As anyone with an interest in early to mid 20th century Italian art will know, the Estorick Collection in Islington’s leafy Canonbury Square is a treasure trove.
From the musical swirls that flow from the fingers of a shadowy pianist in Luigi Russolo’s Music, to the piercing eyes of a woman in a multi-coloured hat and a single pearl earring in Umberto Boccioni’s Modern Idol, the Estorick Collection certainly boasts the highlights of Italian Futurism and Modernism on its walls.
The museum’s programme of temporary exhibitions tends to delve deeper though, to cast a light on early to mid twentieth century Italian artists that are not as well known.
In Bice Lazzari: Modernist Pioneer, which opened on 14 January 2022, the Collection’s galleries turn to an inventive abstractionist in an exhibition that aims to reclaim an unsung Italian female hero.
Lazzari’s status as a relative unknown outside of her home country is unfair, given the self-made nature of her artistic success and the battle she had to wage to achieve it.
“As well as being under appreciated internationally, I would say that Lazzari is neglected in Italy too,” Roberta Cremoncini, director of the Estorick Collection, told me.
“Women tended to be pushed towards applied art rather than art itself. She decided that she wanted to be an artist in her own right, yet she remains little known.
During the 1960s there was a lot of exchange between the British and Italian art worlds, but with the reduction of the Art Council’s budget everything became much more insular and Italy turned to the United States to show off its post-war rejuvenation.”
Bice Lazzari, born a Venetian in 1900, opted to study design and applied arts at the Venice Academy of Arts, rather than follow her heart and study art itself. She had an intention to make her own living from her craft, despite her parent’s desire to see her become a teacher.
“When my father died in 1928 I had to face life on a practical level,” Lazzari wrote. “So rather than walking around with a painting under my arm, I took a loom and started making fabrics, scarves, bags, belts and carpets, in order to continue living in the climate I so adored – namely, freedom.”
It was the art world that provoked an inescapable fascination in her though, and she would display her interest in abstraction through the designs that she completed for clients.
Her desire to break into the male-dominated Italian painting world would constantly be frustrated, firstly by her natural shyness that she struggled with all her life and led to a description of her as being ‘like a piece of ice in which a flame burns’.
Lazzari’s shyness is reflected in her work. “Her art is very sophisticated in a way,” Cremoncini adds, “it is very polished and fine and it is not disruptive so it didn’t come to the foreground very easily.”
Her progress was also disrupted by the arrival of fascism and war in the 1930s, which prompted Lazzari to turn to illegally imported art magazines for fresh inspiration.
When her art found full flight after conflict concluded in 1945, she created intricate, geometrically abstract work, comprised of lines and marks which seem to move across the page like notes on a symphony’s score, reflecting her time spent at a conservatoire as a child.
Towards the end of her life, her work became increasingly simple, and as time wore on and her eyesight started to fail, her only artistic tools were a red and white pencil with which she created pieces with a remarkable sense of symmetry and harmony.
“Her work has a special feeling to it,” Cremoncini concludes. “It is very subtle and extremely accomplished. Her paintings are poetic, you can grow into them. Your first impression might be to see a few lines on a canvas, but if you look more closely you will see that there are a series of layers to be discovered.”
The independent nature of Lazzari’s work is perhaps best summed up in her own words: “For many, the only way to survive artistically is to establish a continuous dialogue with oneself,” she wrote, “a challenging monologue to build’s one’s own art.”
Bice Lazzari: Modernist Pioneer runs at the Estorick Collection until 24 April 2022.