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Venice, Tancredi, and the art of London Italians in the 1960s

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In Clerkenwell and Venice, Paul Finch is smitten by Italian art and style

In Venice for a few days, I took with me Jonathan Glancey’s latest book What’s so great about the Eiffel tower? – 70 questions that will change the way you think about architecture, published by Laurence King. A series of short essays provoke, amuse and inform in equal measure.

Naturally I turned to his thoughts on La Serenissima, titled ‘Venice: Architectural Museum or living city?’ after a day visiting churches and museums mainly about the past. Glancey quotes the Futurist, Marinetti, who declared in 1910: ‘We repudiate the old Venice … let us hasten to fill its little reeking canals with the ruins from its leprous and crumbling palaces. Let us burn the gondolas’, and so on.

As things have turned out, no such activity took place, the most ruinous thing for the city in the 20th century being the great flood of 1966, which led over time to a vast exodus of Venetians, preferring life on the mainland to the world of alta acqua. Modernist architecture didn’t get much of a look-in, with proposals by Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier thwarted. (Exceptions are Calatrava’s bridge by the bus station and Stirling Wilford’s book pavilion in the Giardini.)

Generally, the most notable contemporary contributions have involved the world of interiors, with work by Carlo Scarpa to the fore – but then Scarpa had worked for many years as chief designer for Venini, the glass-maker supreme, so knew his Venice inside out. His interior for Olivetti in San Marco, recently restored, is still fabulous.

To an extent, conservatism in architecture also applied to art. For example, work by the brilliant Tancredi, who died in 1964, aged 37, was rejected by the Venice Art Biennale early in his career, though accepted later on. But then art is generally a private rather than public matter, and in respect of painting is part of the world of interiors.

An exhibition of Tancredi’s work is currently showing at the Venice Guggenheim, where Tancredi had a studio for five years courtesy of Peggy Guggenheim, who promoted his work around the world. The exhibition shows both an artistic journey, from fine figurative drawings to work influenced by a variety of international influences, and a troubled personal life (which he ended himself). The impact of Venice on his work is very apparent, despite his globe-trotting life after splitting with Guggenheim, producing a lifelong obsession with light and colour in work which was new to me. Recommended.

By chance, I had been thinking about Italian artists, admittedly of a very different disposition, following a visit to the new Lever Gallery in Goswell Road, on the fringes of Clerkenwell. Founded by architect Didier Madoc-Jones, the gallery’s first show, ‘Smoking Guns’, is devoted to paintings produced mainly as book covers, many by Italian artists who had worked on film posters and related material before coming to London in the 1960s.

1158 cop cop 104 copyright gianluigi coppola lever gallery ws

1158 cop cop 104 copyright gianluigi coppola lever gallery ws

Source: Gianluigi Coppola/Lever Gallery

Wonderful Clouds (1965) by Gianluigi Coppola

A typical example is Gianluigi Coppola’s cover for the 1965 Penguin edition of a Françoise Sagan novel, Wonderful Clouds. In many cases the gallery also shows the books with their original covers; what is striking is how much more impressive the paintings are at their original scale. Most of the exhibition is about books, but there are exceptions. I particular liked two paintings, Life on a Council Estate 1 and 2, by Gino D’Achille, used as illustrations for two articles in Nova magazine from 1965.

There are delights other than those of the Italian artists. The work of Michael Johnson is a revelation, and for anyone with an interest in 1960s London, this exhibition is also highly recommended. I am not saying book illustrators are in a direct line from Titian, but I certainly see an artistic lineage and way of viewing the world that is recognisably Italian.

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