Futurism, with its populist mix of explosive rhetoric (burn all the museums!) and resolutely urban experience and emphasis on speed, was a force to be reckoned with (at least in Italy) for longer than one might imagine. It was launched in Paris in 1909 by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, poet and performer, a superb propagandist for the movement he effectively founded, and it managed to survive the upheavals of the first world war, continuing into the 1920s. (Some say it lasted until Marinetti’s death in 1944.) Besides the core figures of Boccioni, Carrà, Balla and Severini, there were a number of other artists closely involved in Futurism, one of whom was Gerardo Dottori (1884–1977). Dottori is not well known in this country, so the Estorick is entirely fulfilling its remit (to make modern Italian art more familiar to English art-lovers) by giving him a solo show. And his work turns out to be well worth reappraisal.
I first came across Dottori in 1990 in the seminal Futurism in Flight exhibition mounted by the Accademia Italiana delle Arti e delle Arti Applicate in London. That show was a revelation, and contained half a dozen works by Dottori among more than 50 featured artists. In 2005, the Estorick put on a survey of Italian aeropainting (painting done of or from the air) called Futurist Skies, and this, too, contained notable pictures by Dottori. There’s even a painting by Dottori in the Tate, though I can’t remember ever seeing it on show, and unfortunately it is not now being lent to the Estorick’s exhibition. (Strange that — it’s an obvious choice, and the reproduction hanging in the show suggests that it was wanted. I can only imagine that the Tate’s ludicrously Byzantine conditions for lending somehow prevented it.) The entire exhibition, apart from a drawing from the Estorick’s own collection, has been loaned from Italy: all the more reason to visit it.
Dottori’s major contribution to Futurism resides in his focus upon landscape. The usual Futurist subject matter was mechanical and urban: a multi-legged dog scampering along a city pavement or a motorbike roaring past. But long before Futurism’s espousal of the aerial view made landscape a legitimate theme, Dottori was painting the countryside he loved. Two of the best early paintings in the first gallery of his works currently hanging at the Estorick depict nature or husbandry. One is a symbolist painting of trees, rather like Böcklin in mood, set against wild romantic skies, the sole surviving panel of a triptych. The other is a small farming picture, ‘Landscape with Haystacks’, full of earthy symbolism. Here, too, are early Futurist works from the war years, ‘Motorcyclist’ (1914, dedicated to Marinetti) and ‘Explosion’ (1916–17), all jagged mineral edges in a whirlpool. He successfully continued this theme, notably with ‘City in Flames’ (1926) and ‘Sun on the Towers’ (1929), but the enthusiastic landscape foreground of the latter painting shows where his real interests lay.
The second room demonstrates this fully with a group of stylised landscapes that are gripping in their strangeness. These are seen from high viewpoints (though not necessarily the flat-plans you can get from aerial views) and nearly always focus on a centralised body of water (lake, river or sea) surrounded or flanked by interlocking hills. A lake becomes a looking-glass, overarched with rainbows, the shores dotted with pink powder-puff trees, the landscape combed and tidied into fanatical patterns. It feels as if the freshness has gone out of Futurism to be replaced by something altogether more edgily manic and bizarre. The colours are vibrant, the forms enclosing, echoey, bunched tight as the heart of a Savoy cabbage; wishing wells or enchanted lagoons set in quilted, embroidered landscapes. Futurism seems to have transmuted into magic realism, and it is perhaps not so surprising to learn that in later years Dottori spent much time and energy painting murals for churches in his native Perugia.
Upstairs, a third gallery is devoted to Dottori’s works on paper, which not only add considerable weight to the exhibition’s argument (which is neither more nor less than the reassessment of a little-known artist), but also bring a welcome change of pace and intensity. In particular, two detailed architectural studies in watercolour pencil (titled ‘Synthesis of Vicenza’ and ‘Synthesis of Padua’) contribute a new note to the proceedings, a slightly fantastical one, comparable to some of the work that Edward Wadsworth was doing in Britain at around the same time. But Gerardo Dottori was very much his own man, as this exhibition ably demonstrates — he even entered a work for the Venice Biennale in 1924 despite Marinetti’s disapproval, becoming the first Futurist to show in the exhibition. Odd but independent.
I have been following the career of Dan Llywelyn Hall (born 1980) for some years with growing interest. His work is painterly but not reactionary, offering a unique character and blend: enthusiasm for high art (the influence of van Gogh and Soutine, for instance), graphic vividness, trenchant observation of contemporary mores, helped out by a willingness to travel, and an interest in spiritual values to balance his impulse to satirise. Couple all that with his Welshness, which as you might expect manifests itself in many and various ways, not the least admirable of which is a thorough appreciation of that great forgotten painter James Dickson Innes (1887–1914), and the end result is art of enjoyable complexity. A strong selection of his oil paintings, acrylics, drawings and watercolours, dating from 2006 to the present, is currently at Sladers Yard in Bridport, a gallery increasingly celebrated for its spirited showing of contemporary British art, furniture and craft. With this exhibition, supported by a catalogue containing an essay by the Times art critic, Rachel Campbell-Johnston, Llywelyn Hall asserts his determination to be taken seriously as a figurative artist of guts and style.
Although I have not yet visited Llywelyn Hall’s exhibition, I have seen enough of his work to know how it might look, and feel entirely justified in recommending it here. There is a beguiling awkwardness to much of his imagery that reflects a deliberate strategy: not to be smooth and take the path of least resistance, but to challenge himself and his materials at every turn in order to make something individual, hard-won and adventurous. Such a high-risk approach does not always pay off (I remember seeing some truly awful paintings of Lady Gaga), but the results are at least interesting and often much more than that. There is a visionary quality to his best paintings that ranges from the serene to the disturbing, a view of landscape and the people who inhabit and often desecrate it that is provocative, intensely personal but in the end invariably optimistic. The slag heap of plastic bottles has its own beauty, the wreckage of the airplane crash forms new vistas and new monuments, and always the horizon beckons.
Llywelyn Hall is no stranger to controversy, and although his 2009 portrait of the first world war veteran Harry Patch was well received, his more recent portrait of Her Majesty the Queen (commissioned by the Welsh Rugby Union) was not so universally approved.
His latest body of work has been inspired by Dylan Thomas, whose centenary falls this year. Llywelyn Hall will take part in a symposium at Kings Place (at the back of King’s Cross station) on 11 September, between 7 and 9 p.m., discussing Thomas’s legacy with readings of his poetry and prose. The panel includes Dannie Abse and two Thomas biographers, Andrew Lycett and George Tremlett, and tickets are now available (box office: 020 7520 1490). The paintings that Llywelyn Hall has produced under Thomas’s influence will be on show at the Coningsby Gallery, 30 Tottenham Street, W1, in an exhibition aptly entitled Deaths and Entrances (6–13 September). Will they be ‘dark and sullen art’?
That remains to be seen.