Tullio Crali: A Futurist Life was due to run at London's Estorick Collection until 11 April, but current world events meant early closure and disappointment for some would-be visitors.
For those who missed the opportunity to see the hugely popular show by this towering figure of Italian modernism, described by The Observer as 'a head-on revelation' and by Time Out as 'everything you want from Italian futurist art', from today there will be a chance to experience the highlights online.
An illuminating series of bite-size introductions to the show by its two curators will enable virtual visitors to experience the exhibition remotely and for free.. These will be rolled out during April and May via the Estorick's social media channels and at https://www.estorickcollection.com/exhibitions/tullio-crali-a-futurist-life
Crali grew up in the Dalmatian city of Zadar, which was annexed by Italy following the First World War. His family moved to Gorizia in 1922 and it was there, at just 15 years of age, that he chanced upon an article about Futurism in a regional newspaper. An immediate convert, Crali eagerly began experimenting with the movements aesthetics, creating his first Futurist drawing in 1925 (a work that is included in the present exhibition). Four years later he wrote an effusive letter to the Futurist leader, F. T. Marinetti, and received a response officially welcoming him into the movement:
Dear Futurist, delighted to have you with us in the Futurist struggle... I read and re read it with a mixture of incredulity, immense joy, pride and responsibility. Now I was truly a Futurist. My mother was the first person I told. I was in a state of excitement that I would not experience again until my wedding day.
Initially, Cralis style was influenced by a number of Futurist painters including Umberto Boccioni, Giacomo Balla and Enrico Prampolini, the latters semi-abstract vocabulary of sinuous lines and metallic tones being a particularly important reference point. However, by the mid-1930s the artist had developed his own distinctive interpretation of Futurisms artistic principles. As a result of his talent, versatility and unshakable faith in the movement, Crali quickly became one of its key representatives, experimenting with a wide range of disciplines including fashion, theatre, architecture and graphic design; but it was as an aeropainter that he truly excelled.
A fascination with flight had fed into the Futurist aesthetic since the earliest days of the movement, Marinetti having identified the sleek flight of planes whose propellers chatter in the wind like banners and seem to cheer like an enthusiastic crowd as a paradigmatic Futurist image in his founding manifesto of 1909. This would reach its apogee with the emergence of aeropainting in 1929. Throughout the inter-war years, countless attempts were made by Futurist artists to capture not only the visual novelties experienced in flight, such as vertiginous, topsy-turvy landscapes, but also to explore its metaphysical dimensions through abstract or semi-abstract imagery intended to evoke the transcendence of the spirit towards higher states of consciousness. Despite incorporating recognisable details such as clouds, wings and propellers, Cralis thrilling and often intensely lyrical imagery challenged conventional notions of realism by means of its dynamic perspectives, simultaneous viewpoints and effective combination of both figurative and abstract elements.
The emphasis of aeropainting would change during the late 1930s and early 1940s as this concern with the poetic aspects of aviation gave way to a greater focus on its military application in the context of contemporary events. Crali was one of a number of Futurists who participated in official war art programmes, creating images based on impressions received while accompanying pilots on combat and reconnaissance missions. Such entanglements with Mussolinis regime damaged Futurisms reputation in the post-war era, yet Crali was profoundly cynical about political dogma, having been a victim of ideological extremism himself. Between 1944 and 1945, his organisation of avant-garde cultural events in Gorizia led to clashes with the occupying Nazi authorities, who identified him as a subversive element and placed him on a list of individuals earmarked for deportation to Germany. Crali escaped this fate thanks to the intervention of an influential friend, only to be imprisoned in appalling conditions for 45 days by Titos militia before being liberated by American troops.
In early 1944, Crali had also developed an abstract form of poetry in collaboration with Marinetti, defining the principles of parole musicali (musical words) in one of the final Futurist manifestos. The text encouraged poets to express themselves in the most direct manner possible by means of an instinctive use of neologisms and onomatopoeia: an innovation that in fact implied a paradoxical return to the very origins of language, much like earlier Russian zaum poetry. In its call for a universal language, the theory of parole musicali also contained a strikingly utopian dimension:
Musical words, liberated from every literary bureaucracy, will find understanding and integration within any nation of any people of any tongue, as with any other musical work. The title will be the sole guide, and will be sufficient to eliminate any misunderstandings deriving from racial and cultural differences.
A number of compositions written in this new style were gathered together by Crali in an intricate handmade book; a copy of the volume one of only two in existence will be on display in the exhibition.
Immediately after the war and partly in response to it Crali moved to Piedmont where he painted a large number of works inspired not by the machine but by nature. He perceived no contradiction between this apparent shift in focus and his continuing adhesion to Futurist aesthetics, as a passage from his memoirs makes clear:
My art changes form, but not substance. A lack of faith in mankind leads me to turn my attention to nature. I search out serenity in everything; I try to discover the movements of nature and to express its vitality. It is the Futurist principle of universal dynamism that is striving to take form. There is no change of ideology.
Indeed, throughout the post-war period Crali would be Futurisms staunchest advocate. Shortly before his death in 1944, Marinetti had personally entrusted him with the task of defending both the movements historical significance and its continued relevance. However, in 1950 disillusioned by the apathy of many of his former colleagues Crali accepted a position as an art teacher at a prestigious Italian school in Paris, remaining there for almost a decade. Although he never warmed to the city, he found its streets and squares an endless source of artistic inspiration, recalling I would go out from morning until evening with my drawing pad and pen, capturing everything that caught my attention. A number of Cralis sketchbooks from this important time in his life will also be on display in the exhibition.
During his time in France, Cralis visits to Brittanys rugged coastline would inspire his theory of Sassintesi: a fusion of the Italian words sassi (stones) and sintesi (synthesis). Comprising geological formations shaped by wind and water, these compositions were either entirely abstract or figurative in character, recalling elements of objective reality. Despite not being sculpted by the artist, the works depended on his careful arrangement of their constituent parts in order for their visual and conceptual associations to be revealed. For Crali, the ambiguous status of the Sassintesi was part of their appeal, and imbued them with an air of mystery: I look, I select, I listen, I arrange, he noted, but who or what should be credited with the act of creation? The stone? Myself? Nature? Crali would continue to experiment with this genre for around twenty years alongside his other activities.
For much of the 1960s Crali was based in Egypt, where he taught at the Italian Art School in Cairo. However, in keeping with Futurisms insistence that there can be no modern painting without the starting point of an absolutely modern sensation, his attention remained firmly attuned to contemporary scientific developments during this time, addressing humanitys exploration of the universe in monochromatic images resembling swirling galaxies or extra-terrestrial landscapes viewed through the windows of a spaceship. Cralis fascination with modernity continued unabated on into the 1980s when he created a major series of works inspired by the Frecce Tricolori, Italys aerobatic demonstration team.
Always up-to-date, yet impervious to fads, Cralis work remains intellectually satisfying and visually stimulating. Comprising over 60 works and occupying half of the museums gallery spaces, this exhibition is a fitting tribute to a towering figure of Futurism and of modern Italian art in general.