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An Italian’s art as design

21 July, 2017 — By John Evans

Franco Grignani, Symbiotic Tensions, 1964, oil on canvas, 96 x 96 cm, Emilio and Veronica Campanile Collection

COVER artwork for Ray Bradbury’s novel The Day it Rained Forever features in a new exhibition at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art.

It’s one of 16 commissioned by Penguin Books in 1969-1970 from Franco Grignani for a mini sci-fi series. Penguin saw him as “a leading figure in the field of experimental photography,” who used “a range of techniques based on standard photography which he then projected and distorted using lenses, shards of glass, pieces of broken mirror, or liquids such as oil and water”.

But there’s much more, and the new show examines the striking works from Grignani (1908-1999), as an influential artist, illustrator and graphic designer “whose dazzling works anticipated Op Art”.

Estorick director Dr Roberta Cremoncini says the artist “occupies the peculiar position of being a figure whose name is relatively little known, but whose extraordinary artistic vocabulary is familiar to millions in the form of his iconic Woolmark logo – undoubtedly one of the most sophisticated and recognisable trademarks of all time”. She notes, too, that he believed art could aspire to more than simple “self-expression” and should engage fully with commerce and industry.

Grignani had shown at the major 1933 Futurist exhibition in Rome but within a couple of years he had abandoned figurative elements and gone for geometric abstraction. These, and a fascination with optical effects, are key and reflect his studies in both mathematics and architecture. By the 1940s he was influenced by Gestalt psychology and the idea that the whole is different from its constituent parts and only explicable as such.

Many major pieces here are from the 1960s, though there are works from 1952, drawings under industrial glass, where distortion is the focus. The range of medium is impressive, from oil to tempera and various other “mixed”.

While some paintings are reminiscent of those by Dutch artist MC Escher (1898-1972), show curator Professor Marco Meneguzzo suggests he had less influence in Italy than elsewhere and stresses the impact in the 1960s of the Arte Programmata or Italian kinetic art movement, which had the backing of Adriano Olivetti of typewriter fame.

Grignani was known for working in relative isolation, prolifically, and experimentally. But, as Professor Meneguzzo says, there was some debt to Futurism: “It is clear that Franco Grignani’s imagery represents one interpretation of dynamism – perhaps the most articulate, and certainly the most structured.” And as distinctions between art and design began to soften, advertising grew more important as a sphere of “creative activity”.

This exhibition includes some Grignani posters for typograph­ical firm Alfieri & Lacroix, magazine covers for Pirelli, Stile Industria and others. As with the Penguin covers, these often use a little colour, unlike the bulk of the major works which are resolutely black and white.

Franco Grignani: Art as Design 1950-1990 is at the Estorick Collection, 39a Canonbury Square, N1 2AN, until September 10. www.estorickcollection.com

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