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Giuseppe Cavalli: Master of Light

Giuseppe Cavalli (1904-1961). Untitled, undated. Gelatin silver print. 35.2 x 28 cm. Prelz Oltramonti Collection, London.

Exhibition preview

AN EXHIBITION entitled Giuseppe Cavalli: Master of Light will be on display at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art from April 18 to June 17, 2012.

One of the key figures of 20th century Italian photography, Giuseppe Cavalli (1904-1961) is surprisingly little known outside his native country.

Reacting against the rhetorical and overblown imagery of the Fascist era, Cavalli’s work was imbued with the intimate poetry of daily life: subtle studies of reclining nudes and everyday objects such as bottles, glasses and candlesticks.

Cavalli subscribed to the principle that ‘the subject has no importance at all’ in a work of art – and indeed such elements were essentially vehicles for his true subject: light.

This exhibition presents a selection of delicate and timeless images spanning the artist’s brief career, which ended prematurely with his death at the age of fifty-seven.

Cavalli was born in 1904 in the town of Lucera, in Italy’s southern Puglia region. Although his brothers Emanuele and Pasquale were both artists, Giuseppe chose to study law in Rome and practised as a lawyer until 1935. Having purchased his first camera – a second-hand Leica – Cavalli thereafter devoted himself entirely to photography, settling in the seaside town of Senigallia on the Adriatic coast in 1939.

In 1947 he founded a group named La Bussola (The Compass) with a number of other photographers including Luigi Veronesi (1908-1998). Its members aspired to the attainment of a high degree of formal purity in their work, and shared the conviction of the essential ‘uselessness’ of art.

This was a position that contrasted markedly with the post-war Neo-realist aesthetic then dominating cinema, literature and the visual arts through the work of such directors and painters as Roberto Rossellini and Renato Guttuso, who stressed the importance of the artist’s engagement with social and political themes.

Dismissing the notion that ‘photography must only document our times – for example, the ruins of the war, or machines and men involved in the various aspects of the current rapid and mechanical civilisation’, they rejected the perception of the medium as simply a utilitarian tool, stating ‘we believe in photography as art’.

Over the following years Cavalli expounded the group’s aesthetic in a number of theoretical essays and articles that were published in the most important Italian photographic journals and magazines of the day, such as Ferrania and Il Progresso Fotografico. He was also an incredibly active promoter of photographic exhibitions and competitions.

In 1953, he founded the Misa group, exerting a formative influence on the young Mario Giacomelli (1925-2000), an inhabitant of Cavalli’s adoptive home of Senigallia, who became the group’s treasurer and subsequently went on to become one of the leading Italian photographers of the post-war era. It was in Senigallia that Cavalli died in 1961.

Cavalli’s ‘high-key’ style, characterised by the use of bright, even lighting to minimise shadow, is evident in much of his early imagery (c. 1936-53).

This technique endowed his work with a dreamlike atmosphere and an extraordinary subtlety of tone that was further accentuated by his predilection for translucent, diaphanous and reflective materials such as glassware, gauze, feathers, brushed steel and china.

It also evokes a feeling of that intense heat and luminosity specific to the Mediterranean region.

However, by the early 1950s Cavalli’s work had begun to incorporate a much more varied tonal range and use of stronger contrasts; by the end of the decade he had even begun to experiment with colour photography, although the present exhibition focuses solely on his more characteristic black and white imagery.

Cavalli’s work is commonly spoken of in relation to three genres: the landscape, the nude and the still life. However, as this exhibition illustrates, he was also a masterful portraitist, switching with ease between candid imagery and a more composed approach.

His works also reveal him to have been a perceptive and witty street photographer, capturing the solitude – and perhaps loneliness – of everyday life in a small coastal town.

Cavalli’s photography shares a number of thematic and aesthetic concerns with the work of some of the key protagonists of modern Italian art, yet remains entirely distinctive and singular.

The intimacy, economy and restricted tonal range of many of his still lifes has, perhaps inevitably, led to comparisons with the paintings of Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964). Certainly, the work of both artists reveals a similar skill in generating abstract rhythms through the interplay of recognisable objects and forms.

However, while Morandi tended to emphasise the spatial ambiguities of his compositions, collapsing perspective through the use of foreshortened views, and dissolving and merging the contours of his bottles and boxes, there is a far greater clarity to the arrangements of Cavalli, whose objects retain their structural integrity and identity.

On occasion, Cavalli’s work also has pronounced points of contact with the Metaphysical iconography of Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978), particularly in his use of mannequins and juxtaposition of incongruous and unrelated objects to create an air of mystery, drama and the uncanny.

It is also related to the abstraction of photographers such as Antonio Boggeri (1900-1989) and Veronesi, and yet where the work of these figures was more redolent of technology, geometry and the machine age, drawing inspiration from the work of artists such as László Moholy-Nagy (Veronesi was a friend of the Hungarian artist), Cavalli’s abstract vision remained fundamentally ‘organic’, more attuned to the vast, empty expanses of sea and sky, the cracked timber of a door or the abraded and dusty texture of a whitewashed wall.

Alongside these works, the exhibition will display a selection of some twenty stunning images created by Cavalli’s associates, including Veronesi and Pietro Donzelli (1915-1998), as well as his pupils Giacomelli and Piergiorgio Branzi (b. 1928), all of which will serve to contextualise his achievement.

Like those of Cavalli, these works by his peers and students are drawn from the Prelz Oltramonti Collection in the United Kingdom.

Giuseppe Cavalli: Master of Light offers visitors the opportunity to experience the quietly intense vision of this pioneering artist in the tranquil rooms of the Estorick Collection, and represents the latest in a series of exhibitions showcasing the work of some of the most important Italian photographers of the 20th century.

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