The Estorick collection of modern Italian art is housed in a Victorian terrace, all’angolo of elegant Canonbury Square, N1. The entrance to the gallery is located through a door at the back of the building, where servants would have once gained access; on my way in to see the first major British retrospective of the mid-century Italian master, Alberto Burri, this suppliant entrance felt just a little appropriate.
Not really, though. Burri originated the Arte Povera movement and was famous for his use of crude, unrefined materials – if anything, he’d be riffling through the bins at the back, looking for stuff to put in his paintings.
These works – which trace the artist’s career from the early 40s to Burri’s death in 1995 – incorporate a staggering and bizzare range of materials: hessian sacking, iron, wood, paper, PVA glue, pumice stone and plastic; he mixed his paint with sand, cement, sawdust, aluminium dust and tar to manipulate its consistency and texture, creating other-worldly canvases which startle, yet retain a very human touch.
Though less well known in Britain, Burri is widely regarded in Europe and America as one of the most important artists of the 40s and 50s, his influence having stretched over the Atlantic to the Abstract Expressionists in New York and kicked off the Art Informel movement in Paris.
Burri straddles a crucial period in 20th century art, and in his movement from figurative to abstract art, mirrors a wider a shift in the way artists painted and sought to represent the world. His poetic exploration of matter, his obsession with materials and their properties – what happens when paper is scorched, plastic burnt, iron wrought – influenced the gestural sculptures of the Abstract Expressionists, and anticipated artists like Anish Kapoor.
“Sacking and Red,” which dominates the first room of the exhibition, exemplifies these ideals: a torn and battered strip of hessian, tortuously stitched together and mangled like a broken body, lies horizontally between two wide strips of deep red paint, thickened with acrylic. The red radiates out into the room, suggesting perhaps the fiery heat of Burri’s native Umbria; the sacking stinks of the land, evoking the soil, mud and sweat. It is distressing, strange, and beautiful.
Burri trained as a doctor before joining the Italian army during World War II, and it is tempting to see in the sacking ripped flesh, scarred and blistered, and sinews in the twisted iron. His paintings tease us with possible interpretations: one verbose viewer at the exhibition proclaimed loudly that, yes, she definitely saw the coastline of Umbria in one work, an extraordinary insight considering that Umbria is fifty miles at best from the coast.
The artist denied any narrative or metaphorical dimensions to his work, stating with simplicity that “what I have to express appears in the paintings”. He preferred instead to let tensions in the picture planes, their harmony or discord, balance or imbalance, speak for themselves in these visceral works. Indeed, this long-overdue look at one of Italy’s most important artists could be retitled Form Matters.
And the Estorick café does a brilliant pheasant ragu.
The Harker provides a platform for young (unpaid) writing talent.