Friday 30 March 2018


Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, London

Absolutely uninteresting preamble: The subtitle for this exhibition was “modern works from the Pinacoteca di Brera”, referring to highlights on loan from a collection in Milan – their first showing abroad. While the Estorick’s permanent collection celebrates its twentieth anniversary. As these two collections to all intents and purposes focus on the same thing, early Twentieth Century Italian Modernist art, and because I saw both on the same day, I’ve bundled both into this review. (I did say it was uninteresting...)

The World Put Into Motion
“There can be no modern painting without the starting point of an absolutely modern sensation and no one can contradict us when we state that painting and sensation are two inseparable words.”
- From The First Futurist Exhibition, 1912

Value for money, this show bundles together two self-portraits by the Italian Futurist artist Umberto Boccioni. One, abandoned, was recently discovered on the back of the other. It’s a fairly conventional view of an artist, holding his brushes out prominently, art strategically placed on the wall behind him. Yet in the version he rejected it for (1908, above), though he’s still clutching a palette board it’s pushed to the edge of the frame. In fact it’s only half a self-portrait, the other part being taken up by the view behind him. So why reject one for the other, more of a self-portrait for less of one? Artists are usually egocentric creatures, aren’t they?

The show uses the phrase ‘simultaneous view’ many times, and this sets us up for them with a double view. As those narrowed eyes scrutinise so intently Boccioni’s not looking out at us but the same view we see, the thing he will paint. The guidebook confirms this stretching view was not just over suburban Milan but was literally his view, from the terrace of his home. He’d not taken a day-trip out to see some nature, easel under arm – he’d painted his own world. This isn’t just the artist and the view, but the artist as himself part of the view. With it’s broad spaces it may not look urban to us today, but at the time there would have seemed a great many impossibly tall buildings. A better title than ’Self Portrait’ would have been ’Artist and Muse’.

If there are a number of good things to say about this show, it does at times fall into the trap of framing Modernism in terms of a lineage. Yet, not least in the quote above, the Futurists always stated the inspiration for their art was the new world of architecture and machines. And that they found this new world not alienating but invigorating, both literally and metaphorically electrifying, so wanted to create art which both reflected and matched it. Why not take them at their word?

And the key word in the quote up top is “sensation”. The Futurists weren’t just keen on changing the subject matter of art, from haywains to housing blocks, they were insistent this brave new world has irrevocably altered our perceptions. Take for example Giacomo Balla’s ‘The Hand of the Violinist’ (1912, from the permanent collection). As the title suggests it evokes not an engine but the fast-flowing hands of a violinist at work. 

Now of course violinist’s hands have always moved. Or at least the ones who didn’t tended to have less successful careers. But even if you went to the same old concert hall to hear the same classical pieces as played in yesteryear, your journey there would inevitably pass through different streets and they would colour the experience you had.

Yet at the same time this early work gives the game away by being so Post-Impressionist in style. (The favoured phrase in Italy at the time seems to have been ‘Divisionism’, referring to how short flecks of paint combined not on the canvas but in the viewer’s eye. Though how that’s supposed to differ from the Post-Impressionist term Pointillist isn’t clear.) Even assuming my theory of the double view is correct, unlike later there is nothing in the work to insist on this. It can be read as coherent pictorial space. In fact as that’s the way we’ve all learnt to read paintings, at least initially that’s the way we see it.

Early masters of spin and polemic, the Futurists often sought to conceal such debts. In the text quoted above they insisted “we repudiate Impressionism” because “they obstinately continue to paint objects motionless, frozen, and all the static aspects of Nature”. Which indulges the popular stereotype of the Impressionists as daubers of twee and bucolic little scenes, in contravention of anything they were actually doing. A more accurate statement comes slightly later, as if buried in the small print: “It is only possible to react against Impressionism by surpassing it.” (British Vorticism, despite being only a few years younger, had little to no Impressionist influence. Part of that may have been their feeling the surpassing had already been achieved.)

And Carra’s ‘Leaving The Theatre’ (1910) can be seen as this surpassing in literal motion. It’s subject matter, given away in the title, could be Impressionist. Yet Carra has taken those lively brush strokes, that flickering colour scheme, that disinterest in tight delineation and ran with it. It’s not just that so little can be discerned from those scurrying figures. It’s that they’re not moving against a static background, for the painting suggests all is in motion - even the street itself.

