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Red as Etna’s fire

Red as Etna’s fire

The last time the British public saw a solo exhibition of Sicilian painter Renato Guttuso was in 1996 at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London. It is therefore with great interest that, this week, we have discovered the new exhibition called ‘Renato Guttuso: Painter of Modern Life’ at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art in Islington. The exhibition is a collaboration with Galleria d’Arte Maggiore Bologna.

If you have not yet visited the Estorick Collection, this is a good time to do so. Eric Estorick was born in Brooklyn and studied sociology at NYU. He moved to England after the Second World War. Early in his life, he developed an interest in art and, specifically, a passion for Italian modern art. He later became an art dealer and accumulated an important collection, well-known for its futurist works and Italian figurative painting and sculpture. His collection includes works by Modigliani, Boccioni, Severini, Morandi and Gottuso. ‘Death of a Hero’ was painted by Guttuso in 1953 and, as part of the permanent collection, is displayed in the new show alongside many loans from Italy.


Renato Guttuso, ‘Heroine’ (Garibaldean Heroine / Assassinated Partisan) (1954), Oil on canvas, 110 x 120 cm, Courtesy Galleria d’Arte Maggiore, Bologna

Born in 1911 in Bagheria, Guttuso enrolled at the University of Palermo to read law but abandoned his studies in 1931 to concentrate on his paintings. A political activist, he participated in the anti-Fascist resistance during the war and became an important Communist artist looking to transmit powerful realism through his paintings. He met Picasso in Paris and their friendship lasted until Picasso’s death. He was also active as an art critic, contributing articles on the theory of art, particularly on realism, for various Italian and international publications.  In the 1950s, London dealers were keen to exhibit Guttuso regardless of their political affiliations. He had many supporters, including the radical art critic John Berger, author of the iconic book titled ‘Ways of Seeing’. Tate bought a piece in 1961.

The exhibition shows correspondence (postcards and letters) between Guttuso and Estorick. In 1955, one portrait was dedicated “to Mr Eric Estorick, friend of modern Italian art with great affection”.

Still Life

Renato Guttuso, ‘Still Life with Lamp’ (Still Life with Skull and Lamp) (1940-41), Oil on canvas, 55 x 80 cm, Courtesy Galleria d’Arte Maggiore, Bologna

To create his landscapes, still life paintings and narrative paintings, the Italian artist uses a vibrant palette of colour. His palette is qualified as Sicilian by the art historian Maurizio Calvesi, who described it “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.”

‘Still Life with Lamp’ is one of the series of still life paintings created in the early 1940s, juxtaposing unexpected objects such as a birdcage, an animal skull with a glass, a coffee pot and a basket. Everything seems chaotic and violent in this painting.

Several rooftop paintings are also shown in the exhibition, some with geometrically abstract forms and bright colours. The composition of ‘Rooftops in Rome’ is particularly successful in creating a kind of web between the various houses.

Rooftops in Rome

Renato Guttuso, ‘Rooftops in Rome’ (c. 1973), Oil on canvas, 70 x 85 cm, Courtesy Galleria d’Arte Maggiore, Bologna

Guttuso designed various sceneries and costumes for the theatre and the opera, such as for Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth, Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Verdi’s Macbeth.

‘Neighborhood Rally’, a later work, mixes painted faces with collages. It features a local crowd with celebrities among them, such as Marilyn Monroe on the left and Picasso on the balcony to the right, all clapping with their hands facing the speaker.

Neighbourhood Rally

Renato Guttuso, ‘Neighborhood Rally’ (1975), Acrylic and collage on paper, 210 x 200 cm, Courtesy Galleria d’Arte Maggiore, Bologna

The exhibition can be seen until 4 April 2015, and is open until 9pm on the first Thursday of each month.