyce's or Dante's, involved a young girl whose symbolic value was boosted by her reassuringly fleeting appearance in his life:

I was 14 at the time, and she was the first girl who had ever looked me in the eye . . . I asked her, stammering, if she wanted to go for a walk . . . and we walked to the edge of Comiso on opposite sides of the road, so as not to be noticed. Then I took her hand and we climbed a hill that overlooked the whole town. Nothing was said.

It was this experience, Fiume believed, that marked him out as an artist dedicated to "the service of women - all women". Though he was happily married to a former fellow student, Ines Gualazzi, until her death in 1976, Fiume pursued and encouraged a Don Giovanni reputation. In Africa he fulfilled a lifelong ambition by living for a time at the centre of a harem, and in his seventies he travelled to Polynesia on the trail of Gauguin - or rather, on the trail of Gauguin's models.

His languorous reclining odalisques - probably the most recognisable threads in what was a sometimes worryingly varied output - are painted flat, with a Matissian lack of shadow, their doll-like lips and eyelashes setting them uneasily between archetype and cliche. Goya's Maja Desnuda springs to mind: there is that same tension between the cheapening and the exaltation of the object of desire, though Fiume's nudes slip more easily towards the decorative.

But Fiume would never have acknowledged that as a limitation. Decorating was part of his mission: Fiume was a jovial bon viveur, not a garret artist, and in his long career turned his hand to wine labels, festival posters, opera sets (including a celebrated Aida at Covent Garden) and ocean liners as well as work in all the more traditional media: painting, frescoes, mosaics and sculpture.

His rapid output and cheery mixing of styles led to his exclusion from the canonical accounts of Italian post-war art; but he went on regardless, taking on increasingly imposing public commissions. Probably the most important of these were his 1967 apse mosaics for the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth; but he also worked on the Time Life building in New York (in the Fifties), designed a standard for one of the contrade taking part in Siena's Palio and - before land art had become a recognised genre - left a series of "stone paintings" in the Babile Valley of Ethiopia.

Salvatore Fiume's roving curiosity and his scorn for the modern artist's carefully metred output led to the occasional lapse - including a best- forgotten portrait of the monk Padre Pio - but his talent and energy always rose to the surface. Invited to dinner, he would hand his hostess a bunch of flowers painted on cardboard, and duly signed. This was his calling card: seduction in and through art.

Lee Marshall

Salvatore Fiume, artist: born Comiso, Sicily 23 October 1915; married Ines Gualazzi (died 1976; one son, one daughter); died Milan 3 June 1997.