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Aeropainting with Italian Futurist Tullio Crali at the Estorick

an abstract painting in reds and greens

Tullio Crali, Roarings of an Aeroplane, 1927 (Rombi d’aereo). Private collection

The first major retrospective of Italian futurist aeropainter Tullio Crali comes to the Estorick in 2020

From his iconic aeropaintings and experimental poetry to his enigmatic constellations of rock ‘sculpted’ by natural forces and his space age ‘cosmic’ imagery of the 1960s, Italian artist Tullio Crali (1910-2000) remained a man driven by the principles of futurism.

Every phase of his long career was framed as a coherent manifestation of the futurist ideals and a movement that, initially at least, championed speed, technology and violence.

“My art changes form, but not substance,” he said in his post war period when even Crali attempted to disentangle himself from the fascist associations of the war years that continue to overshadow the futurist narrative.

After the demise of Benito Mussolini and with Italy devastated after World War Two, Crali moved to Piedmont where he painted works inspired not by the machine and the technological triumph of humanity over nature, but by nature itself.

an abstract painting in bold blue and grey of plane moving through two large clouds

Tullio Crali, Flight, 1929 (Volo). Private Collection

a painting of red and cream swirls capturing the centrifugal force of an aeroplane turning

Tullio Crali, The Forces of the Bend, 1930 (Le forze della curva). Private collection.

an abstract modernist painting showing the light and colours of the sky with a plane travelling across it

Tullio Crali Lights at Sunset in Ostia, 1930 (Tramonto di luci a Ostia). Private Collection

“A lack of faith in mankind leads me to turn my attention to nature,” he said. “I search out serenity in everything; I try to discover the movements of nature and to express its vitality. It is the Futurist principle of ‘universal dynamism’ that is striving to take form. There is no change of ideology.”

Until his death in 2000 Crali would be Futurism’s staunchest advocate. The movement’s leader, the fascist F.T. Marinetti who died a loyal servant of Mussolini from a cardiac arrest in 1944, entrusted him with the task of defending the movement’s historical significance and arguing for its continued relevance. Doing this in the post war period was a tough ask, but one from which Crali never faltered.

This exhibition of over 60 works explores how Crali’s own work across his entire career developed, and is the first shown in the United Kingdom dedicated to him. It features several rarely seen pieces from the artist’s family collection, dating from the 1920s to the 1980s.

“Dear Futurist, delighted to have you with us in the Futurist struggle…”

Crali grew up in the Dalmatian city of Zadar, which was annexed by Italy following the First World War and with his family he moved to Gorizia in 1922. It was there, at just 15 years of age, that he read a newspaper article about Futurism.

An immediate convert, he began experimenting with the movement’s aesthetics, and created his first Futurist drawing in 1925 (a work that is included in the exhibition).

Four years later in 1929 he wrote an effusive letter to Marinetti and received a response officially welcoming him into the movement.

“Dear Futurist, delighted to have you with us in the Futurist struggle…”

an abstract painting showing the motion of an aeroplane propeller

Tullio Crali, Broken Engine, 1931 (Motore in panne). Private collection

a painting showing aeroplanes seen from above through cubist shapes evoking clouds and the earth

Tullio Crali, Tricolour Wings, 1932 (Ali tricolori). Private collection

an abstract painting evoking a series of dockside cranes

Tullio Crali, Port Structures (Nantes), 1954. (Structures portuaires (Nantes)) Private collection.

a painting of swirling blues and turquoise showing the sky and clouds

Tullio Crali, Magic in Flight, 1968 (Magia in volo). Private Collection

“I read and re-read it with a mixture of incredulity, immense joy, pride and responsibility,” remembered Crali. “Now I was truly a Futurist. My mother was the first person I told. I was in a state of excitement that I would not experience again until my wedding day.”

1929 was the year the Futurists launched their manifesto, Perspectives of Flight, which championed aeropittura (aeropainting) and the possibilities and excitement of flight as a way of capturing aerial landscapes and perspectives. By the mid-1930s, Crali had become one of the key players in this second wave of Futurism, typically experimenting with fashion, theatre, architecture and graphic design; but it was as an aeropainter that he truly excelled.

Aeropainting coincided perfectly with the consolidation of the power of Mussolini, who since 1925 had ruled the country as head of a one-party dictatorship, and he embraced art of many forms. For the Futurist artists the rising militarism of the time fuelled their ideas and offered opportunities to experiment and reach their goal of capturing the dynamism, the energy and the movement of modern life – but it was the mechanics of aerial warfare that provided the fatal attraction.

“Nazi authorities identified him as subversive and earmarked him for deportation”

As Europe descended into war Crali was one of a number of Futurist artists who participated in official war art programmes, accompanying pilots on combat and reconnaissance missions. His best-known work, Nose Dive on the City (1939) remains one of the best examples of the dizzying and thrilling perspectives achieved by the aeropainters and perhaps one of the most terrible evocations of the destructive force of the blitzkrieg.

What are we to make of these images today and how do they compare with the many aerial images produced by Allied war artists? They are knotty questions, and even for Crali the extreme ideologies at play in wartime Italy proved a difficult path to negotiate. The Estorick Collection’s exhibition relates how, between 1944 and 1945, his organising of avant-garde cultural events in Gorizia led to clashes with the occupying Nazi authorities who identified him as subversive and earmarked him for deportation to Germany.

Crali escaped this fate thanks to an ‘influential friend’, only to be imprisoned for 45 days by Tito’s militia before being liberated by American troops.

a painting of multiple propeller engines

Tullio Crali, Assault of Motors, 1968 (Assalto di motori). Private Collection

a painting of swirling skies and clouds

Tullio Crali, Acrobatic Sky, 1970 (Cielo in acrobazia). Private collection

a photo of three pieces of artistically arranged rocks

Tullio Crali, The Eruption, 1977 (L’eruzione). Private collection

a mixed media artwork with paint string and rock

Tullio Crali, Cosmic Fragments, 1943 (Frammenti cosmici). Private collection

War may have blunted his enthusiasm for the destructive capabilities of man and machine, but the post-war period saw Crali continue to advocate for Futurism’s relevance. In 1950, disillusioned by the apathy of many of his former colleagues, he accepted a position as an art teacher at a prestigious Italian school in Paris, remaining there for almost a decade.

Visits to Brittany’s rugged coastline during this time fuelled his interest in geological formations shaped by wind and water, yet he also remained firmly attuned to contemporary scientific developments, addressing humanity’s exploration of the universe in monochromatic images resembling swirling galaxies or extra-terrestrial landscapes viewed through the windows of a spaceship.

The exhibition also includes works of experimental poetry and his mixed-media compositions, a large number of his Sassintesi (Carali’s own fusion of the Italian words sassi [stones] and sintesi [synthesis] to describe his geological paintings) as well as some great examples of the later ‘cosmic’ imagery and his return to aero painting during the jet age.

The historical backdrop and tenets of Futurism mean it will always be a difficult movement to enjoy on face value, but this promises to be a fascinating look at one man, his art and his journey through the often terrible story of twentieth century art.

Tullio Crali: A Futurist Life is at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, London from January 15 – April 11 2020. 

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully-illustrated catalogue containing essays by the curators Christopher Adams and Barbara Martorelli.

venue

The Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art opened in London in 1998. Its new home - a Grade II listed Georgian building - was restored with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund and contains six galleries, an art library, cafe and bookshop. The Collection is known internationally for its core…

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