Impressionist paintings can still be used as period documentation, as records of the topography of their setting, of people’s clothing and so on. Carra discards all of that as baggage. He’s not going out on some aesthetic limb to prove some abstruse point, as in the caricature of Modernism, he’s going further and deeper into what painting can do. However great Boccioni’s self-portrait is, and I’d insist it is great, Carra has done something greater by going beyond.

And if the street itself seems to be in motion, a flow of energy the way a river is a flow of water, that’s an image the First Futurist Manifesto put into words: “Suddenly we jumped, hearing the mighty noise of the huge double-decker trams that rumbled by outside, ablaze with coloured lights, like villages on holiday suddenly struck and uprooted by the flooding Po and dragged over falls and through gorges to the sea.” It later makes its infamous threat to divert the rivers to flood away the museums. “Lines of force” soon became a common Futurist phrase.

So, despite its furious insistence on breaking with the past, the work is also an example of the Romantic notion of the Industrial sublime, which goes back at least to Turner. The City confronts us not as something of our making but as something from without, while at the same time charging us like particles caught in its orbit.

The City… Impressionism… there’s one great influence on Futurism to come. ‘Simultaneous views’ was our clue, and Gino Severini’s ‘The Boulevard’ (1910/11, perm. coll., above) our example. While Carra thrusts you onto the streets, Severini gives you an elevated, extended perspective. (Despite the title, it’s a panorama.) If Carra was upping the ante on Post-Impressionism until he burst out of it, Severini looks as if a Bruegel has been shown through some distorting, kaleidoscope lens. 

And the fracturing gives you the sense of the jumbled ‘busyness’ of the city streets, a myriad of events happening all at once, a riot clamouring at your senses. If Carra’s figures are blurs, his are ciphers. Perhaps they’re a crowd, perhaps the same few figures caught in various points of their scurrying journeys, perhaps a mixture of these.

Of course the influence here is Cubism. An influence we can pretty much pin it to a month. In November 1911 Ardengo Soffici, already resident in Paris, invited Boccioni and Carra (plus Russolo) over to check out this latest trend. If they absorbed its influence almost overnight, it’s been suggested the self-styled avant garde were most keen not to look left behind when they presented their own forthcoming Paris show. Certainly many works of this period are directly imitative of Cubism. These include Soffici’s ‘Deconstruction of the Planes of a Lamp’ (1912/13) and Carra’s own 1913 drawing ‘Boxer’.

Carra’s ‘The Rhythms of Objects’ (1911, above), though from the same year as ’The Boulevard’ shows the mid-point in a transition which Severini completes. This is less a single or finite number of forms fractured into pieces, and more a collage of elements. Cubist works tended to be monochrome, a colour scheme Carra partly sticks to, yet he is already adding brighter hues – aqua blues and vivid greens.

If Cubism’s brought in last here, that’s the way it worked chronologically. But, and in some accounts almost immediately, the two movements became confused in the popular mind. Futurism was taken to be merely Cubism pronounced in Italian. Even today, it takes a little effort to prise the two apart. First, they differed significantly in tone and approach. Cubism was at the time effectively art for artists, an experimental fringe little seen and still less understood by the public. The Cubists has been quietly at work since 1907 and while a 1911 exhibition caused something of a furore they did not overly court controversy. Their colour schemes were calm and sober, their titles flatly descriptive.

While Futurism roared it’s self-publicising pronouncements, staged events little more than stunts, and in every way clamoured for public attention. It was no surprise the younger brother, crying so much louder, got the most notice. (The situation was then further entangled by the synthesis movement Cubo-Futurism.)

To generalise, Cubism made a maze out of what should have been solid, discernible objects. It fractured it’s images right across the frame, rejecting any suggestion of perspective. They’re almost always interiors and often still lives, reducing the requirement for the stuff through bypassing setting. The chief interest was in devising different ways of representing space, and the resulting works are cool and contemplative.

Whereas after the Tate’s Futurism show, I referred to their works as 
“diagrams of time designed to convey the motion itself”. The resulting works are dynamic, to the point of explosive. Severini later wrote in his autobiography: "I recall an extraordinary feeling of dynamism in that year [1910]. There was a frenzied desire for freedom in the air, an inexpressible appetite for innovation and adventure... Anything was possible."

