It was a sunny spring day and I hopped off the tube at Angel for a stroll to lunch at Byron, opposite the Business Design Centre, before heading to the Estorick for their latest exhibition of Alberto Burri. But wow! I always forget quite how long Upper Street is and this is not a walk to be undertaken by the faint-hearted. The Estorick is at the Highbury and Islington end of the road and there is a good reason why this street is serviced by two tube stations. By the time I eventually arrived, I imagine I looked a little worse for wear.
As popular as it is, I still feel that the Estorick is one of London’s hidden treasures; it is a small but marvellous gallery that many people have still never visited, including many of my colleagues in the art world. I know that there are always far too many things to see in London but the Estorick is a gem.
The Estorick Collection. Image via http://citygirldiariesec1.blogspot.co.uk.
I didn’t really know what to expect on entering their Burri exhibition as he is an artist I knew very little about, partly because this is the first major retrospective of his work in this country. In fact, only one of the works in this exhibition is a British loan – a piece owned by Tate who currently house it in storage. Made of acrylic and collaged hessian sack, the painting resembles a field with a burning red sky. Its energy appeals to all our senses. Burri is known and admired internationally (and a work of his recently sold at Sotheby’s in London for over £3 million) but people seem to have had difficulty placing him in art history. So, perhaps this is why he has been sidelined but this exhibition seeks to change that and open our eyes.
Alberto Burri, Sacking and Red, 1954. Image courtesy of the Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, Collezione Burri and Città di Castello and via www.estorickcollection.com.
Initially working in an Expressionist style, Burri’s work developed swiftly. He quickly abandoned this mode and began exploring the boundaries of the two-dimensional nature of wall-mounted artwork. The first piece I encountered was iron on painted wood and stretcher – a dark and truly emotive work with textures that really grab you and don’t let go. Burri is famous for using such unorthodox materials as sacking, twine and PVA glue. I’m a fan of heavily textured works anyway but these pieces have a new depth to them enhanced by Burri’s abstract vocabulary.
Alberto Burri, Iron, 1960. Image courtesy of the Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, Collezione Burri and Città di Castello and via www.estorickcollection.com.
The first room also includes a selection of his Klee-like tempera on card and paper works. Although these are more intimate, they lack the passion and dynamism of the more striking mixed media works.
Alberto Burri, Untitled, 1952. Image courtesy of the Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, Collezione Burri and Città di Castello and via www.estorickcollection.com.
Room two opens with Black from 1961, another powerful and dynamic canvas. Burri constantly plays with surface; the Cretto works, with zinc oxide and PVA glue on cellotex, look like giant crevices splitting the earth yet they retain a harmonic delicacy, exemplifying Burri’s skill.
Alberto Burri, White Cretto, 1975. Image courtesy of the Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, Collezione Burri and Città di Castello and via www.estorickcollection.com.
Burri’s interest in unconventional materials was, in part, inspired by Umberto Boccioni’s 1912 Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture in which he exhorted artists to reject the exclusivity of such materials as bronze and marble. Burri has certainly taken this to heart (or as I accidentally wrote in my first draft, taken this to art – spot on I think!) and makes use of simple materials to create his own unique masterpieces. His sacking often resembles lacerated and stitched flesh which some scholars have suggested may be autobiographical, referencing his own medical background. Burri was trained in medicine and had served as a doctor in North Africa during the Second World War before being taken prisoner in 1943. It was here, interned in a camp that Burri began to paint with materials supplied by the YMCA. As well as this medical interpretation, other works invite political readings while some resemble the landscape of his Umbrian homeland enhanced by his use of earthy colours. But, Burri dismissed analysis that gave the works symbolic value. For him, it was about the simple integrity of material and the work’s formal quality; he said its meaning was to be found within the composition and nowhere else.
Alberto Burri, Sack, 1954. Image courtesy of the Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, Collezione Burri and Città di Castello and via www.estorickcollection.com.
From 1954, Burri introduced fire to his work – charring, scorching and melting materials. This development shows his power to manipulate his materials. The exhibition demonstrates the incredible range with which Burri worked. His methods show that he concentrated on one material until he exhausted the possibilities it offered him, pushing the boundaries of what was considered acceptable. Burri’s works are as far from traditional representation as possible; instead, they are an exploration of the aesthetic potential of materials. So much of art is inherently contradictory and Burri is no different – the works are aggressive but romantic and protective.
Alberto Burri, Combustion, 1961. Image courtesy of the Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, Collezione Burri and Città di Castello and via www.estorickcollection.com.
The wall labels are perfect, informative without overloading visitors; they help us to understand his life, theoretical approach and the rationale behind his artwork. Burri is recognised as one of leading protagonists of Art Informel, a movement that focused on the instinctive and irrational aspects of the artistic process as much as on the finished product. From the simplest materials, Burri is able to create something monumental and striking, imbued with energy and movement. These are works about process and about the fundamentals of material. Although I didn’t really know who Burri was, he was undoubtedly a master of the 20th century who revolutionised the artistic vocabulary of post-war art. I have long been planning a trip to Sicily and now I have even more desire to go as Burri’s work Cretto is a must-see. After a devastating earthquake destroyed Gibellina, Burri used the city’s ruins to create a concrete cemetery, preserving the layout of the hillside town. It’s said to evoke a comforting gravestone that transforms a horrific catastrophe into something beautiful and poignant.
Alberto Burri, Cretto, 1985-89. Image via http://palermo.for91days.com/tag/cretto-di-burri/.
Although only a three-room exhibition (the rest of the Estorick is taken over by their permanent collection), this show was definitely worth the walk. If you don’t already know Burri’s works, it is important to look at them in the way that he intended and to learn about him and his influences afterwards. We may have previously failed to acknowledge Burri as truly important but it is now time to do so and this beautiful exhibition does just that.
Alberto Burri: Form and Matter is at The Estorick Collection until 7th April, www.estorickcollection.com.