Exhibiton: Into the future, the Italian way
The Italian Futurists - those great lovers of electricity, cars, buses, trains and the general idea of urban seethe - would surely have been pleased that the new Estorick Collection, this country's first public gallery devoted to 20th-century Italian art, should be sited within spitting distance of Highbury Corner, one of London's more frenzied traffic intersections.
Eric Estorick himself, who died in 1993, was a Brooklyn boy of Russian- Jewish roots who became passionate about the idea of collecting contemporary Italian art immediately after the Second World War, when you could still pick up the likes of Severini and Balla for relatively small sums of money. Estorick toured Italy, meeting the artists. In 1949 he visited the studio of Mario Sironi in Milan, an artist whose reputation had been somewhat tainted by the fact that he had worked with such enthusiasm under the fascists. Estorick purchased "hundreds and hundreds of drawings and as many pictures as I could get into my Packard Convertible Roadster".
Estorick collected for himself, and dealt on behalf of others too. His clients included the nouveau riche of Hollywood - Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, for example - at a time when California had few knowledgeable art dealers. Eric's daughter Isobel, an actress and film-maker who now lives in LA, recalls the big stars coming to the house when she was a child. "It was Edward G Robinson who taught me how to twirl a gun," she said at this week's opening, "but mostly I just remember their big backsides going up to the attic on this trolley thing that my father had hooked up."
Estorick and his wife Salome, the daughter of a Nottingham textile manufacturer, lived in England from the late 1940s. In 1960 he set up a dealership in London, Grosvenor Fine Arts, which continues to this day. At the end of his life, Estorick's children persuaded him to establish a foundation to preserve his collection in perpetuity, and three years ago the Foundation purchased Northampton Lodge, an early 19th-century town house at the corner of Canonbury Square, once used as a factory for the making of plastic flowers and, more recently, as the headquarters of a computing company. Now, with help from the Lottery Heritage Fund (to the tune of pounds 650,000), this important collection of some 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures, plus a library of 2,000 books documenting the history of 20th-century Italian art, has opened its doors to the public.
The Estorick Collection has six galleries in all, two on each of the three floors, and its first two galleries contain the paintings that establish its importance. The first belongs to the Futurists. Across the muted elegance of its pure-white walls, Marinetti's defiant slogans scream out at us from the first decade of the century: "We establish Futurism because we want to free this land from its smelly gangrene of professors, archaeologists, Ciceroni and antiquarians..."
Professors and antiquarians can now bend happily over a glass cabinet to read an announcement of the Futurist sensation in Paris from a front page of Le Figaro of 1909; between drawings and paintings by Boccioni and Severini that speed across the walls, there is a defiant photograph of that blood-stirring Futurist composer Russolo seated, legs extravagantly spread, beside the second version of his Rumorharmonium.
By 1912, the Futurists were showing in Paris, London, Berlin and Amsterdam. Marinetti, the movement's biggest noise and principal theoretician, was lecturing on its revolutionary potential at London's Lyceum; for him, London was the ideal Futurist city - because it had the Underground. The first London Futurist exhibition opened at the Sackville Gallery in the same year; it attracted 40,000 visitors. Frank Rutter, writing in the Sunday Times, sneered: "London is full of people who will gladly pay a shilling to see a `sensation'." Plus ca change...
Several of the 35 canvases shown in that 1912 exhibition can now be seen in the Estorick's second gallery: Carra's Leaving the Theatre, Boccioni's Modern Idol and Severini's The Boulevard, all purchased in the 1950s. Here is Futurism at its most characteristic: the violent breaking-up of forms to represent feverish movement in the Severini, a work that Braque admired in 1910; and, in the sheer luridness of Boccioni's depiction of a young prostitute, a wilful desire not merely to offend good taste, but also to render, in the words of a Futurist Manifesto of 1910, the "whole of a figure's surrounding atmosphere". Those looking at this picture need to bear in mind that Estorick himself was colour-blind.
Despite his fascination with Futurism, Estorick's collecting took in a great deal more besides. In the same gallery, a great war is currently being waged from opposing walls between the Futurists and the Metaphysicals. With its typically heavy and desolate shadow play, Giorgio de Chirico's Melanchonia, one of his recurring images of Ariadne, couldn't be further removed from the frenetic urbanism and strident anti-traditionalism of the Futurists. There is also a fine Modigliani.
But to discover some of the jewels of the Collection, one must go right to the top of the building, past excellent work by Campigli, Marini, Sironi and others, and into one of its quietest and most secretive corners - Gallery 6 - for the approximately 20 small drawings and etchings of landscapes and still lifes by the Bolognese artist Giorgio Morandi. The meticulous restraint of a 1928 etching that depicts a condiment dish and two bottles, one long, the other fluted, could scarcely be bettered.
These are the works of a man who didn't need to trumpet his internationalism - or travel far - to go deep. And the stupendous prices realised by a collection of Morandi drawings, gouaches and engravings at Sotherby's Italian sale in December is evidence of his still growing reputation.
Estorick Collection, 39a Canonbury Square, London N1 (0171-704 9522)
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