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Emilio Greco: Sacred and Profane

Emilio Greco (1913-1995). Crouching Nude, 1956. Bronze, height 67.3 cm. Private collection.

Exhibition preview

EMILIO Greco: Sacred and Profane, religious and secular imagery by one of Italy’s most important modern sculptors, will be on view at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art from September 25 to December 22, 2013.

The exhibition, organised in collaboration with the Archivi Emilio Greco and Il Cigno GG Edizioni of Rome, marks the centenary of the artist’s birth.

Greco was one of the key figures of 20th century Italian art and this exhibition, the first of sculpture to be staged at the Estorick, will comprise some forty works, including works in bronze and terracotta, as well as a number of his elegant and vigorous drawings.

Emilio Greco (1913-1995) was born in Catania, Sicily, where he was apprenticed to a stone mason and sculptor of funerary monuments at an early age. From the 1950s, he taught sculpture in Rome, Carrara and Naples, and it was during that decade that his own work first began to receive recognition.

Strongly influenced by Etruscan, Greek and Roman art, Greco is best known for his powerful portrait busts and sensual nudes that are classicised, yet volumetric, often characterised by perfectly rounded heads. However, whilst life-size female figures dominate his oeuvre, Greco also received important religious commissions like his contemporary Giacomo Manzù. These included a monument to John XXIII for St Peter’s in Rome, depicting the Pope visiting the city’s Regina Coeli prison.

Both aspects of Greco’s work will be considered in this exhibition, which also will feature sculptures and drawings from the Estorick Collection, as well as other works on long-term loan there. These include an emblematic Crouching Nude dating from 1956, that is echoed in a 1973 sculpture on the same theme by Greco located in Carlos Place, Westminster.

One of Greco’s first major works was his Monument to Pinocchio (1953). Taking Collodi’s famous tale as its theme, the artist’s maquette won a nationwide competition. This moving study in bronze captures the moment when the fairy transforms Pinocchio from a puppet into a boy. The base of the sculpture represents a significant departure from Greco’s signature style – its abstract, spiralling forms evoking a hollow tree trunk.

In 1959, Greco began to work on a set of monumental bronze doors for Orvieto Cathedral, representing merciful actions from the life of Christ. Initially unenthusiastic about the commission as the initially proposed themes (including episodes from the Crusades) left him uninspired, Greco’s attitude changed dramatically once the subject matter was confirmed.

He later stated: “When, finally, the Corporal Works of Mercy – those capital commands of human behaviour – were suggested to me, I accepted immediately because I felt strongly that this theme was congenial to my beliefs. It is an eternal theme, perpetually occurring, not only a historical one; a human theme, not only one connected with the Church.”

Completed in 1964, Greco’s doors reveal debts to Renaissance masters such as Donatello in their subtle bas-relief modelling, as do later works such as Dormitio Virginis. However, they also exhibit more modern tendencies, as in the two lateral doors depicting angels in flight set against a geometric-abstract background.

Working studies for these monumental commissions will be on display, both in bronze and on paper. These were the materials favoured by Greco throughout his long career and there are strong similarities in the artist’s approach to both media.

For instance, Greco’s drawing style is extremely sculptural in its evocation of volume, revealing a particular fascination for conveying a sense of depth, and for exploring and defining the space between forms, rather than the forms themselves – which, by contrast, tend to be cursorily traced with simple, flowing lines. Conversely, the surfaces of Greco’s heads are often scored with lines recalling the dense cross-hatching characteristic of his works on paper.

This exhibition offers an opportunity to explore the riches of an extraordinary archive as well as putting the spotlight on an artist whose work is underappreciated in the United Kingdom.

Emilio Greco: Sacred and Profane Gallery

Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, 39a Canonbury Square, London, N1