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Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art displays works from the Giuseppe Iannaccone Collection
Renato Birolli, The Poets (I poeti), 1935. Oil on canvas, 90 x 108 cm.

LONDON.- Since the early 1990s, Milanese lawyer Giuseppe Iannaccone has been amassing one of the most outstanding private collections of Italian art from the inter-war years. For the first time, the collection has come to the UK and is being shown at London’s Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art. A New Figurative Art 1920 - 1945: Works from the Giuseppe Iannaccone Collection runs from 26 September until 23 December 2018.

Having become fascinated with figurative painting of the 1930s, Iannaccone set about building a collection that has brought together works by some of the most significant artists belonging to such influential schools and tendencies as the Scuola di Via Cavour (Mario Mafai, Antonietta Raphaël and Scipione), the Sei di Torino (Gigi Chessa, Nicola Galante, Carlo Levi and Francesco Menzio) and Corrente (Arnaldo Badodi, Renato Birolli, Bruno Cassinari, Giuseppe Migneco, Ennio Morlotti, Aligi Sassu, Ernesto Treccani, Italo Valenti and Emilio Vedova). A number of other painters are also represented in the collection, which includes major pieces by Filippo de Pisis, Fausto Pirandello and Ottone Rosai, and a rare figurative sculpture by Lucio Fontana.

Including 50 works by all of the above artists (as well as a range of other figures such as Renato Guttuso and Alberto Ziveri), the exhibition provides an authoritative overview of a key moment in the evolution of modern Italian art. Eschewing both abstraction and the rhetorical, monumental imagery favoured by many within the Fascist regime, these painters shared a concern with restoring an authentically human dimension to art. The experience of Corrente, in particular, was to prove of decisive importance in the immediate post-war period, which witnessed a re-flowering of Realism.

Giuseppe Iannaccone initially began to collect art as an antidote to the stresses and strains of his professional life as a young lawyer. On the advice of a friend, he decided to dedicate some time each week to developing his cultural interests, recalling how he would go visiting Milanese museums like the Pinacoteca di Brera or Palazzo Reale … I saw paintings of every era and style, but I was especially taken by the works of realism that contemplated the human figure. For me, ‘realism’ did not simply mean reproducing the person’s physical appearance; it was a question of … transmitting, with sensitivity and humanity, the joys, needs and troubles of the soul … I was drawn by t he extreme and intimate desire these painters had to represent the true Italy of those years in a clear and immediate way, painting only what they felt, not that which they were supposed to paint, or what was imposed by the culture of the [Fascist] regime .

The Scuola di via Cavour (School of Via Cavour) was one of many groups that formed in opposition to the ‘return to order’ promoted by the influential critic Margherita Sarfatti through the Novecento group. Coalescing toward the end of the 1920s, its key representatives were Mario Mafai, Antonietta Raphaël and Scipione, whose imagery was linked by a painterly language that was in marked contrast to the styles favoured by Mussolini’s regime. Expressionist in character – but also intensely lyrical and poetic – their work focused on landscape and the human figure, while Scipione’s brooding depictions of Rome and sensuous still lifes also possessed something of a dreamlike character. Their robust style was soon developed by a number of other artists such as Fausto Pirandello, Renato Guttuso and Alberto Ziveri.

The Sei di Torino (Turin Six) – which included the artists Gigi Chessa, Nicola Galante, Carlo Levi and Francesco Menzio, as well as Jessie Boswell and Enrico Paulucci – also formed during the late 1920s. Like the Scuola di Via Cavour, their activity did not take the form of a structured movement, but rather arose as a consequence of shared affinities and a common approach to painting. Inspired by a broadly European sensibility – with a particular emphasis on French Post-Impressionism – their work was characterized by simple and essential compositional arrangements, and possessed a light, airy quality. The group’s favoured subjects – portraits, landscapes and still lifes – reveal a preference for ‘intimate’ scenes: themes far removed from the overbearing rhetoric and ‘heroic’ character of much Fascist art.

