A number of the major commercial galleries in London now offer shows which are, in terms of interest and quality, very much on a level with what one finds in London’s major public galleries. The new exhibition at Blain/Southern in Hanover Square offers a good example of this. Entitled Carlo Carrà, Metaphysical Spaces, it considers the career of one of the most important artists connected with the Futurist and Pittura Metafisica impulses in Italy. It is accompanied by an excellent, well-illustrated hardcover book with the same title, with an authoritative essay by the curator of the show, Ester Coen, a chronology and an array of supporting documents.
The one subject it dodges is that Carrà was, for a good while during the inter-war years, a committed supporter of Mussolini’s Fascist regime. Emerging unscathed from this, he won the Gran Premio at the Venice Biennale of 1950, an important step forward for Italian art when it was being neglected by international pundits in favour of what then seemed to be more exciting new developments in Paris and New York. In 1962, he was the subject of a major retrospective at the Palazzo Reale in Milan. His reputation however, did not resound here and the Blain/Southern exhibition offers a rare opportunity to take a good look at him. The most recent solo show of Carrà’s work in London took place as long ago as 1960, also in a commercial space, the O’Hana Gallery.
Blain/Southern have managed to bring together an extremely representative selection of Carrà’s paintings. One of them, an austere landscape called Pine by the Sea (1921) is perhaps his best-known post-Futurist work. When it was new, it greatly excited the German art historian Wilhelm Worringer, best known for his influential text Abstraction and Empathy, which is essentially a closely argued defence of purely abstract art as opposed to traditional figuration.
Despite this, Worringer said, of his encounter with this eminently figurative work, full of echoes of Early Renaissance predella panels of about the same size: “For the first time I responded to the breath of a modern painting with the breath of my whole being.”
Pine by the Sea is a landscape, but some of the most striking works in the Blain/Southern show offer images of the human figure. These show that Carrà felt the pull towards classicism felt by many other European artists, Picasso included, in reaction to the turmoil of the war years. His classicism was, however of a particularly quirky sort . In a late text, Rousseau le Douanier and the Italian Tradition, written in 1951, Carrà explained why he heroised this self-taught primitive, who had also meant much to the original Paris avant-garde: “As I shall try to make clear,” he wrote, “the Douanier meant as much to us in post-Futurist Italy as his great predecessors of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries “. By this he meant that he put Rousseau on a level with “Giotto, Paolo Uccello and Piero della Francesca”.
Classicism, in Carrà’s work, thus becomes conflated with a very different kind of primitivism from the variety one encounters in Picasso’s borrowings from “l’art nègre”. The doll-like figures of children that appear in some of his Pittura Metafysica paintings – Mio figlio (1916) and Il figlio del construttore (1918-21), for example, have a special quality of enchantment. So, too, in a slightly more sinister way, does a much later composition, Mistici, sensuali, contemplativi: five nude, rather rudimentary figures float on a reddish brown ground, with a moon (or maybe a very dim sun) above them, there in the top left-hand corner.
The picture is dated 1941. It was painted right in the middle of another World War. One of the figures, in the very centre of canvas, is about to stab another, who sprawls helplessly beneath him. The title is surely ironic. Carrà certainly knows how to catch you off-guard and make you think.
CARLO CARRÀ | METAPHYSICAL SPACES | CURATED BY ESTER COEN Blain/Southern London 8 JULY 2016 – 20 AUGUST 2016