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Renato Guttuso: Painter of Modern Life - Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art

Renato Guttuso: Painter of Modern Life

Exhibition preview

AN EXHIBITION entitled Renato Guttuso: Painter of Modern Life will be on display at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art from January 14 to April 4, 2015.

Renato Guttuso (1911 – 1987) is one of post-war Italy’s most widely respected painters. Toward the end of the 1930s, his powerful brand of expressionist realism vividly conveyed the angst of a generation which wanted its art to reflect and engage with the urgency of contemporary life.

Rebelling against both the formalism of abstract painting and the naturalism advocated by those on the far right of Fascism’s cultural establishment, Guttuso played a key role in forging a style that would go on to dominate Italian art throughout the immediate post-war years.

Resolutely ‘popular’, his imagery continued to chronicle Italy’s frequently turbulent political life and the changing face of its society for over forty years.

Guttuso was born in Bagheria (Sicily) in 1911 and began to paint at an early age, receiving encouragement from his father, a land surveyor of Socialist sympathies.

His enthusiasm was nurtured by the painter Domenico Quattrociocchi and the Futurist artist Pippo Rizzo. However, Guttuso’s first assured works, dating from the mid-1920s, reveal the influence of the then dominant Novecento school, characterised by its heavy modelling, sombre tones and dialogue with Italy’s painterly traditions.

The positive reception of his work at the I Quadriennale of 1931, and a group show at Milan’s influential Galleria del Milione the following year, encouraged Guttuso to devote himself entirely to art. During the early 1930s he encountered the expressionism of artists associated with the Scuola Romana, such as Scipione, and began to employ a more vibrant palette and freer painterly technique.

After settling in Rome in 1937, he became associated with the Corrente group, which also included the painters Renato Birolli, Bruno Cassinari, Giuseppe Migneco, Ennio Morlotti and Emilio Vedova. These figures resisted the notion of an art created in accordance with a binding ‘ism’ (as suggested by the group’s name).

However, their exploration of an emotionally-charged figurative vocabulary was the logical consequence of their desire for an ‘impassioned and direct relationship between the artist and the world’, and their rejection of ‘those modes of representation which were not sufficiently concerned with the destiny of humanity’.

In 1940, Guttuso’s increasing disillusionment with, and hostility toward, the Fascist regime led him to join the Communist Party – despite the fact that he continued to participate in the state-sponsored Premio Bergamo exhibitions, where his political allegories Flight from Etna and Crucifixion were awarded prizes in 1940 and 1942.

His Still Life with Lamp gives an idea of Guttuso’s approach to such themes at this time. At first the image appears to be a conventional still life, yet closer consideration suggests it may in fact be a veiled comment on the brutality and persecution suffered by the regime’s political opponents, or the chaos of war. Certainly, the disordered table-top with its skull and overturned birdcage generates a marked sense of unease. The torn red curtain (perhaps an allusion to the flag of Communism) only adds to this sense of disquiet and violence.

In creating such works of protest and moral outrage, Guttuso was strongly influenced by Picasso at this time, being particularly impressed by his harrowing masterpiece Guernica. In ‘spiritual’ rather than aesthetic terms, the Spanish artist was to constitute an important point of reference throughout Guttuso’s career.

In the immediate post-war years, the spirit of cooperation and reconciliation that had characterised the Resistance – in which Guttuso fought during 1944 – was reflected in the eclectic nature of a new artistic association established in 1947 named Fronte Nuovo delle Arti. However, the fierce, ongoing debate over the artist’s social responsibilities generated tensions within the group which ultimately led to its fragmentation.

Those artists whose work tended toward realism – including Guttuso – broke away from the Fronte and aligned themselves with the Communist Party which, under Palmiro Togliatti, looked on their work with a far greater indulgence than it did that of abstract painters.

True to his conviction that art should be ‘useful’, Guttuso continued to apply his robust, accessible style to socio-political themes over the course of his career (Portrait of a Woman in Profile, Death of a Hero, Heroine).

He remained faithful to the Communist Party throughout his life, being elected Senator of the Republic on two occasions (1976, 1979). A work dating from these years (Neighbourhood Rally) captures the ferment of this tumultuous period, characterised by political militancy and blighted by a spate of assassinations and kidnappings.

Alongside such politically-charged imagery, Guttuso continued to create works celebrating the people and the landscape of southern Italy, employing a rich and vibrant palette described by the art historian Maurizio Calvesi as having been drawn directly from the intense colours of his native Sicily: ‘like the fire of Etna, like the turquoise of the Tyrrhenian Sea, like the green of the lizards and the twisted vegetation [and] like the yellow of the oranges and the sulphur’ (Watermelons, Landscape with Lovers).

Organised in collaboration with Galleria d’Arte Maggiore, Bologna, Renato Guttuso: Painter of Modern Life is the first major exhibition in the United Kingdom to focus on the career of this important artist for almost twenty years, offering British audiences the opportunity to explore the work of a pivotal figure in modern Italian culture, and consider some of the questions it raises concerning the role of the artist – and of art itself – in modern society.

Roman Ostia: Ancient Ruins, Modern Art continues at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art until December 21, 2014.

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

Tel: +44 (0)20 7704 9522