The Post-Impressionist position affirmed by the Sei di Torino was also embraced by the Chiaristi during the early 1930s – a group of artists based in Lombardy, who gravitated around Milan’s famous Il Milione gallery. The term chiarismo reflects their use of a light, luminous palette. A work by one of its members, Angelo Del Bon, is included in the selection of works on display.

Also featured is an important nucleus of works by Renato Birolli, whose paintings of the early 1930s anticipated the concerns of Corrente. This group was named after the fortnightly magazine founded in Milan by the 18-year-old Ernesto Treccani in January 1938, around which its painters gravitated. The exhibition includes key pieces by Corrente artists such as Bruno Cassinari, Renato Guttuso, Giuseppe Migneco, Aligi Sassu and Emilio Vedova. Opposed to the propagandizing form of painting promoted by the Cremona Prize exhibitions (established in 1939 by Fascist hierarch Roberto Farinacci), Corrente united the innovative forces of a heterogeneous group of young figurative painters and sculptors. Its point of reference was Picasso’s Guernica of 1937, which became the symbol of an ethical and civic form of art – and one that was unwaveringly anti-Fascist. Despite the association of their imagery with an emotionally charged figurative vocabulary, Corrente resisted the notion of an art created in accordance with a binding ‘ism’ (as suggested by the group’s name). Nevertheless, its artists’ employment of this style was the logical consequence of their call for an “impassioned and direct relationship between the artist and the world” (P. Vivarelli) and their rejection of “those modes of representation which were not sufficiently concerned with the destiny of humanity” (M. De Micheli). Corrente’s increasing hostility toward Fascism was rarely manifested explicitly in terms of subject matter but was nevertheless implicit in the stylistic approach of its artists, who refused to idealize or passively chronicle in the manner of their Cremona Prize counterparts. However, the group was not only antagonistic toward the more retrogressive forces within Italian culture during these years, but also to certain elements among the avant-garde: Corrente’s commitment to realism manifested the angst of a generation that desired to secure greater intellectual freedoms for itself than the right to create imagery totally divorced from life through non-objective formal experimentation. Resolutely ‘popular’, Corrente “was born from a meeting of men and ideas in a climate that had formed the first and inspired the second. It did not arise as a consequence of the individual initiative of any one figure, or from the discussions of an intellectual clique” (R. De Grada). In 1940, Treccani’s magazine was shut down by the Fascist authorities, but the group continued its activities through two important exhibition spaces – the Bottega di Corrente and the Galleria della Spiga e Corrente.

Among the works on display is Emilio Vedova’s Venetian Café. This savagely expressionistic work expresses a sense of rage that would later lead to the artist’s participation in the Resistance, and also foreshadows the dynamism of his subsequent experimentation with action painting and the gestural style typical of A rt Informel . The work was shown at the final Bergamo Prize exhibition (a state-sponsored show that was set up in opposition to the Cremona Prize) where it was considered to be a major stylistic turning point by the young members of the
Corrente group.

Also featured in the exhibition are two works by Filippo de Pisis, who met Giorgio de Chirico, Alberto Savinio and Carlo Carrà in his native town of Ferrara during World War One, and who was influenced by the enigmatic and dreamlike character of their work. Initially a writer, de Pisis only decided to take up painting on moving to Rome in 1919, but gradually developed a highly personal style, absorbing influences from Impressionist painting and the palettes of Soutine, Matisse and the Fauves. De Pisis’s preferred subjects were dead flowers and still lifes, but he also painted landscapes and figures studies, employing his characteristically delicate brushstrokes.

Containing a large number of iconic works, this exhibition explores a crucial phase of Italian art history that remains little-known outside its native country. It testifies not only to one man’s enduring passion for a period that continues to fascinate him, but also to the determination of a number of important painters to reassert their values of humanity and poetry in the face of militarism, nationalism and totalitarianism.

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