I wrote about the Estorick Collection at the tail end of last year and had firmly intended to attend the opening party for the Tullio Crali show “A Futurist Life” in mid-January. Storm Duncan, however, thwarted this, doing in the trains from our part of the country that evening, but I got there a few days later. Well worth it and see https://www.estorickcollection.com/exhibitions
Crali was born in 1910 and died in 2000, after a long, adventurous, difficult and sometimes controversial life. From the age of fifteen he became a convert to Futurism and by the mid 1930’s he was a major player in the movement and had become increasingly close to its leader, Marinetti. He had taught himself to paint, albeit with initially disastrous results; the home mixed oils just slid off the surfaces to which he tried to apply them. Things got better quickly and his output in the fields of fashion, theatre, architecture and graphic design was impressive. However, had he not taken to aeropainting, he would be little more than an interesting footnote in the history of twentieth century art.
Futurism as a movement was obsessed with speed, change and the means (both technological and political) by which this could be felt and experienced. As early as 1909 Marinetti had written We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes… is more beautiful that the Victory of Samothrace. In 1930 Crali, who had been experimenting with images of flight for a few years, produced a semi abstract oil painting entitled Le forze della curva – The Forces of the Bend. Its subject is a racing car taking a corner on a banked track. Its limited palette, wilful distortions of perspective and the use of striking circular and elliptical forms in its composition all combine to give a huge sense of energy and of change thrusting forwards into the future, albeit against the resistance of the curve. Not only does it admirably convey sensation but also references time, mass and by implication the political manifesto of the Futurists.
The same year came another oil painting, Tramonte di luci a Ostia : Lights of Sunset at Ostia, a highly personal interpretation characterised by overlapping arcs of light and shadow produced by the setting sun and a strong sense of a sky that goes on and on almost forever. He has by now gained a masterly control of colour, tone and composition and this is one of the paintings I would really like to take home. No such possibility, since they have all been kindly lent from a private collection.
Only two years later in 1932, came Ali tricolori – Tricolour Wings, another oil showing an aeroplane of the Italian national aerobatic team, the Frecce Tricolori, the then equivalent of our Red Arrows, performing a stunt so that successive painted superimpositions of the plane suggest its spiralling motion, against an almost lyrical, but greatly simplified background of land and sky. Crali loved to fly and had close links to the pilots of the Italian Air Force, feeling and expressing great affinity and admiration for them.
He also seems, although apolitical and cynical about politics in person, to have been curiously naive in his support for Futurism, whose political components and some of whose membership, came dangerously close to Fascism and all its consequences before and during the Second World War. This got him into big trouble. He was locked up by the Nazis for promoting avant-garde events in Gorizia, nearly deported to Germany to a fate best imagined and then again imprisoned by Tito’s partisans, before the Americans liberated him.
After the war ended he became disillusioned with his fellow Futurists, although he preserved total loyalty to the movement to which he was designated heir by Marinetti. He took teaching jobs in art schools in Paris and in Cairo and continued to paint and to be fascinated by technology. His experimentations are interesting, depicting subjects ranging from the port structures of Nantes, to cosmic images with a strong metaphysical content and creating Sassisenti, assembled collections of stones and marine fragments found on the Brittany coastline. He also continued to fly and work with Italian Air Force pilots and produced a number of very satisfying post war aeropaintings.
While this later output adds to the exhibition, it lacks the intimate engagement with the Zeitgeist of inter-war Italy and the emergence of radical technologies that made his work so special. Like de Chirico, he peaked relatively early and while remaining totally competent and a very good painter, never again quite produced stuff to match that remarkable ascent.
The exhibition continues until 11th April. See it if you can.