Bice Lazzari: Modernist Pioneer review – exquisite, tranquil abstraction that draws you in

Who was Bice Lazzari? At the Estorick Collection in north London, the curator Renato Miracco puts the case for this too little-known Italian modernist with utmost straightforwardness. On display are 40 works, offered with next to nothing by way of commentary; should you want to know something of Lazzari’s family background, for instance, you’ll just have to do your own research. But if such an approach seems, at times, on the risky side – 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 surely not misplaced.

What an exhibition! Down the years, I find that I’ve grown pretty weary of a certain kind of abstraction; whatever it might have meant at first, it seems ever more etiolated to me. Yet here is Lazzari, making the case for it all over again. Out of discord, whether internal or external, she creates a harmony so exquisite, her work seems at moments almost to vibrate. However fiercely suggestive it is of the “obscure forces” that drove her as an artist – primal instincts that would not let up even towards the end of her life, when she lost her sight – it’s also deeply and enduringly tranquil. Under their spell, I came to think of her paintings as answers to questions I did not know had even been asked.

In photographs, Lazzari (1900-81) has something of the elfin look of Giulietta Masina, the star of Fellini’s 1954 masterpiece La Strada – or so I thought, struggling to put her in context. Very few artists captured the uncommon seclusion and poverty of postwar Italy as well as Fellini did, and this was the world that forged Lazzari, too. Only after the war did she find her way to abstraction, arriving there without the help of teachers or even of artist role models (Mussolini’s fascists had frowned on abstraction as a decadent foreign disease). “I knew nothing about painting abroad because of the provincial climate of cultural isolation that held sway at the time,” she later admitted. In the galleries at the Estorick, her work calls to mind – it’s almost too obvious – that of her near contemporaries Agnes Martin and (less often) Richard Diebenkorn, both of whom were associated with American abstract expressionism. But her minimalism and her sense of colour really were, it seems, the result of solitary exploration. She travelled 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 to which her family moved between late 1917 and early 1918. As a woman, she was encouraged, on graduation, not to paint, but to work in design. But this seems not to have disheartened her. Quite the opposite, in fact. As she put it: “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 a loom and started making applied art in order to continue living in the climate I so adored – namely, freedom.” On display at the Estorick are a striped, handwoven bag and belt from 1929 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 there she would remain for the rest of her life, save for a brief period during the war when she and her husband, Diego Rosa, worked with the architect Gio Ponti in Milan. But though her various projects were often exhibited – at the Estorick, one of her hand-sewn cushions has been placed in a frame, where it looks almost as beguiling as her work on canvas – it wasn’t until after 1945 that she was able to devote herself to painting.

Before 1964, she worked mostly in oil; after that, having developed an allergic reaction to it, she switched to acrylic, “a thankless but strong, sturdy, resilient material” that eventually became her firm “friend”. It helped her, perhaps, to more clearly express her vision. As Miracco suggests in a catalogue essay, Lazzari’s late “apparitions” of colour, however ghostly, also have the quality of lightning: a suggestion of infinity. Her Agnes Martin-like austerity is matched with a bravura that is all her own.

Some paintings are for the mind. But Lazzari’s are for the body: you absorb their mood as you would that of a person to whom you’re attracted, excitement gradually shading into a feeling of absolute rightness. The early work is energetically geometric: in Abstraction of a Line No 2 (1925), coloured rules scatter like pick-up-sticks; the repeated pattern of Continuous Rhythm (tempera on card, 1939) might work as wallpaper. But then things open up. White and Black (oil on canvas, 1954) is wilfully misnamed; its orange-red background is the thing, calling you like the sun. You know even before you read its title that Marine Tale (oil on canvas, 1956) is inspired by boats in a harbour, rectangles of every shade of blue and grey conjuring bobbing sails.

What strange and elusive formula is it that makes Untitled (tempera and pencil on canvas, 1966) and Acrylic No 5 (acrylic on canvas, 1975) so alluring? Why did I find it so unexpectedly hard to turn my back on these barely-there lines and circles? This cannot, I’m afraid, be easily explained in words. All I can tell you is that leaving this exhibition induced in me a disproportionate feeling that was close to grief – and that you would be completely mad to miss it.

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