Peter Macchiarini: A Modern Bohemian

An article in the February 19, 1982 issues of the San Francisco Chronicle ironically suggests that “No body of water, ocean, bay nor trickling brook has its banks in North Beach. . . an area which has come to be known as the Little Italy of the West. The region bordering Telegraph Hill encompasses Columbus and upper Grant Avenues and part of Stockton. Powell and Broadway. Legend has it that during the Great Fire and Earthquake of 1906, houses doused with wine from the little old Italian winemakers were saved from burning when water was low.” It was here, just after World War II, when upper Grant Avenue was the heart of bohemian San Francisco that Peter Macchiarini would hang out at the “Iron Pot” and “Black Cat” cooly purveying his hip jewelry.

Almost born in the hop fields during picking season. Peter Macchiarini spent his childhood years on a Sonoma County ranch. In 1923, when Macchiarini was 14, his parents returned with him to their native ltaly. He took a preliminary course in Italian and then entered the Art Academy at Piestrasanta. Province of Lucca, where he studied traditional marble carving, clay modeling, architectural drawing and general sciences. He was fascinated by the marble carvers and reveled in stories about his grandfather, the “head wagoneer’ who used to haul big blocks of marble up in the mountains. For a time, Macchiarini also worked in a cemetery in France, carving tombstones with the names of American soldiers killed during World War l.

Peter Macchiarini - Brooch
Figure 1 Brooch, sterling silver, purple glass, “stone.” This was Macchiarini’s first piece. The stone was set in reverse.

In 1928, Macchiarini returned to San Francisco and got a job, working in terrazzo for P. Graffi and Co. and on the stone works that adorned the old Fox Theater and Grace Church, until the stock market crash left “. . . him and other ripe young men dying on the vine.” He continued his art studies at night at the California School of Fine Arts, and in 1931 he took to the road, hitchhiking 12,000 miles across the United States on freight trains and returning to California in the Fall when the weather became too cold to sleep outdoors.

In 1935, Macchiarini joined the WPA but couldn’t obtain an art assignment, so he took the next best thing a job with Ralph Chesse and the Marionette Theater. There he created puppets’ heads, carving entire casts of popular operas and operettas, including the “Mikado.” He also built miniature sets and even spoke parts. He was with Chesse for about two years, after which he briefly became an actor in the WPA Theater. Not knowing how to act, he was given only, walk-on, “spear-carrying roles” and small speaking parts, his forte being bloodcurdling yells when he “died.” Consequently, he spent a lot of time in the dressing room where he passed the hours by whittling tragedy/comedy masks out of wood with the pocket knife he had left over from the Marionette Theater. The actresses wanted them so he attached pinbacks and presented them as gifts. The only other jewelry he had made, up to this time, were carved “African” heads which his friend and fellow artist. Margaret De Patta (see Metalsmith, Spring 83, vol. 3, no. 1) had mounted on Pin findings.

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Figure 11 Sculpture, copper, brass, paint, wood(?), 17½ x 9 x 6¾”, 1950s

Wanting to be an artist he applied to and was accepted for the WPA project run by sculptor Beniamino Bufano: a relief mural for George Washington High School, consisting of athletes modeled in the poses of various sports. This project, however, received a great deal of criticism, possibly due to the rumors of inclusion of portraits of controversial political figures and the implied eroticism of the athletes. He also worked on Bufano’s Peace statue at San Francisco Airport and that of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, founder of the Republic of China at St. Mary’s Plaza, Chinatown. Macchiarini also worked on Ralph Stackpole’s project: the monumental sculpture that graces the Pacific Stock Exchange Building on River Street. When Bufano was removed from the WPA, Macchiarini was transferred to a home project, whereby artists were given materials to work with independently. He set up a small studio on Union Street at Telegraph Hill where his assignment was to make a chess set out of wood.

After Pearl Harbor, in 1941, Macchiarini went to work in the shipyards where he installed sheet metal appointments, such as bulkheads. He learned a great deal from the engineers who worked out the designs in sheet metal—techniques that he would later apply to jewelry. In 1938, just before leaving the WPA, he was making jewelry in earnest; albeit in very small quantities, due to his preoccupation with war work and the lack of appropriate equipment. He didn’t have a formal metals studio until after the war when he set up a jeweler’s bench and taught himself metalsmithing.

Figure 7 Three brooches, from left to right: brass, copper, sterling silver, ivory, 4½ x 1¼”, 1980s; brass, copper, ivory, 4⅜ x 1⅜”, 1970s; brass, copper, ivory, 3⅞ x 1¼”, 1970s

In 1951, a dozen West Coast jewelers, including Margaret De Patta, Merry Renk, Mitton Cavagharo, Byron Wilson, Vera Allison and Macchiarini founded the San Francisco Metal Arts Guild, an organization for producing craftsmen. Although Macchiarini credits the Bauhaus with influencing his early style, he takes great issues with its dogma of pure design where humanistic facets, i.e., handmade touches, weren’t considered. “Although . . .a design made for the machine could produce a superior product it did not speak for the soul.” Macchiarini felt that the very nature of the mold was artistically limiting. He maintained that jewelry must be individually handmade like sculpture and parted company with De Patta and MAG when they refused to act upon his suggestion to develop a hallmark for all mass-produced jewelry so that the public could easily differentiate between manufactured and one-of-a-kind pieces.

