Past masters of Futurism

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

As a London gallery shows the best paintings from a landmark collection of mid-20th-century Italian art, Adrian Hamilton glories in their honesty and energy

Lucky old Florence. Having appealed for Italian artists to help it with contemporary works after the devastating floods of 1967, it received a gift of the entire collection of modern Italian masterpieces amassed by the Genoese engineer and industrialist, Alberto della Ragione.

And lucky old us in Britain that we can see a selection of the cream of his collection at the Estorick Collection in London while the della Ragione hoard awaits the construction of its new home.

Della Ragione, who died in 1973, was a hero, both in the humanitarian sense that he protected others during the Mussolini years, and also that he bought, on his own taste, the works of young artists of the time, many of them in difficulties for opposing the Fascist ideals of what good art should be. He had started first, on the advice of dealers, to buy the works of established masters of the previous century when he realised what he really wanted was to buy the contemporary.

"I felt," he said, in a statement that should be read by every collector, "a desire not to pass by the art of my own times with my eyes closed, but to give living artists the legitimate comfort of comprehension... I was asking myself certain questions: is it possible that all those painters and sculptors were mistaken, and that they are risking a difficult life for the sake of an art which, in most people's opinion, has no reason to exist?"

He was, in other words, a collector rather than a connoisseur, gathering in what he liked and felt ought to be encouraged. And it tells. The collection is diverse, personal and consistently pleasurable. It also fits in well with the permanent holdings of the Estorick. Where the American academic and dealer, Eric Estorick (1913-1993) concentrated his purchases on the Futurists and the Italian works of the early part of the century, della Ragione concentrated mainly on the works of his own time, from the Thirties to the Fifties.

Estorick's collection is particularly strong on the art of the still-life painter, Giorgio Morandi, whom he knew, but where Estorick has etchings and drawings, della Ragione has two superb paintings from 1926 and 1937. "Still life" may be technically accurate but it is still the wrong description. Morandi's work breaths life into the pots, candles and shapes – with their rough brushwork, deep browns and sharp whites – on the table.

Morandi is well-known, but della Ragione's interests reached to lesser-known artists. There is a group of formidable paintings by the Sicilian, Renato Guttuso, best known for his illustrations to Elizabeth David's Italian Food. A fierce anti-Fascist, he developed out of Expressionism and the harsh light of his native land to paint landscapes and social commentary. His Scantily-Clad Women is Toulouse-Lautrec interpreted in an almost-German way, the eyes of the central figure facing you with a doleful look as she lifts her slip from behind.

Other paintings are more delicate. Giorgio de Chirico, the great precursor of Surrealism, makes an appearance with a disturbing but rather uplifting oil from 1934, Les Bains Mysterieux, which owes much to the wall paintings of Pompeii. Filippo De Pisis, a man of extravagance and sentiment who, when in Venice, kept two personal gondoliers on 24-hour duty, is all lightness and quickness in the Blue Vase of 1934 and a Landscape with Swan from 1947. Renato Birolli has a formidable Portrait of della Ragione's Mother of 1954.

The collection is a mixture of the figurative, landscapes and the surrealistic, all done with an awareness of the movements going on outside the country but also a very Italian sense of their own past. Even the most cerebral pictures by Fillia, founder of the Turin Futurist group and a leading light of what is called the second generation of Futurists, balances his coolly-organised compositions in the early Thirties with a touch of movement in Aeropainting and Italian Landscape. Enrico Prampololini, a central figure in the first generation of Futurists, sets the surreal against the rough and ready of figure and landscape in a vigorous but disconcerting way in Bioplastic Life and Synthesis of Taormina.

The confusing thing for the general public about modern Italian paintings is the sheer number of movements they were involved in. The radicalism of the Futurists was replaced by the Mussolini-patronised Novecento artists demanding a return to order and realism. Futurism itself morphed into Metaphysical art. The Corrente group, including Renato Guttuso and Renato Birolli, started off as a pro-Fascist movement based around the youth publication of that name and then changed into an anti-Fascist journal which Mussolini tried to suppress.

The paintings stand by themselves. But this multiplicity of movements also says something about Italian art of the first half of the 20th century. As in France, it was closely associated with literature and journalism, expressing itself almost as much in manifestos, declarations and articles as in paint and sculpture. Half the artists in the show wrote frequently and well.

It also reflects the times. Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin all rated art highly and respected their influence, but they also had very clear ideas about what it should do, which was not to take off in the "decadent" and formalistic ways of Modernism. What they wanted was uplifting realism that induced nationalistic pride. Mussolini was perhaps less brutally oppressive than his fellow dictators, but artists had to be careful nonetheless if they were to survive and thrive. Many of them also were themselves reacting against the abstraction and bombast of Futurism and the modern art of the early part of the century. Some at least, including Morandi, started off sympathising with an art that could be more readily understood by the public. Communism, as Fascism, tended to force the doubters back into small groups, dicatorship also – as we know from Shostakovich and Russian music – forced those who did not escape to other lands into a more private and more ironic art.

There are no big statements in the della Ragione collection. The works are small and intimate. Compared to the energy and the emphatic nature of the better-known Modernist art movements in Germany, France and America, Italian art can seem often marginal and rather humble. But seen up close, as they are in this exhibition, the works are wonderfully engaging. Like Italians themselves, they charm and involve you. It's a small show, in two rooms, in Estorick's Georgian house in north London. On display are three dozen works from a collection of more than 240. But each one in its way is entrancing. Go, and enjoy yourself.

From Morandi to Guttuso: Masterpieces from the Alberto della Ragione Collection, Estorick Collection, London N1, to 3 April

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment

Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices