“LA NOTTE”

We watched Antonioni’s 1961 film La Notte the other evening, never having seen it before. It explores the familiar themes of the period — alienation, boredom, meaningless relationships, non-communication, infidelity, the emptiness of bourgeois life — which it conveys in a dialogue of sententious non-sequiturs. If today we think Antonioni’s script, written with Ennio Flaiano and Tonino Guerra, takes itself a bit too seriously and says not very much, his direction and Gianni di Venanzoni’s superlative black and white cinematography are of a very high order indeed and the film is worth watching for those things alone.

Each scene is meticulously arranged, showing the influence of the art of the time, and that abstract perfection, along with the static camera and way the characters carry their elegant clothes, convey a fitting coldness.

The balletic scene towards the end, where Marcello Mastroianni, Jean Moreau and Monica Vitti revolve slowly round one another, each dressed in black and silhouetted against a white wall, epitomises the film.

L’ALBERO NASCOSTO, TRIESTE

There was the usual bottle of wine in our room at L’Albero Nascosto in Trieste, but also a notice pointing out that hotels.com take 18% commission from hoteliers and that the best way to support independent hotels like this one is to book direct. In fact we’d done so.

On the afternoon of our arrival we saw an elderly gentleman sitting in the courtyard with a glass of wine. The next morning we saw him clearing the breakfast tables. It was the owner, Aldo Stock. The hotel has his personal touch and is full of things he’s chosen – antique furniture, paintings by Trieste artists and books. There’s also a lounge with an art and design library.

You get a taste of the hotel from its own description: “Our boutique hotel is an eighteenth-century building, without a lift. In its rarefied silence you will be able to appreciate the white stone of Istria, the wood of the walnut tree, of the elm and the cherry, and the precious column from Roman times.”

Aldo used to be an antique dealer, still does some dealing and has a store which you can visit on request.

We went with him to see it a few blocks away. “Dealing in antiques was an elegant occupation,” he said, “But I got tired of it and I prefer to be in the hotel, meeting different people every day.”

His passions are glass and wood. There are items by Gallé and Venini and furniture chosen for its beautiful veneers. Each of the ten rooms is named after a tree.

“Have you lived in Trieste all your life?”

“Except for the first few years. My parents were Jewish and we escaped to Switzerland when I was a baby.” Trieste, which has one of the largest synagogues in Europe, then had a Jewish population of 5,000, now reduced to 500.

He also spent a couple of years in London as a student. “What did you study?” “That wasn’t the important thing: I was in London to learn English.” His English is fluent and his staff speak it well. Spanish, German and French are also spoken.

TRIESTE CATHEDRAL

We climbed to the Castel San Giusto in Trieste to get a view over the town and the seaport. A cruise liner had docked, dwarfing the surrounding buildings. The Cathedral was an afterthought.

Trieste looks like a central European city even a century after being detached from the Austro-Hungarian empire and there are remnants of its former status, from the Orthodox church of St Spyridon and the offices of Generali, the insurance company born in the city, to restaurants serving strudel and sausages with sauerkraut.

The Cathedral of St Justus, a 14th-century basilica on one of the highest points, is from a pre-Habsburg Trieste. It is simple but, on account of its wall paintings and Byzantine mosaics, not austere, and there is a beautiful afternoon light.

A POSTCARD FROM ITALY

A postcard from Lake Garda.

Some of my friends aren’t on Facebook or Whatsapp so I like to send them holiday postcards. It’s now practically impossible to do that from Italy because of the difficulty of buying postage stamps

There are few post offices, they’re not always open, they have a complicated queuing system which requires you to go to the correct counter and when you arrive you may find that that one doesn’t sell stamps.

The old system under which licenced tobacconists sold stamps appears to have broken down as they’re in dispute with the post office. I tried six, all of which gave a curt “Finiti”.

There’s an alternative private postal service for tourists called the Global Postal Network, but it has few post boxes and if you can find one it may not be emptied for weeks.

Apparently fax is still widely used in Italy, which may be understandable.

THE DE CHIRICO MOMENT

Giorgio de Chirico’s metaphysical paintings captured the uneasy feeling of abandoned urban spaces that are uncannily full of absence.

There’s a similar feeling in the work of other artists: Eric Ravilious’s interiors and some of Munch’s and Carel Weight’s paintings. It’s also conveyed in Hitchcock’s scene in The Man Who Knew too Much where James Stewart, in search of Ambrose Chappell, walks down an empty London street with footsteps echoing behind him

Anyone who visits Italy will soon have a de Chirico moment in an empty square in strong afternoon sunlight between three and four in the afternoon, like this place (above) that I happened on in Verona.

SEVERINI’S STATIONS OF THE CROSS, CORTONA (2)

Gino Severini, Stations of the Cross, Station XIII (1944)

Several years ago when I was in Cortona, the birthplace of Gino Severini, who always retained a great affection for the beautiful little hill town, I was pleased to see his wonderful mosaics there – the large mosaic mural on the church of St Mark and the Stations of the Cross along the Via Crucis – but I was disappointed to find that there were no reproductions anywhere, not even in the Museo Diocesano, which has his cartoons for the latter.

Gino Severini, St Mark.

So I was delighted to discover on eBay a set of postcards of the cartoons, offered by a seller in Palermo but for some reason printed in Malta. Sadly, no-one has yet thought to make postcards of the mosaics themselves. They’re excellent and represent very well Severini’s interest in mosaic, which was probably more long-lived than his Futurist career.

But it’s a sad fact that they’re under-appreciated, as I found out when we saw them: Cortona was thronged with tourists that day, but apart from us, the Via Crucis was completely deserted and no-one seemed to be interested in them.

The deserted Via Crucis in Cortona when we went to see
The Stations of the Cross, visible in the little niches on the right.

Here are some of the postcards.

WOMEN ARTISTS OF BOLOGNA

Lavinia Fontana, Portrait of a Noblewoman, c. 1580.

Yesterday I happened to be looking at Maxwell Armfield’s An Artist in Italy, his series of travel articles from the 1920s in which he views the landscapes and buidings with a colourist’s eye and describes the paintings he’s seen. It happened to be appropriate reading for International Women’s Day because his section on Bologna featured the leading role played by women artists and intellectuals in that city – Novella Andrea, Caterina dei Vigi, Prosperzia de’ Rossi, Lavinia Fontana and Elizabeth Sironi.

Armfield’s interest in women artists wasn’t accidental: he was married to the feminist writer Constance Smedley, whom he’d met at Birmingham Art School in the 1890’s. Her writing is almost forgotten now but she’s remembered as the founder of the International Lyceum Clubs for Women Artists and Writers, which she set up to provide support for professional women. As the Dictionary of National Biography says, “She aspired, not only to enable women to compete equally with men, but to create a democratic, non-hierarchical, centre for worldwide cultural exchange, and travelled across Europe, helping women in Amsterdam (1904), Berlin (1905), Paris (1906), and Florence (1908) to open clubhouses.” Their marriage was unconventional: Armfield was gay and Smedley’s disabilities precluded normal marital relations, but they had a productive artistic partnership in England and the USA and they probably travelled to Bologna together.

Constance Smedley and Maxwell Armfield.

CRAFT WORDS

I was talking to Kati about the way our parents furnished their homes in the 1960s, when mine moved to to a new house in the London suburbs and hers to an apartment in the Budapest suburbs. Both used the move to dispose of their old-fashioned furnishings and to buy modern pieces. Kati admired the armchairs her father bought, I liked my parents’ Grundig radiogram.


Her father bought his chairs in an iparművészeti bolt, a small shop selling interior design and decorative items like jewellery. I asked Kati what iparművészeti meant, recognising the word from the Iparművészeti Muzeum, the Budapest equivalent of the V&A. Its literal meaning is “industry art”, but it doesn’t mean that exactly, it means hand-made objects manufactured in small quantities – so it’s close to our “arts and crafts” but it has extra connotations of design and originality.

The Italian equivalent is artigianato, but that has different connotations still, suggesting, as far as I can understand, any product of a small workshop – there’s plenty of gelati artigianale and “craft ice cream” doesn’t sound quite right. Italy has managed to retain far more small artigianale workshops alongside its advanced industries than Britain, despite Britain and Italy having a similar GDP per capita, and they’re more mainstream than any arts-and-crafts producer in the UK. Now, however, the English “craft” is acquiring something of the Italian meaning, with craft beers and craft coffees. In Italy, artigianato became current later than than “arts and crafts”, during the fascist era, not surprisingly, compared to the early 20th century in Britain, and it peaked later, in 1960, compared to 1940 – in other words, in the era of rapid post-war growth.

TULLIO CRALI, THE LAST FUTURIST

Self Portrait (1935)

We went to the Estorick Collection’s postponed exhibition of the art of Tullio Crali A Futurist Life, the first devoted to him in the UK. Crali was a key figure in the second wave of Futurism, to which he remained attached with idealistic devotion, and the major proponent of aeropittura, painting inspired by aerial flight.


The Force of the Bend (1930)

Crali was born in 1910 in Montenegro and spent much of his life in Gorizia, near Trieste. He developed an enthusiasm for Futurism as a schoolboy and taught himself to paint in a Futurist style. Marinetti wrote to him in 1929, “Dear Futurist, Delighted to have you with us in the Futurist struggle.” Meeting Marinetti, who favoured him with a smile, was the high point of his life.