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His first piece of metal jewelry (Figure 1), made in 1937, won a prize (along with Macchiarini’s entire display) at the San Francisco Art Festival. It combined sterling silver, nickel and a purple glass “stone” mounted in reverse. Vestiges of the streamlined stylization of generic modernism are evident in this piece while the two brooches in Figure 2, done a bit later, display a move towards Constructivism. The upper piece, especially, occupies deep frontal space, as it is build forwards, each of the three horizontal wires resting on a vertical metal ribbon, while the lower brooch recalls De Patta’s experiments with optical illusions and internal space in its use of holes drilled into a disc of lucite.

Figure 10 Necklace, sterling silver, ivory and ebony piano keys, 15½ x 2¼”, 1980s reproduction of 1940s design

Macchiarini’s most important achievement was his exploration of internal structuring through the use of layered metal planes. We see the seeds of this concept in the stepped planes and drilled holes of the brooches in Figure 2. The idea was initially inspired by, Bufano who regarded the egg shape as the perfect form. The egg’s outline suited Macchiarini, since if you project a “thought” into space it will eventually return to the same place, just as the arc (egg) and atom do, by which he meant that one cannot penetrate the infinite. But Macchiarini also wanted to go one step further than Bufano—to cut into the mass and provide visual symbols for the “life force” within the solid.

The egg eventually gave way to a variety of structures (Figures 3 and 4), each with several pierced layers. “In the process of this fenestration a free form is carefully visualized on the top layer of the object. The impulse then is to investigate the imaginary inner contents by cutting out this irregularly shaped window. Then the next layer is similarly applied and the contours scribed and cut, making the opening slightly smaller. . . .” This process was repeated several times; the unit then squeezed together until the planes were at the desired distance from each other. Once the structure was completed, it was then colored chemically to produce brown, black, copper red, green and blue, in varying degrees of hue shade and intensity.

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Figure 9 Brooch/pendant, sterling silver, brass, copper, jade bead, 5¼ x 2⅜”, late 1950s

Picasso. Klee and Miro have provided inspiration for the imagery used by several jewelers of the post World War II craft renaissance. One sees Surrealism in the work of Sam Kramer (see Metalsmith, Winter ’86, vol. 6, no. 1) and in Earl Pardon’s figures. Macchiarini alludes to Cubism (Figure 5), evidenced in his juxtaposition of geometrically abstracted and displaced body parts, Biomophism, as witnessed by his use of metaphoric figure/forms (Figure 6) and the use of positive and negative shapes.

Macchiarini’s more recent work of the 1970s (Figure 7) displays a strong African influence, reminiscent of his first pieces of jewelry: carved, wooden, African mask brooches. This newer version, however, speaks of Macchiarini the metalsmith rather than Macchiarini the modeler. These masks incorporate his Constructivist leanings, as well as allowing him to enter the internal structure of the images (which are also egg forms). The center brooch utilizes the fenestration idea, as the negative shape created by the cutout eye sockets and nose reveal ivory eyes floating in a vacuum, while the one to the right recalls Sculpture 23 by Rudolph Belling—a formal exercise which “. . .exemplifies what might be best called a contrived evocative head, the result of a kind of rational problem solving. . . Belling, in effect, domesticated Cubism and Constructivism, adopting the obvious qualities associated with these movements and creating a paraphrase of the human head. . . . .”

Figure 2 Two brooches, top: sterling silver, 4 x 1¼”, c. 1938; sterling silver, lucite, black paint, 3¾ x 2¼”, c. 1939

In comparing the anthropomorphs in Figures 6 and 8 the viewer is confronted with a 1940s and a 1980s example, respectively. But it is difficult to draw any conclusions regarding a temporal stylistic development. The brooch in Figure 6 is a 1940s piece, clearly inspired by the phantasmagorial figures of Miro and Klee. The former drew his surreal imagery from the dreamlike compendiums of human, animal plant and object forms, while the latter, introduced naive creatures, who would often conjure up childhood associations in the viewer. The Macchiarini pendant in Figure 8, also a figure, was fabricated around 1980, and one might say that it is cleaner and at the same time more tribal in its associations, yet Figure 5 displays a piece from 1950 (left) and c1970 (right), both quite geometric and primitive, while the brooch from around 1950 in Figure 9 is the most minimal of the group. All in all, it is extremely difficult to date Macchiarini’s output with precision, since his basic themes: Africanism, Constructivism and “Internal Structuralism” or “Layerism” (my terms) continually resurface.

