I have lived a short tube ride away form the Estorick Collection in Highbury for 22 years. I am ashamed to say I had not visited before yesterday. Part of the reason, I confess, is that ‘modern Italian art’ didn’t sound so thrilling to me. Fra Angelico, Botticelli, Cima da Conegliano and the like all excite me- but these early twentieth century pictures all sounded about 500 years too late. I was mistaken.
The current special exhibition, War in the sunshine, is subtitled The British in Italy 1917-1918. As it was a centenary exhibition of First World War painting from a very poorly known front, I was interested to go- not least because it was so convenient a venue for me. It’s a small show, just two modestly sized rooms. One is given over to the paintings of Sydney Carline, the other to photographs by Ernest Brooks and William Brunell. These are images of Italy, but not created by Italians- a bit of a cheat by the Estorick, perhaps, but we’ll forgive them. The photos are interesting as reportage; they are mainly taken behind the lines and feature Italian women working for the British expeditionary force, flirting with the Tommies and feeding them in their homes.
The real interest for me was Carline. I was aware of him as a friend of Paul Nash, and realised I had seen some of his work before. He had flown in the RFC defending London from Zeppelin and Gotha raids before being transferred as a war artist to the Italian front. There are not very many paintings in the exhibition, but the ones they have are little jewels. The show is called War in the sunshine and undoubtedly Carline captures the amazing light high above the Alps brilliantly. It always looks like early morning or late evening, with deep shadows and contrasts. Amazingly, being a pilot, he would take his initial sketches whilst airborne and then complete the pictures later. He also depicted the conflict on the ground. I had not known that the Austrians bombed Venice and other cities- the image below shows the population fleeing Padua during an air-raid. The moonlight and searchlight beams are especially effective in the original. After the armistice, Carline was transferred to the Middle East and there produced some equally striking aerial pictures of Mesopotamia and Kurdistan.
Although Carline was an English artist working only briefly in the north of Italy, there is an important link to Italian Futurism, which displayed a particular interest in flight and aerial warfare. Following a manifesto, Perspectives of flight, issued in 1929, the ‘second wave’ of Futurist art was particularly fascinated by the new realities and new perspectives offered by the fast developing technology. Amongst the aeropittura artists Gerardo Dottori, Tullio Crali, Fortunato Depero and Enrico Prampolini are most notable. This exhibition is therefore especially apt, given that the First World War was the first truly mechanised war, on land as well as in the air.
Having paid for entry, I then took the chance to explore the rest of the collection. There were another four galleries to explore. I had expected to see Modigliani, and was pleased to see his famous portrait of Francois Brabander. I had been aware of the Futurists, but I had never really examined their work. A minor conversion may have taken place yesterday afternoon and I now want to know more about and see more of Dottori, Crali and others…
I’ll conclude with an image by Carlo Carra. Its title is Atmospheric swirls- a bursting shell. If you study the cartoonish text, you’ll see the words Zang Tumb Tumb. This phrase is the title of a 1912 poem by Futurist movement leader, Filippo Marinetti. For those of us of a certain age, you may also recognise it as the name of Paul Morley’s record label which released (most notoriously) ‘Relax’ by Frankie goes to Hollywood. It was an added pleasure to make this link to my early twenties!
War in the sunshine runs until March 19th, to be followed in April by a show featuring Futurist Giacomo Balla. If you find yourself in the vicinity of Highbury and Islington tube station, you should definitely make the effort and visit!