Cosmic Maternity (1960)

This remarkable exhibition gathers works from the Crali family collection that span the artist’s long life (he died in 2000), many unseen for decades. His most famous painting Nose-Diving the City (which the Estorick included in its 2005 exhibition Painting the Skies) is not included, but his intoxication with flying is well-represented.


The Forces of the Infinite (1931)

After the war the position of Futurists became difficult in Italy. Crali never had much interest in politics and engaged as a naïve patriot – “acquiescence”, the word the curators choose to describe his relationship with the regime, is accurate. In 1942 Crali and Marinetti produced a manifesto (always a manifesto!) about the potential artistic contribution to the war effort, Plastic Illusionism of War and Perfecting the Earth, whose ideas about camouflage did not appeal much to the military mind:

“Spiritualise materiality and vulgarity by means of gigantic winged colourful transparent free-word compositions in such a way that a smoking factory might metamorphosise into an evanescent mystical chapel fringed with angels and bells.”


Vegetable Volumes (1948)

Unlike Depero, who had to emigrate to the USA to continue as an artist, Crali survived with a teaching job in Italy. His post-war still lifes (above) gained in depth and subtlety.

Futurism was a way of life to Crali, not to be abandoned when circumstances changed. At a meeting of Futurists in 1950 – and I was surprised to learn that there was still an organised Futurist movement after Marinetti’s death – Benedetta Marinetti dissolved the movement, a decision Crali refused to accept, and in his own mind he remained a Futurist.


Lights at Sunset in Ostia (1930)

Teaching posts in Paris and Cairo introduced Crali, ever curious about his world, to new scenes, new people, new shapes and new possibilities. His late embrace of found art from rocks, the Sassintesi (“Stonetheses”) was, in his mind, still a Futurist enterprise.


Crali with his wife Ada Savelli in Paris, 1950s

ALAN CAIGER-SMITH

I learned the other day of the death of Alan Caiger-Smith, an outstanding potter who revived the art of tin glaze and who became an important scholar of the tin glaze tradition.

Caiger-Smith was born in Buenos Aires in 1930. He studied at Camberwell Art School of Art and read history at King’s College, Cambridge. Inspired by French painted pottery in his mother’s kitchen, he enrolled in pottery evening classes at the Central School of Arts and Crafts under Dora Billington. His aims were unformed at the time, but when he told Billington of his interest in decoration she said, “Then you want to do tin glaze,” which he had never even heard of.

In 2013 I interviewed him about his time at the Central and his memories of Billington. His recall was sharp and he was a brilliant raconteur. The Central in around 1950 was an old building filled with ex-servicemen and young girls, known to the students as The Central School of Tarts and Drafts. Billington had taken on an old Yorkshire country thrower, Richard Bateson, whom Caiger-Smith found to be endlessly patient and helpful, though preferring to give advice outside the classroom where he could have a sly smoke at the same time.

Caiger-Smith warmed to his work, coming to the evening class earlier and earlier, eventually arriving at 8.30 a.m. William Johnstone, the college principal, called him in and instructed him to stop doing that, but Billington, who spotted his potential, took him aside and advised him to quietly ignore Johnstone.

By this date Billington was over sixty. One of Caiger-Smith’s colleagues, a student who frequently got drunk at lunchtime, stood at the back of the class sniggering as his prim old teacher showed them how to pull a handle by stroking and squeezing a sausage of clay. She looked up and said sharply, “Yes, Mr B— , it is phallic. Now sober up and pay attention and you may learn something.”

Caiger Smith remained grateful to Billington for her teaching and encouragement. Tin glaze was so out of fashion that the college technician (who I think at the time was Ian Auld) refused to fire his work and he had to smuggle it into the back of the kiln.

As it happened, his Aldermaston Pottery stuck a chord and his work was soon in demand. Last year, Jane White, published an account of Alan Caiger-Smith and the Legacy of the Aldermaston Pottery that traced the assistants who had worked with him there. Alan spoke at the book launch at the Ashmolean with Tim Wilson, an expert in maiolica, whom he had consulted during his historical researches and who also consulted him.

Tin-Glaze Pottery, published in 1973, was a rare thing, combining deep scholarship with practical understanding, and in my view it’s the standard account of the subject.

In a search for a real red pigment, Caiger-Smith rediscovered the technique of reduced lustre glaze (picture, top) after long experiment and many failures. His reduced lustre pottery is among his most beautiful work and is now very collectable. As an indication of how well-respected he became, he was honoured by the town of Gubbio, which had brought Italian lustre to the peak of refinement in the 16th century.