Exhibition review: Framing Modernism

For anyone who associates concrete only with breeze blocks and multi-storey car parks, a look at the Estorick Collection’s new exhibition will offer a fresh perspective. In ‘Framing Modernism’, the material is given a glamorous gloss through monochrome photographs that capture the elegance and economy of 1920s Italian architecture.

The images chart a period that celebrated man’s mastery over his environment, when across Italy’s cities a thoroughly modern landscape was carved out in bold slices of steel, concrete, glass and chromium. Although the speed-hungry Futurist movement was by then losing momentum, the stimuli of fast cars and factories were not ceasing to thrill, as the pictures of train stations, aircraft hangars and Fiat’s iconic roof-top testing track make clear. Each of life’s everyday structures becomes a design opportunity: from post offices to playgrounds, and even a lift lobby.

It is not a large exhibition, but I found myself fully absorbed for a long time, as each successive image revealed a new detail of an alluring world. Much of it is the stuff of movies—a graceful diving board stretches over a mirror-like pool, a man leans on the balustrade of a curving white yacht club; and the photographs, like stills from a Fellini film, beautifully capture the atmosphere of lazy elegance under a hot Italian sun.

Although some landmarks depicted may be familiar, such as the magnificent Foro Mussolini in Rome and Florence’s brutal-looking Santa Maria Novella train station, none of the artists, whether in three or two dimensions, are household names in England. I certainly entered as a Modernism ignorant, but came out clutching one particular name to take to the bookshop—that of the master engineer Pier Luigi Nervi. Among others, there is a superb picture of the football stadium he created in Florence, in which its magnificent white tower pierces a heavy grey sky like the mast of a ship. At its base, a figure leans on the railing, an infinitesimal speck whose tininess enhances the awe-inspiring proportions of the structure.

It is perhaps this technique of juxtaposing man and monument that gives the images their cinematic quality: they are like sparsely-populated film sets through which a narrative is yet to be wound. Many of them also put me in mind of De Chirico’s metaphysical paintings, with their dramatic shadows and empty courtyards. Either way, they are works that inspire the imagination, revealing both a moment of history and a window into fantasy. I came out ready to plan a holiday to Italy, and at the same time feeling like I had only just been.

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‘Framing Modernism’ is at The Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, Canonbury Square N1, until June 21 (020–7724 9522; www.estorickcollection.com).