Saturday, 5 February 2011

The Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art

Every now and then it is very nice to go to a quiet museum that is not swamped with visitors, especially one that does not oppress you with one thousand pieces of art or more to see. Today, as part of our Saturday out we went to the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, a pleasant, understated museum that is located in north London. Often, we were the only viewers in the room (there are six in total) and for that reason, we could appreciate and meditate on each piece of work carefully.

Five of the pieces that I liked:

1. "Landscape with Swan" (1947) by Filippo de Paris, Oil on canvas, 50.5 x 73.5 cm.
I couldn't find an image of this painting online. It is a painting presumably of a park and on the left front of the canvas is a big man-made pool on which a swan is proudly present and its posture at first sight unmistakeably pronounces that it is the eponymous bird of the title. What captured my attention is the appearance of another swan further away - more meek, it is not as attention-seeking, and yet its existence calls the title into question. Jeff, however, argued that the smaller bird is not a swan at all. If you ever go to the museum, do take a look  at this image for me, and let me know your thought.

2. "Mushrooms by the Sea" (1931) by Filippo de Paris, Oil on canvas, 53 x 63 cm.
I spent a long time looking at this painting, below, which has been compared to works by Salvador Dali. I was particularly interested in the large sky and beach in comparison to the relatively small sandwiched sea -- an ungenerous darkened sliver of blue. The family of mushrooms (three adults and two children?) of the title are surreally gigantic, even monstrous with some large phallus-like stems. While the 'adults' are painted in earthly brown and green, colours that remind one of soil, roots and slight decay, the 'children' are painted in a mixture of yellow and orange, as if they are caught in mid-transformation. We know soon they will also turn dark, shedding their more joyous tone. I felt that the mushrooms yearn for the sea and sadly it is not meant for them (affective fallacy).
Mushrooms by the Sea
3. "Little Man in a Street" (1948) by Ottone Rosai, Oil on canvas, 53 x 38cm.
Again, I couldn't find this painting online. It is an image of a small man in a big coat walking, alone, on a village lane. We only see this man's back: his hands are crossed behind his back and his head is lowered, his hat in place. What was captivating about this painting, for me, was that the 'street' with its high concrete wall on one side adds a catastrophic feel to the scene and appears to be a segment of a large labyrinth. In that confined space, the walker is completely sealed off from the outside world. If the walker is trying to find his way out, he does not seem to be in a hurry or in any agony. Perhaps there is nothing outside of that labyrinth to inspire him to enthusiastically solve the puzzle. That, for a moment, made me very sad.

4. "Ashtray" (1958) by Renato Guttuso, Oil on canvas, 58 x 67cm.
I am drawn to paintings of ashtrays partly because my father is a smoker; he has started smoking since his teenage years, a fact that worries me constantly (read my poem "Cigarette Butts"). In Guttuso's painting, part of which you can see below, there is a collocation of a dozen or so cigarette butts, and strangely, although there is only one can (or glass?) left on the table, three of the butts are still lit; their orange spots signifying life. Together, they leave curvy Aladdin-style smoke reaching the upper end of the canvas. Who were the smokers? Why did they leave the room? Was the departure intended to be temporary only? I kept trying to see some kind of pattern in the smoke: a fading face, a random letter. But in the end I got nothing. The smokers have left the room, leaving the viewers a mystery. And the smoke is complicit.

5. "Landscape with Lovers" (year?) by Renato Guttuso, Pastel on papers, 48.5 x 68cm.
This is an image of a narrow road between a stone wall and a row of olive trees (see below). The stone side is brown and black and the trees side is yellow, almost glorious, and the dark distinct branches echo the cracks of the opposite wall. At first, I couldn't spot the lovers, since they are perfectly blended into the stone side of the painting. Their clothes are of a similar tone to the darker stone making up the wall, suggesting their working-class background. Once they are 'found', however, it is hard not to see them in the painting. The lovers, obviously in love, are kissing intensely and are perfectly oblivious to their surrounding and any potential voyeurs. Their oblivion causes the viewer to be aware of and feel guilty for his/her intrusion. The onlooker wants to be discreet, look away, and leave the young couple alone. But at the same time he/she is drawn to them one more time, focusing on their lustful interlocked mouths, the woman's fleshly buttocks, the concave and convex of the lovers' bodies down the waist. The hidden erection and wetness. Then he/she reluctantly moves on.

Landscape with Lovers

A shorter version of this appears here.


  1. Ray said: "Ray said: "I love the Estorick - one of London's great lesser known collections."

    Then I asked him for some more suggestions and he said: "The Wallace Collection’s pretty good (although also they have a lot of odd stuff there!). Dulwich Picture Gallery is usually worth a visit, and there’s a very interesting exhibition on at the Whitechapel Gallery at the moment. But I have a soft spot for the Estorick because of its small and intimate scale, and some of the wonderful Futurist work in their collection."

    Not having been to The Wallace Collection and the Whitechapel Gallery, these will be places we go to in the near future.

  2. Your descriptions, on this blog, and Jeff's discussion of the museum certainly have piqued my interest. If I am in London long enough to visit this place, I would certainly enjoy it. The Landscape with Lovers uses a gorgeous palette - one can only imagine the sun on the road, in Italy.


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