The Collage Aesthetic
“In the city the visual expressions succeed each other, overlap, overcross, they are cinematographic”
- Ezra Pound

I also said in that earlier piece “Cubism’s subject matter for the most part remained traditional still lives, Futurism always turns to action scenes.” I like to think I’m big enough to admit it when I’m wrong.

It’s arguable that the still life, in placing together objects in order for them to be painted, is already a latent form of collage. True, you could spill a lot of ink arguing whether Cubism could be considered a form of collage. But arguably by presenting several different views of an object at once it collaged it’s subject with itself. And the slightly later Synthetic Cubism (1912/14), where physical materials such as newspaper were pasted straight on the canvas, was all about collage. But collage is what Futurism took from it. See for example Soffici’s ’Watermelon and Liqueurs’ (1914, above), which not only combines painting and collage, but blurs the distinction between the two. Collage elements are added but objects – such as the knife – are added as discrete elements rather than set in a scene.

And Severini’s ’Le Nord-Sud’ (1912, above) shows this influence manifest in a fully Futurist work. Like a cocktail drug, the Cubist motif of laying fragmentary texts across the canvas is combined with Futurism’s dizzying dynamism. To quote Anna Souter from The Upcoming: 
“Our vantage point seems to be both on the platform and within the metro train itself: our perspective is warped and flattened, signs call out at us from every direction, and light and shadows form rhythmic ripples that push us off in opposing directions.”

And to quote Norbert Lynton from ’The Story of Modern Art’: “Experience had to be represented as multiplicity and fragmentation. This would demand overlapping and transparent representation, a mingling of near, far, moving, stationary, seen and recollected.” It’s not enough to show a frozen moment from a Metro ride, because Metro rides aren’t frozen moments. The Metro signs, the views through the window, the people inside the carriages must be laid atop one another. Look for example at the way the curve which starts to rise under the Metro sign twists round across the rest of the work.

But the key quote is from Pound at the top of this section. We encounter the City like a collage, an ever-shifting combination of elements. The City is itself a show, swirling around us, and we take our seats like spectators. But also, while the figures may be more recognisable than in a fully Cubist work, they are not looking out on with the view they see (as Boccioni was in his self-portrait) but essentially mingling with it. They’ve become city dwellers.

Alas, the effects of this cocktail drug would not last long. Severini’s ‘Large Still Life With Pumpkin’ (above) is from 1917, only five years later, but there's a big gap between that watermelon and this pumpkin. Rather than combining the two it lacks the radicalism of either Futurism or Cubism. The objects are caught within a series of overlapping multicoloured frames. They’re often delineated differently within each, the pumpkin alternated between the textures of it’s skin and a solid block of grey-blue. 

But the through lines are there to see, the effect as if still lives in several different but recognisable styles had been combined. The show refers to this as “the deconstruction of images theorised by Braque and Picasso interpreted in an essentially decorative manner.” In other words, Cubism lite.

It’s most commonly said that the shock of the First World War left Futurism’s hymns to the machine age stuck in their once-full throats. And there’s no doubt some truth to that. But here Severini’s essentially trying to sing the old songs, but only managing an emaciated parody version of them. 

The story of urbanism had a long way to go. But perhaps an art movement which laid so much stress on shock value was never going to give itself a shelf life. With the First Manifesto, they’d insisted on such a thing from the beginning: “The oldest of us is thirty: so we have at least a decade for finishing our work. When we are forty, other younger and stronger men will probably throw us in the wastebasket like useless manuscripts—we want it to happen!” As it happened, the decade was an over-estimate.

The Enigma of the Everyday
“There is nothing more surreal, more abstract than reality.”
- Morandi

But not everyone ended up slung in that skip. In those heady days Modernist movements could be short-lived, but could just as rapidly succeed one another. By the time of the First World War Carra had already abandoned Futurism, and in 1917 he took up the Metaphysical style of Giorgio de Chirico. Delightfully befitting each movement, Carra had sought out Cubism on that trip to Paris but met De Chirico quite by chance, when military service stationed them together. Equally befittingly, the collection only has a small selection of de Chiricos so he becomes a haunting presence even in a show largely dedicated to Metaphysical art.

The show groups three of Carra’s 1917 works together. ’The Enchanted Room’ makes for a good show title, but isn’t the best example and notably it’s ‘The Metaphysical Muse’ (above) which makes it onto the poster. (The third is ’Mother and Son’.)

