A Study Visit to the Estorick introduced me to these two artists who were life long friends. Guttuso is famous in Italy but little known here. De Francia was a British painter who became Professor of Painting at The Royal College of Art and the Estorick is celebrating their friendship by exhibiting his drawings from Italy alongside Guttuso’s paintings.
Guttuso’s paintings are a celebration of colour. He clearly applied his paint quickly, often including collage and symbolism. He was a life long communist and his paintings celebrate the ordinary people and the landscape and colours of his native Sicily. His draftsmanship was, at times, questionable, as was his subject matter, and the quality of his painting and compositions seems to have been very variable thoughout his career.
Our tutor, Jim Cowan, was keen that we take the opportunity of quiet galleries to examine some paintings in detail by sketching them and annotating the sketches. I chose ‘Heroine’ which can be seen in the body of this article. The square painting is very dramatic both in colour and composition. The naked ‘heroine’ lies dead, clutching the Red Flag which neatly covers her nether regions. She is clearly meant to be a woman of the people with muscular arms and big meaty hands. He has taken particular relish in describing her hairy armpit with black paint drawn into with the end of the brush for texture. The diagonal composition, the flag and the use of the same red for the shadows creates great drama. But why, on earth, is she naked? No woman fighter ever went to war only wearing her earings! It is like a life drawing pose with added flag. The drawing of rib cage is decidedly questionable as is the whole sexualisation of the subject.
An interesting contrast is the drawing ‘ Landscape with Lovers’ included in this series of four images. The lovers almost disappear in the foliage which is described by a riot of mark-making. The Sicilian sun beats down from a yellow sky and the olive trees twist and turn like people watching. I particularly enjoy the marks he has used for the leaves of the olive tress.
The final Guttuso I drew and studied in detail was ‘Butchered Lamb’ 1974. Guttuso illustrated Elizabeth David’s famous book ‘Italian Food’. It is not clear whether this work represents his interest in food or has darker intent, but the colours make the carcass glow like a jewel. The background is unfinished or unresolved and I did get the impression from the paintings that he worked very fast, loosing patience or interest at times, so perhaps that is what happened here.
The Estorick is delightful to draw in, being relatively quiet and calm. I enjoy drawing from paintings; it makes you look so much harder at them and helps put you into the mind of the original artist. I was pleased I had taken felt tip pens and a waterbrush for such colourful works.
The De Francia drawings were calm and simple by comparison. He, like Guttoso, was a Realist painter, concentrating on ordinary people and everyday life. The drawings exhibited were all drawn in Italy using charcoal and conte pencil or pen and wash. His people have a chunky, almost brutal, groundedness to them verging on caricature. A series of three landscapes demonstrated his sensitivity with the materials with a lovely mixture of hard and soft marks. There is a selection of his paintings here but I much prefer those landscape drawings.
Finally, since I am studying sculpture, I sketched Medardo Rosso’s ‘Impressions of the Boulevard’ 1893. This is a plaster work, covered with wax and has a rather sinister, repellant effect of a half melted death mask. The plaster is, in fact, surprisingly thin, almost a plaque, and the wax is brushed over it to soften the effect. The Estorick notes say that Rosso believed that he had heavily influenced Rodin.