Tuesday 15 February 2011

Italian Art in Islington

From Morandi to Guttuso: Masterpieces from the Alberto della Ragione Collection
The Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art
39 Canonbury Square
London N1
to 3 April

Alberto della Ragione was a naval engineer who started collecting contemporary art in the 1920s. He eventually gave it all to Florence, but at the moment it's waiting for its new home to open. So here are 40 from his collection, mostly dating from 1935-45, when the Fascist regime made being a modern painter difficult. The artists range from Giorgio Morandi through Renato Guttuso and Renato Birolli to Mario Sironi. They belonged to the socially conscious Corrente movement.

I know - you've never heard of any of them. Giorgio Morandi painted assemblages of utilitarian glass and ceramic bottles, with the odd oil lamp. His palette was a dreary range of muds, greys and beiges. His bottles (containers for laudanum, mustard, ink, jam) huddle together like crowds at a funeral.

Renato Guttuso was rather different. He liked painting naked ladies, despite not being able to draw very well. He was a bit too influenced by Picasso's Blue Period. But he was sometimes good in the sleazy style of a 60s pulp book cover, and his Roman roofscapes aren't bad.

Birolli and Sironi painted doomy roofscapes, melancholy nudes in grey rooms and views of smoky factories. After the war they broadened and coarsened their art, helping decorators create a "modern" look. It all became rather brash and vivid, like the interior of a burger bar chain. And then in about 1967 it suddenly looked out of date and plummeted out of fashion.

National collections show us the official history of art, and an artist's development. Works from private collections can give you quite a different view of an artist, or a movement, or a country. Were they rejected from public galleries for being sentimental, dated, commercial, too like 50s curtain material?

I'm looking forward to seeing the show. The picture above is Synthesis of Taormina, 1939, by Enrico Prampolini.


Yes, Italian art between the wars was a backwater. But these painters produced moody and evocative canvases. If I could take home one it would be Carlo Carra’s Bathing Huts by the Sea, 1941. The surface is thickly painted, with a palimpsest of earlier thoughts showing through beach and sky, while the simple huts loom meaningly. Felice Casorati’s Yellow Nude (1945) may be a Fauvist work several decades too late, but it is also a poignant vignette of a naked woman sitting in chilly isolation among stacked canvases. Giorgio Morandi was an understated genius – his quiet, atmospheric landscape etchings are as good as his more well-known crowd scenes of stone bottles and oil lamps. There’s a sad, brooding atmosphere in many of these pictures, and camouflage colours predominate – maybe the only reference to the war. Mario Mafai and Mario Sironi painted isolated houses among dark trees. One of the most compelling works is Mafai’s Wagons of Sturla (1942), of a closed fairground. The colours are jollier, but everybody has stayed indoors. I’m delighted to make the acquaintance of these artists – even Renato Guttuso, whose Scantily-Clad Women (1940) is kitsch and vulgar – but in a good way. His bravura style almost covers up his inept drawing.

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic article. Italian art is spectacular. Birolli and Sironi are my favourite artists. I love the melancholy in their paintings.