Rarely for a Modernist movement, Metaphysical art was all about painting. (Futurism had been characteristically multi-disciplinary.) And if we’re insistent on Modernism only as a series of formal innovations arranged in a lineage, this marks nothing but retreat. Possibly more so than Severini’s pumpkins. Things are back to being there, in front of us, in recognisable pictorial space. There’s no struggle to make them out, no perplexing questions as to why they’ve been painted this way. Art has become straightforward again.

Or is that just the sheep’s clothing? To quote Anna Souter again, these works depict “rooms filled with objects that initially appear ordinary, but which are imbued with intense emotional power.” If they have an unsettling effect that’s partly because it’s not even clear how they come to be so unsettling, as if they’re possessed of an unknowable and barely discernible power. These are the numinous, charged objects we encounter in dreams. (Or at least the type of dream which cinema later went in for depicting.)

An effect enhanced by subliminal visual tricks. The racket of the main figure maps to the folds in her skirt, as this is a cheap child’s toy cast from a mould, yet she’s human height. The two framed objects are a map and another painting, yet the second continues the tapering lines of the floorboards. The geometric cone and the folded skirt also echo this motif, the same time as they disrupt it. The colour scheme is monochrome, yet the map and cone are bright. Your eye finds multiple points of comparison and contrast between the figures, suggesting there must be some rhyme or reason to this you haven’t quite got yet. (Pointing out this stuff is a little like giving away a magic trick.)

The show uses an analogy of mind maps, as if these objects clustered in rooms are spatial metaphors for the thoughts in our heads. Yet if all three works are of enclosed spaces, Carra places a doorway in each back wall, with ’Metaphysical Muse’ adding a second. In fact I suspect Carra included a back wall precisely in order to place a doorway in it. (This fascination for holes and apertures became one of the many things later picked up by Surrealism.)

And each work has those tapering floorboard lines, which evoke space as much as presence. (In the example above, also reflected in the ceiling.) Norbert Lynton referred to “a combination of empty space and oppressively clustered objects,” which give the works their effect. While De Chirico himself often used all these elements in exteriors, such as ‘The Disquieting Muses’ (1916/18). None of this seems to fit the analogy.

And in fact, to reduce the objects in the works to thoughts or even unconscious impulses is too familiarising, robbing Metaphysical painting of its metaphysics. It seems to me vital that they retain their own identity. All three works feature mannequins, with two naming themselves after them. The tennis player is even described as a Muse, creatures regarded as apparitions, visitors from the spirit world. But represented here by a mere physical object.

“Unsettling” is a frequently reached-for word with this style, I’ve used it myself already. And much of that effect comes from the way the works look literally, if strangely, unsettled. The stillness of a still life is surely inherent, something to take for granted, heralded in the name. After all, these are solidified representations in paint of objects that couldn’t have moved in the first place.

Yet with these still lives there’s always the hint of motion, the suggestion of sentience, as if these objects are playing a sinister game of statues in a refusal to surrender their mysteries. If some of the objects look like toys there’s the ’Toy Story’ conceit that all they require to become real is for us to stop looking at them. See for example the later ’Engineer’s Mistress’ (1921, below), whose eye we might catch peeping out at us at any moment.

Sarane Alexandrian calls de Chirico “the painter of silences. He describes the moment of waiting, where everything holds its breath and is transfixed before the arrival of some portent or some apparition. His universe stands on the threshold of the event. It’s calm and harmonious lines conceal the alarm and curiosity aroused by what is to come.” (‘Surrealism’,, Thames & Hudson) And he evokes a similar sense of anticipation over sound, the suspended moment where an object seemingly hangs in the air before it comes crashing to the floor. There’s a literal element to his titling a work ’The Disquieting Muse’.

In short, these works are better approached in terms of the atmosphere they evoke than the symbols they employ. They work by channel the child’s fundamental incomprehension of the world. Not only are objects inscrutably strange, they’re not even necessarily objects. Children can ascribe an animist sense to things, where that ball that rolls before them quite possibly contains a rolling spirit. As we get older this innate metaphysics is lost, beaten down into flat physics.

But these works give us that sense back, an incomprehension which makes the world simultaneously wondrous and menacing, with each of those reactions not possible without the other. De Chirico said “a work of art must escape all human limits: logic and common sense will only interfere. But once these barriers are broken it will enter the regions of childhood vision and dream."

