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Giorgio Casali: Photographer/Domus 1951-1983

View of the grand staircase at La Rinascente in Rome, designed by Franco Albini and Franca Helg, 1962; digital print on aluminium.

Exhibition preview

FOR OVER thirty years, Giorgio Casali (1913-1995) photographed the work of the greatest post-war Italian architects and designers.

Although not a household name, Casali’s reputation as one of the most influential 20th century Italian photographers is assured through the striking imagery he produced for the monthly magazine Domus – Italy’s famous style bible.

This important exhibition, Giorgio Casali: Photographer/Domus 1951-1983, on display at the Estorick Collection from May 22 to September 8, 2013, presents a selection of works from the vast collection of Casali’s images in the Archivio Progetti, housed at IUAV University in Venice.

With their incredible subtlety and sophistication, these masterful images reveal why Casali’s vision came to be so valued by such important figures as Gio Ponti and Ettore Sottsass Jr.

Born in Lodi (Lombardy), Casali moved to Milan in 1928 where he worked as an apprentice in the Rambaldi photographic studio prior to establishing his own studio in partnership with Giovanni Muzzarelli. His career was to take a giant step forward in the early 1950s as a result of the images he took of Gio Ponti’s iconic Superleggera chair for Domus.

Casali’s compositions effectively conveyed the design’s key feature – extreme lightness – through the use of models holding the object with a single finger. These images bore the hallmarks that were consistently to mark his work over the following three decades, being defined by their economy, wit, great elegance and commitment to presenting the object or building in question to its best advantage.

Domus was founded by Gio Ponti in 1928, and quickly became an incredibly influential magazine, going on to play a key role in the international dissemination of the Made in Italy ‘brand’, which asserted a quintessentially Italian sense of style through the creative reinvention and reinterpretation of everyday objects.

Casali forged a collaborative relationship with Ponti that proved to be incredibly fruitful and which lasted until the early 1980s, his work charting post-war Italy’s growing self-confidence and position as a world leader in the spheres of architecture and design.

The images on display span forty years of creativity in both architecture and design, and are presented in four sections, three of which will examine different aspects of Casali’s work for Domus.

The first is devoted to a selection of the thirty stylish cover images he created for the magazine, while the second and third explore his photographic treatment of key design objects and buildings. These range from Ponti’s elegant Torre Pirelli (Milan, 1956) and extraordinary Cathedral for the southern Italian city of Taranto (1971) to Roberto Monsani’s Villa Brody (Greve in Chianti, 1973) with its jutting, angular forms.

Photographs of two celebrated lamps designed by Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni – Arco (1962) and Ipotenusa (1975) – also feature, as do images of Gianni Pareschi and Umberto Orsini’s Poltrona Libro armchair of 1970, which resembles an open book.

Due to their iconic status, many of these design classics remain in production and examples of these will also be on display in the exhibition spaces, including Ponti’s Superleggera chair and a mushroom-shaped, blown-glass lamp by Angelo Mangiarotti, dating from 1966.

Alongside these works, the final section will present a series of vintage prints by Casali that are entirely unconnected with the worlds of architecture and design. These include pictures taken both in a professional context, such as wedding photographs, portraits and images of works by artists such as Fausto Melotti, as well as travel photographs and more intimate, private studies of friends and family members.

Such works, many of which have never been displayed until now, reflect the familiar aesthetics of post-war artistic photography in their concern with texture and tone, and their exploration of the relationship between abstraction and representation through an attention to the details of natural or man-made forms.

Casali’s work bore witness to the extraordinary explosion of creativity and innovation in Italian culture after World War II, making this exhibition of interest not only to scholars of Italian art, architecture and design, but also to a public that recognises the exemplary value of the photographic image in chronicling the historical evolution of design.

Giorgio Casali: Photographer/Domus 1951-1983 is organised in collaboration with IUAV University, Domus and the Centro Internazionale di Fotografia Scavi Scaligeri, Verona, where it made its debut earlier this year.

The exhibition will not only enable visitors to discover the achievements of once-celebrated but now less well-known masters, but also to rediscover those of more familiar figures such as Ponti, Pier Luigi Nervi and Le Corbusier through the lens of this great photographer.

Curated by Angelo Maggi and Italo Zannier, the exhibition is accompanied by a fully-illustrated catalogue containing scholarly essays on Casali’s life and work.

Complementing the exhibition will be a new film by the artists Graham Ellard and Stephen Johnstone which makes compelling use of two contrasting but related locations: Carlo Scarpa’s famous Gipsoteca plaster-cast gallery in the Museo Canova in Possagno, northern Italy, and the Venice-based plaster workshops of Eugenio de Luigi, one of Scarpa’s most important collaborators.

Commissioned by Film and Video Umbrella and entitled Everything Made Bronze, the film is particularly relevant to the exhibition as one of Scarpa’s works was also the subject of a Domus cover image taken by Casali in 1960. Filmed using a spring-wound camera, the work follows (and further illuminates) the extraordinary play of light in the Gipsoteca over a number of days producing a constantly fluid and changing environment for the appreciation of Canova’s plaster-casts. It will be shown from June 26 to August 4, 2013.

Everything made Bronze develops the artists’ abiding formal preoccupations – the camera’s ability to produce ambiguities of scale, depth or shallowness, transparency, and reflection, and the intersections of architectural planes, vistas, apertures and screens. In so doing, the film centres on the altered forms of attention, and the resulting intensity of looking, that comes from using the camera to magnify and study architectural details and fleeting atmospheric effects.

Giorgio Casali Gallery

Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, 39a Canonbury Square, London, N1 2AN