The secret life of objects
Review by Corinna Lotz
While not a full view of a massive subject, and certainly not a historically logical presentation this display is the ideal show to see just before Christmas.
Just as strident commercialism seems to divest objects of meaning, and as we are bombarded by products crying out for attention, the quiet atmosphere of the Estorick provides a unique space for contemplation.
The sequence of 20th century isms fades into relative insignificance as we are allowed to appreciate each work and each artist in an individual way, making delightful new discoveries.
Many of the names will be new to all but specialists in the period and they are all the more intriguing and exciting as a result. The better-known ones also offer surprises, because we see aspects of their character we have not appreciated before.
Futurist Gino Severini, for example, grows in stature. His Quaker Oats - Cubist Still Life of 1917 belongs to the Estorick's own collection. It is excellent to see it in a new context. It shares the purism of master Cubist Juan Gris, but with a wit and textural quality of its own. In today's context, it seems to look forward to the ironies of Pop Art's use of brand names. Here there is joy in allowing labels to free-float away from the objects they are supposed to describe just for the fun of it.
Oscar Ghiglia takes up and runs with Severini's aestheticism in his Still Life 1916-18. The triangular symmetry of composition combines with pure primary-coloured fruit and superb shadowing to evoke a sculpted perfection. We can see the artistic connections with Cezanne and Modigliani as well as Morandi's singleness of purpose.
Leaping forward by two decades to 1939 and beyond, the years of World War II. Renato Guttuso's depiction of animal skulls, like those of Picasso, encapsulates the tragic nature of the time, and fulfils the traditional role of still life as a reminder of mortality, the "memento mori" or "vanitas" theme.
Others share Guttuso's generously loaded brushwork. An exquisitely mysterious canvas by Arturo Tosi is both simple and complex at the same time. These are just the qualities which make still life painting special. Objects taken from every day life suddenly acquire a presence, a significance which is out of the ordinary. The painter takes us into a secret world which we are privileged to share. Curator Renato Miracco refers to this creation of an alternative reality in his Notes on the Second Life of the Natura Morte in the exhibition catalogue.
Mario Sironi (1885-1961)
The Italian and French translation of still life literally means "dead nature" - thereby immediately invoking the theme of transition from life to death and vice versa.
In Tosi's Still Life (1935-40), a full-bodied white Chinoiserie vase doesn't even need to appear as a whole to acquire a vibrant life of its own. Its lovingly described surface has the opalescent qualities of white skin, with flecks of red, green and brown adding a surface pattern to its almost human torso. The intensity of mood is reminiscent of the German expressionist Emil Nolde.
Many of the works, such as those by Filipo de Pisis and Felici Casorati, acquire an added poignancy if we remember that they were painted during the war years.
An added bonus which on its own makes a trip to Highbury worthwhile is a display of Giorgio Morandi etchings on the top floor. Whatever you do, don't miss them. For preservation reasons they are only allowed to see the light for brief periods.
Still life in 20th century Italy is at the Estorick Collection, 39 Canonbury Square, London N1 until 19 December 2004. More information at www.estorickcollection.com 020 7704 9522
9 December 2004