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Figure 5 Brooch/pendant, left: sterling silver, Inconel, brass, copper, ebony, ivory, 4¾ x 2¼”, c. 1950; brass, copper, sterling silver, teak (?), ebony, 3⅝ x 1¾”, c. 1970

In making the transition from sculptor of solid mass to engineer of open space, Macchiarini revealed his expertise as an assemblagist. The necklace, constructed from pieces of old piano keys (Figure 10), is a contemporary reconstruction of one made in the 1940s. One sees great sensitivity to the found object in his sculpture (Figure 11); the base seems to be the top of an oil can. The suspended metal spheres are pierced and indented until the)’ seem to be headlike. The entire sculpture quivers with subtle movement as the air circulates. It reads as a fusion between Julio Gonzalez and Alexander Calder, yet it evokes Macchiarini’s own very personal sculptural presence. This piece is charming, affable, almost toylike. It makes the viewer smile, chuckle, want to play with it. It conjures up all sorts of innocent images and associations. A similar sculpture, entitled “Military industrial complex Musikal Instrument,” done in 1976, prompted someone to ask Macchiarini how to play it. He replied. “You don’t—it plays you.”

Figure 3 Three bracelets, top to bottom: brass, 8½ x 1″, c. 1950; sterling silver, 8½ x ⅜”, 1950; brass, copper with green patina, 9½ x 1″, c. 1950

While some jewelers perceive a difference between jewelry and sculpture, Macchiarini has said he “. . .doesn’t see much difference in big statues and small wood carvings as sculpture.” He believes that any piece of sculpture, large or small, must related from every angle; as in music, the beginning must relate to the end and the melody in between. Sculpture, to Macchiarini, is a static expression of motion, and he views jewelry as small sculpture. The only difference, he concedes, is in the physiological mechanism of reviewing, that is, the eyes converge on a small object while they sway outwards when looking at a monumental sculpture. The principles of good design hold true for both sculpture and jewelry. Like several other of his contemporaries in the field of modern jewelry, he originally went into jewelry making instead of full-time sculpture because it afforded him a better living yet, he is quite adamant in his belief that the same qualitative percepts guide both.

Figure 8 Pendant, sterling silver, brass, ebony, ivory, 4⅝ x 1⅝”, c. 1970

Peter Macchiarini believes that all painting and sculpture (jewelry, also) must have an “abstract logic.” “Good composition,” says Macchiarini, “is what makes a painting withstand the test of time.” He cites as an example religious paintings, which people thin are beautiful because of the ideology represented; however, those paintings that don’t manifest that “abstract logic” or good design will be forgotten. Certainly, his jewelry possesses “abstract logic” as well as a human warmth, demonstrated both in its imagery and configuration. The craftsman’s process is omnipresent, sometimes in fingerprint identations (Figure 4, top) or giddy spontaneity of fabrication, but always evidenced by a gentle humor signifying a love for people and a desire to facilitate their ownership of beautiful and meaningful things.

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Notes:
  1. “The Most ‘San Francisiscan’ Part of Town: Old Country Flavor by Telegraph Hill,” San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 19, 1982.
  2. From an interview in San Francisco by Mary Fuller McChesney with Peter Macchiarini on Oct. 18, 1964 for the Archives of American Art.
  3. From “Miscellaneous notes on mass-production of the Arts” by Peter Macchiarini,” Arts and Architecture, Aug., 1949.
  4. “Jewelry by Peter Macchiarini,” Arts and Architecture, Aug., 1949.
  5. Albert E. Elsen, Modern European Sculpture 1918-1948, “Unknown Beings and Other Realities”; (New York,: George Braziller, in association with the Albright-Know Art Gallery, Buffalo), 1979. P. 63.
  6. Herb Caen, San Francisco Chronicle, Monday, Oct. 11, 1976.
  7. “Emperor Norton: His Statue Modeled,” San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 18, 1939.
  8. From interviews by Toni Lesser Wolf with Peter Macchiarini conducted on April 12 and 19, 1988.
  9. This belief, however, is not shared by all post-World War II American studio jewelers. Macchiarini did not consciously use the body as armature as did, for example, Art Smith (see Metalsmith Fall 87, vol. 7, no. 4) and Ed Wiener (see Metalsmith Summer 88, vol. 8, no. 3), both of whom felt jewelry and sculpture to be extremely different disciplines.
  10. Idem Wolf interview.
Acknowledgements

The author wished to thank Fifty/50 Gallery in New York, without whose help and continual support such articles wouldn’t be possible. It was in 1984, through the exhibition “Structure and Ornament: American Modernist Jewelry 1940-1960” at Fifty/50 Gallery that Peter Macchiarini was introduced to the East Coast.

Toni Lesser Wolf is a jewelry historian, lecturer, curator and writer living in New York City.

By Toni Lesser Wolf
Metalsmith Magazine - 1989 Winter
In association with SNAG's
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.
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