Which marks both Metaphysical art’s influence on Surrealism and the point they differed. At its least inspired, Surrealism was merely a code you could crack using Freud as a cypher book. (Leading, ironically, to Freud himself delivering their biggest put-down: “it’s their consciousness which interests me”.) Whereas Metaphysical painting remains tantalisingly incomprehensible. The influence is quite analogous to Cubism on Futurism, that of the quieter elder sibling.. Metaphysical art doesn’t shock your senses, but quietly undermines your sureties. In fact Surrealism’s violent eyeball assaults seem much more an inheritance from Futurism.

...which may seem like a long step away from Futurism. Which after all included in it’s manifesto the proud boast “Mythology and the Mystic Ideal are defeated at last.” But the distance may not be as broad as it seems. As said, Futurism had a basis in still lives. And it was not concerned with capturing sights so much as sensations, subjective responses. The difference is that in Futurism the lines of energy are overt, in Metaphysical painting implicit. But that just makes the difference significant. The Futurists were full of bold proclamations and promises, the very notion of which Metaphysical art undermines. This show’s appeal comes not just from grouping together two striking art movements, but demonstrating the transition between them.

Like Carra, Mario Sironi had travelled from Divisionism to Futurism to an apparent reacquaintance with real things. ‘Urban Landscape With Chimney’ (1930, above) takes place in a pictorial space that’s not only viable but integral - it could have been painted from life. There’s none of de Chirico's Mediterranean arches and boulevards, or his extended perspectives filled with a strange accumulation of figures and objects. In it’s monochrome glumness, it’s almost realist.

Yet the puff of smoke as a sign of distant activity was also a motif of his, for example in ’The Uncertainty of the Poet’ (1913). And your subjective reaction to the work is almost identical, falling into the interchange between enticingly mysterious and menacing. As you look at an environment built around motion but currently under a deathly stillness that classic movie line comes back to you: “sure is quiet, maybe too quiet”.

Its effect also comes from its style. When we think of depictions of the city our minds often run to bright, bold, clean colours, as in Charles Green Shaw and Aaron Douglas’ art featured in the Academy’s recent ‘America After the Fall’ show. Sironi is not at all sophisticated but naive, the paint roughly slapped on. The effect is as if the artist is gazing upon something he’s unfamiliar with, like a cave painting of an internal combustion engine. And his task is to pass that unfamiliarity on to us.

Giorgio Morandi’s dalliance with Futurism was only brief. But he took us closer still to the objective reality of this world only to highlight our distance from it. His ‘Still Life’ (1929, above) is best described by Lamberto Vitali’s phrase, passed on by the show, “populated not by things but by the ghosts of things”. In most still lives objects have been combined, arranged, like characters in a diorama. Here we don’t see a teapot, a bottle and a plate - we look straight to that spectralness. What appears before us is… well, some kind of apparition. The juxtaposition still exists, it’s just that rather than arising between the objects it lies between them and us. It’s as if worlds exist only on the periphery of our perception.

Zoran Music’s ‘Horses And Landscape’ (1951, perm. coll, above) uses a similarly restricted colour range for a similarly enigmatic effect. Horses and riders, with their backs to us, return to a landscape they’ve barely emerged from in the first place. That low colour range abets their escape. It’s as if they’re a foreign tribe whose customs we can’t know, whose language we can’t speak, who shrug off our enquiries with uninterest.

There’s art which is about expanding our knowledge or awareness, and there’s art which is more concerned with convincing us we know less of the world around us than we thought we did. Both Morandi and Music are definitely in the latter camp. What seems art’s most fundamental promise, to delineate, to show things, is made problematic. 

De Chirico, Carra and Sironi pay it lip service, only to undermine it. Morandi and Music quietly but calmly dismiss it. They’re almost anti-paintings, a record of a failed attempt to capture something. It was difficult to find a true image for Music’s painting on-line, as many had clearly taken to photo editing in order to ‘fix’ it. A small incident which may say much about the bold certainties of our times, and how much they mirror the pre-Great War era.

Coming soon! I’m still behind in these visual arts posts, but somehow just found myself writing this one and so it jumped the queue. Back to the behind-the-times stuff shortly. I am also working on some wholly new things, which further delays the backlog. No, I wouldn’t believe me either, but actually it’s true...

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