The National Gallery offers an excellent review of the making of modernism between the last Impressionist exhibition and the First World War, focusing on developments in Paris and their spread through other important cities – Vienna, Berlin, Brussels and Barcelona – but there was nothing from Milan, unless one counts the single exhibit by Medardo Rosso, who was included because he moved to Paris.
Many important works were included and artists like Cezanne, Gaugin and Van Gogh were well represented and I was interested to see the ceramic made by Gaugin with Ernest Chaplet, an aspect of his work I was unaware of, and early representational paintings by Mondrian, which never fail to please.
And there were arresting exhibits by lesser-known artists, like Seated Girl with a White shirt and Standing Nude Girl (1906) (above) by Paula Modersohn-Becker, who developed her artistic language in Paris from influences including Puvis de Chavannes, the Nabis, Henri Rousseau and Picasso and used it to depict a world of private, predominantly female experience when she returned to Bremen.
Space is always limited but it could be said that Milan was no less important than Bremen. Cities defined as peripheral are rarely shown in London, despite their wealth of wonderful art. My first visit to the National Gallery of Budapest was a revelation of a rich artistic tradition closed off by forty years of Communism and well worth exploring.
The scant regard paid to Italian modernism, which centred on Futurism in Milan, was unfortunately part of a pattern. Tate Modern marked the centenary of the Futurist Manifesto with an exhibition in 2009 and the Estorick Gallery gallantly promotes 20th century Italian art and design but the Severini exhibition never came to Britain. It could of course be said that Futurism before 1914 was in thrall to Paris and had no style of its own, borrowing from Pointillism and Cubism, but that misses the point that in its embrace of the machine and urbanism it was the most modernist of modern art. One can’t avoid the suspicion that it is ignored not for artistic reasons but because of its later association with Fascism.