Owho was Bice Lazzari? At the Estorick Collection, in north London, the curator Renato Miracco defends with the greatest frankness this too little-known Italian modernist. 40 works are exhibited, offered almost without commentary; if you want to know anything about Lazzari’s family background, for example, you’ll just have to do your own research. But while such an approach sometimes seems risky – in the gallery it’s hard to get your bearings at first – Miracco’s confidence that Lazzari’s art will ultimately speak for itself is certainly not misplaced.
What an exhibition! Over the years, I find that I have grown quite tired of a certain type of abstraction; whatever it may have meant at first, it seems to me more and more etiolated. Yet here comes Lazzari, making the case for it all again. From discord, whether internal or external, she creates a harmony so exquisite that her work seems at times almost to vibrate. Fiercely evocative as she is of the “dark forces” that drove her as an artist – primal instincts that did not let go even towards the end of her life, when she lost her sight – she is so profoundly and lastingly tranquil. Under their spell, I came to see his paintings as answers to questions I didn’t even know had been asked.
In photography, Lazzari (1900-81) has something of the pixie gaze of Giulietta Masina, the star of Fellini’s 1954 masterpiece The road – or so I thought, struggling to put it into context. Very few artists have captured the uncommon isolation and poverty of post-war Italy as well as Fellini, and it is also this world that forged Lazzari. It was only after the war that she found her way to abstraction, arriving there without the help of teachers or even model artists (Mussolini’s fascists had frowned upon abstraction as an alien disease decadent). “I knew nothing about painting abroad because of the provincial climate of cultural isolation that prevailed at the time,” she later admitted. In the galleries of the Estorick, his work recalls – it is almost too obvious – that of his close contemporaries Agnes Martin and (less often) Richard Diebenkorn, both associated with American Abstract Expressionism. But his minimalism and sense of color were really, it seems, the result of solitary exploration. She traveled alone, at first.
Lazzari was born in Venice, where her parents were wholesalers; she studied to be an artist there and in Florence, the city her family moved to between late 1917 and early 1918. As a woman, upon graduation, she was encouraged to not to paint, but to work in design. But that doesn’t seem to have deterred her. Quite the opposite, in fact. As she said: “When my father died in 1928, I had to face life on a practical level and so, rather than walking around with a painting under my arm, I took up a loom and I started doing applied art in order to continue to live in the climate that I loved so much, namely freedom.At the Estorick are displayed a striped and hand-woven bag and belt of 1929s that still look so good – so boldly modern – they might as well be on sale in 21st century Liberty or Selfridges.
In the 1930s, Lazzari moved to Rome, supporting herself by collaborating with designers, and she would remain there for the rest of her life except for a brief period during the war when she and her husband, Diego Rosa, worked with the architect Gio Ponti in Milan. But if his various projects have often been exhibited – at the Estorick, one of his hand-sewn cushions was placed in a frame, where it looks almost as alluring as his work on canvas – it’s just that. after 1945 that she was able to devote herself to painting.
Before 1964, she mainly worked in the oil industry; after that, having developed an allergic reaction, she switched to acrylic, “a thankless but solid, robust and resistant material” which eventually became her unfailing “friend”. This helped her, perhaps, to express her vision more clearly. As Miracco suggests in a catalog essay, Lazzari’s late “appearances” of color, though ghostly, also have the quality of lightning: a suggestion of infinity. Her austerity à la Agnès Martin is accompanied by a bravery that belongs only to her.
Some paintings are for the mind. But the Lazzari are for the body: you absorb their mood as you would that of someone you’re attracted to, the excitement gradually turning into a sense of absolute rightness. The first works are energetically geometric: in Line abstraction #2 (1925), colored rulers scatter like pick-up sticks; the repeated pattern of continuous rhythm (tempera on card, 1939) could be used as wallpaper. But then things open up. White and Black (oil on canvas, 1954) is deliberately misnamed; its orange-red background is the thing, calling you like the sun. You know before you even read its title that Marine Tale (oil on canvas, 1956) is inspired by boats in a harbour, rectangles of all shades of blue and gray evoking floating sails.
What a strange and elusive formula is that which makes Untitled (tempera and pencil on canvas, 1966) and Acrylic #5 (acrylic on canvas, 1975) so attractive? Why did I find it so hard to turn my back on those barely there lines and circles? This cannot, I am afraid, be easily explained in words. All I can tell you is that leaving this exhibition has caused an overwhelming feeling in me that borders on grief – and that you’d be mad to miss it.