Abstract echoes from Italy's past
Art and politics intertwine in Italy’s tempestuous 20th century
Review by Corinna Lotz
Michael Estorick remarked at the opening of this show that much of 20th century art now appears innocent and much further away to us. Too true.
The experimentation which was seen as shocking and even as “anti-art” in its day now looks very different and is often associated with the possibility of art and life shaping each other in a positive way.
Over the last decade, the coastal towns of Genoa, La Spezia and Savona in Liguria have benefited from important bequests and acquisitions which illustrate the trajectory of abstract painting in Italy over 50 years. In this offering, some 65 works selected by Matteo Fochessati, provide a glimpse into currents and artists hardly known here and rarely, if ever shown.
In the region’s capital, Genoa, the Villa Croce Museum of Contemporary Art houses the collection of Maria Cernuschi Ghiringhelli. Her husband was Virginio Ghiringhelli, a painter who owned the Galleria del Milione in Milan – a buzzing centre where Italians could see international abstract art during the 1930s.
Curiously, though, not a single female artist appears to have found her way into the abstract art movements, at least not on this showing. But both Genoa and Savona owe their holdings to the inspiration and efforts of Cernuschi and Renaissance-woman Milena Milani, who with her husband, the gallerist Carolo Cardazzo, was instrumental in the rise of the Milanese Spatialist movement after World War II. (Francesca Serrati and Eliana Mattiauda explain their key roles in the exhibition book)
The hang in the human-scale spaces of the Estorick’s Northampton Lodge is uncluttered and gives play to natural and visual affinities. It is fascinating to view these artists through the prism of cultural evolution in Britain, continental Europe, the former Soviet Union and the United States over the same period.
The opening gallery (upstairs) is a kind of pared down “cabinet of abstraction” – reminiscent of El Lissitsky’s version of Malevich’s Suprematism, in which Russian artists experimented with spatial and architectural elements.
Mauro Reggiani’s Composition No. 3 (1935) is an elegant play of only five rectangles floating above and below each other. A vertical creamy white column bisects the centre, a horizontal lemon-yellow bar runs across, while a russet rectangle moves towards the left, balanced by two black forms. It’s a visual-spatial experiment as well as an aesthetic pleasure. The emphasis is on how layering and colour can create the sensation of space and movement.
There are echoes of Cubism, Mondrian’s de Stijl and Malevich’s Suprematism. But look at the dates – we are in the mid-1930s here, not 1910-1914 when Russian and French artists (primarily) first entered the challenging realm of complete abstraction. As in other parts of Europe, after the pre World War I episodes of Futurism and Vorticism, Italian artists took abstraction into a new arena during the 1930s. They were inspired by art critic Carlo Belli, who championed a non-illustrative, anti-narrative kind of art. Art simply is, he insisted.
Unlike Germany, where Nazism saw a ferocious denigration of all forms of Modernism, in Italy Fascist authorities sought to absorb talented artists into the system. Unlike the Stalinists, they did not demand adherence to stylistic dogmas or figuration.
The demagogy and frenzied activity of Futurism is left far behind. The atmosphere is reflective and sometimes inventively humorous, as in Atanasio Soldati’s Little Composition (1937) and Osvaldo Licini’s Joke (1933). In the post-war period, Martino Oberto’s Space-writing and Achille Perilli’s mixed-media drawings abstract gestures, doodles and scribbles acquired a witty, story-telling character.
During the optimistic post-war period, abstract tendencies sprang up and counterposed themselves to what they saw as a “dull and conformist” realism. In Rome, Piero Dorazio, Perilli and Giulio Turcato joined together in the Forma 1 group in 1947. They saw themselves as revolutionary, but rejected the outworn dogma of socialist realism promoted by the Communist Party. In Milan, the Movimento Arte Concreta (MAC) set up a network of regional groups, headed up by Bruno Munari – he is the subject of the Estorick’s next show in the autumn.
His softer, more painterly style looks forward to the unrestrained thrill of the very substance of paint and unleashing of energy that marked the rise of Art Informel during the 1950s. Enio Morlotti’s Summer Hills (1955) uses oil as a strongly textured flurry of energy. There are no figurative references but he succeeds in evoking the colours of a summer landscape.
A host of works show the excitement of the Informel movement in its Italian variant – Jackson Pollock’s Abstract Expressionism had powerful gestural counterparts in Italy in Emilio Vedova and Giuseppe Allosia. And there is a thrilling fragile aesthetic subtlety about Emilio Scanavino’s Eyeless and Raimondo Sotti’s Pink Full of Light which alone make this show worth a visit.
The exploration of space – and attacks on what was seen as an antiquated notion of the canvas as a “window” or a “picture” – characterised the now distinguished innovators of the 1960s – Lucio Fontana and Piero Manzoni. Fontana famously slashed and punctured his canvases.
As in the immediate post-war period, Italian artists reflected the social and political changes around them. They again referenced the stylistic innovations of the early Modernist epoch. An optimistic space-age Utopianism radiates from explorations of form, colour and light. The old divisions between sculpture, painting and architecture break down once more in the closing part of the story.
30 June 2012