Another Country: London Painters in Dialogue with Modern Italian Art, Estorick Collection, London

Inspired by earlier Italian masters such as de Chirico and Morandi, the work of London-based artists looks feeble and derivative in comparison

Reviewed,Charles Darwent
Sunday 09 May 2010 00:00 BST

Has Italian art ever been swept by Anglomania? Not that I can recall, any more than Tuscans have wanted to buy up Hampshire or Neapolitans to eat pork pie.

The English Baroque was imported from Italy, likewise Anglo-Povera; without the Italian Futurists, there would have been no British Vorticists. In visual art terms, Italo-British relations have been a one-way street since Aulus Plautius. A group show called Another Country at the Estorick Collection in north London suggests that nothing very much has changed.

Except, perhaps, for the outcome. In the olden days (that is to say, before 1990), Italy was a force for good in British Art. "Italian" stood for style and genius, but also for modernity: British artists wanted Ferrari-art, whatever was newest and reddest and hottest on the streets of Milan or Rome. On the evidence of Another Country, here, at least, things are different.

To the 10 painters taking part in this show, Italy today seems to stand for a lyrical past, a place where things were warmer, gentler and entirely more amenable to figure painting than is 21st-century Britain. It is, no doubt, a place where mothers roll fresh pasta every morning and black-swathed nonne sit by their front steps in perennial sunshine. It is the Chiantishire Italy that millions of us buy into every summer, and, in art terms, it is oddly disappointing.

When Wyndham Lewis first heard Marinetti speak in London in 1910, he was electrified by the Futurist's radicalism. Yet you get the sense that any current whiff of an Italian avant-garde would send the British participants in Another Country scurrying for Provence. Of the Italian artists in the Estorick's collection claimed as inspirational by the 10 painters in this show, only one is alive and she is 87. The rest – Medardo Rosso, Carlo Carrà, Filippo de Pisis, Giorgio de Chirico, Mario Sironi and, predictably, Giorgio Morandi – are all safely dead. The British artists in Another Country – Tony Bevan, Luke Elwes, Merlin James et al – have apparently formed their group "based on friendship rather than any shared style or technique". You can almost hear the Bardolino glasses clinking.

What is the work in Another Country like? Pace Gordon Brown and Mrs Duffy, it does not do to patronise the mores of Middle England. Much more of this sort of art is made here than of the Damien Hirst kind, and its natural home is in that (thankfully decreasing) number of side rooms given over to paintings of Venice at the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition. It is loosely figurative and has no truck with shock or Sensation-alism, which is not necessarily a bad thing. But the word that struck me again and again walking around this show was "comfortable", and that, I think, is seldom a good thing in art.

Let me say that this has nothing to do with identifying yourself with dead artists. The Pre-Raphaelites, Italianists to a man, did just that, and yet were in their own weird way deeply radical. The problem is more that, for the British artists in Another Country, the dead-ness of Morandi and the rest seems to have rendered them safe.

If Morandi was working now, you feel, Tony Bevan – one of the better painters in this show – wouldn't have touched him with a No 10 filbert. Looking at Bevan's Studio Furniture (2007), you do at least understand what he gets from his Italian hero in formal terms. There is the Cézanne-ish flattening and stacking, the under-drawing left exposed so as to give the sense of painting as a process of building-up. What is entirely lacking in Bevan's work, though, is Morandi's resolution – that extraordinary sculptural silence the Italian managed to conjure, without stooping to tricks, from a line of four stone jars. What is missing is the radicalism.

Maybe the real problem here is with the show itself. To put it bluntly, if you're going to set yourself up against the likes of Morandi, then chances are you will come off second best. Would I have disliked Thomas Newbolt's Heads quite so much had I not been invited to think of them as tied to the great Italian sculptor Marino Marini? Looking at Newbolt's work, my mind kept going back to the steps of the Guggenheim in Venice, to Marini's joyous bronze Angel of the City, and I found myself muttering, "How dare he?"

The Estorick Collection's role in life is to remind us of the genius of 20th-century Italian art. Another Country certainly does that, but not, alas, in a good way.

Estorick Collection, London N1 (020 -7704 9522) to 20 June

Next Week:

Charles Darwent sees Masterpieces, the opening show at the new Pompidou Centre in the eastern French city of Metz

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