Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Astratto ma no espressionistica.

One of London's more pleasant art excursions is the one I sometimes take to the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art on Canonbury Square, a short walk from Highbury & Islington tube station. Founded by Italian emigre Eric Estorick and his wife Salome it aims to showcase 20th century art from his fatherland.

It does the job pretty well. They've hosted exhibitions by artists of the calibre of Modigliani, Morandi, and Fontana as well as focusing on subjects as diverse as ceramic painting, aeronautics, and satire. The gallery's small so there's usually time for a look round its pleasant environs too. Canonbury Square and the New River Walk are favourites. There's some lovely local pubs like The Canonbury Arms and The Compton Arms for post-art debrief and emotional stocktaking. There's also a selection of pleasant Italian restaurants, Trevi for example, which seem like thematically apt venues to wind down after a fix of culture.

The current show, and the last one before the gallery undergoes refurbishment, is Astrazione Oggettiva:The Experience of Colour. It's a niche experience for sure focusing on a a group of painters from the Trentino region who, in the autumn of 1976, published their Manifesto of Objective Abstraction. A reaction against what they saw as the superficiality of contemporary culture. In today's debate against dumbing down this sounds all too familiar.

The artists in question were Mauro Cappelletti, Diego Mazzonelli, Gianna Pellegrini, Aldo Schmid, Luigi Senesi, and Giuseppe Wenter Marini and they called for renewed attention to the painterly process and its fundamentally abstract concerns.

They each possessed their own vision and style but they were united by a desire to make colour their focal point. Instinct was set aside in favour of discipline and control resulting in an intentionally impersonal art that looked for little or no emotional response from the viewer.

Schmid and Senesi died in a train crash between Florence and Bologna only two years later and this brought a premature end to the movement. So this show, the first ever in the UK, is really a glimpse into a very brief, very geographically specific, movement.

It's accepted now that they were related to earlier avant-garde tendencies such as that of concrete painting and inspired by Vasarely's optical-perceptual research. This viewer saw echoes of Barnett Newman's abstracts (without any of the expressionism, natch), Bridget Riley's op-art, and, even in places, late Matisse.

Senesi (Horizontal Margins from 1977, below) worked light as surely as Turner or Joseph Wright of Derby, his works winningly lambent against the textbook white gallery walls. Though as nugatory as any art they're still strangely warming.

Pellegrini's soft pastel shades resemble nothing less than wallpaper. Pretty wallpaper but wallpaper nonetheless. It was Mazzonelli who came closest to figurative art, almost breaking the mould with his Untitled (Triptych) from 1976.

The same artist's Surface-Structure-Colour-6 Elements (1977) resembles a colour chart of sorts. But with zips whereas Cappelletti's Directional Flourishes used minute orange stripes for delineation and decoration, sometimes painted on the side, rather than the face, of the canvas.

Schmid's Contrasts subtly blurred one colour into another though, as if in hock to the group aesthetic, keeping that all important line straight down the middle.

So what's it all about? It's hard to say. Art for art's sake I guess. L'arte per l'arte! It's interesting. It's pretty. But, unless you're the type to meditate in the Rothko room, it's a brief experience. Possibly appropriate for a movement so fleeting.

I took the opportunity to visit some of my old faves in the permanent collection. Ardengo Soffici's Deconstruction of the Planes of a Lamp (1912-13), Umberto Boccioni's Dynamism of a Cyclist (1913), and Mario Sironi's Urban Landscape from 1924.

As ever, with the Estorick, it was a rewarding, intellectually fulfilling visit. I'd recommend a look. Around the exhbition, around the gallery, and around the area.

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