Crali was surely the quintessential Futurist painter. He embodied everything Futurism stood for; it was coursing through his veins. He was eighteen when he took his first flight in 1928 and the following year he contacted Marinetti, the founder of Futurism, and asked to join the movement. In the same year aeropittura, or aeropainting, was launched in the manifesto, as Perspectives of Flight. Many of his subjects feature flying, speed and machinery, and are amongst his best works, although he also painted landscapes, like the stunning Lights at Ostia at Sunset from 1930, industrial views of docks and cityscapes, and even the odd portrait. Many Italian Futurists supported Fascism in the hope of modernizing a country divided between the rich, industrial north and the poor, rural South. Like the Fascists, the Futurists were Italian nationalists, radicals, proponents of violence, and were opposed to parliamentary democracy. Mussolini loved aeroplanes, and learnt to fly himself. One was vaguely looking for a mention of the radical adventurer, poet, soldier and one-time fighter pilot, Gabriele D’Annunzio, who saw a gap in 1918 in the disputed city of Fiume (now Rijeka in Croatia), and filled it, by setting up the short-lived Italian Regency of Carnaro with himself as Duce. When he was just 8-years-old, Crali played truant and went into Zadar to witness the disembarkation of D’Annunzio’s legionaries, led by him in a little red sports Fiat filled with flowers, like a hearse, which fired up his imagination. During the 1940s, Crali was one of a number of Futurists who accompanied pilots on combat and reconnaissance missions, but the politics of Mussolini were not to his taste, and he held avant-garde cultural events in Gorizia on the Slovenian-Italian border, to where the family had moved. The occupying Nazi authorities saw him as a subversive and were about to deport him. An influential friend was able to stop this, but he was then imprisoned by Tito’s militia in appalling conditions for 45 days, before being liberated by American troops in 1945
Capturing speed was not just an aerial preoccupation. Crali’s Forces of the Bend depicts a red racing car, inspired by his hero, the racing driver Pietro Bordino, hurtling around a corner in a burst of drifting dynamic energy. Sadly, this painting was an homage to Bordino, who was killed two years earlier, when he hit a dog during practice for the Targa Florio. The car crashed into a river and the greatest driver of his time, was thrown from his Bugatti and drowned at the age of 40. But it was in the skies where he painted his most outstanding works. Sadly, not in the show, Crali’s masterpiece, Nose Dive on the City, where the viewer is behind the pilot inside the cockpit of a plane in a vertical dive-bomb is astounding. He was privileged to fly with an Italian aerobatic team called the Frecce Tricolori, literally the Tricolour Arrows, and he was immensely impressed, not just by their uniforms, but ‘by their character, their enthusiasm, their seriousness, their courtesy, their awareness that death was always seated with them at their table. They never spoke of it.’ He produced a gloriously vivid, whirling impression of the Tricolour Festival in the Sky, painted when he was in his late seventies, and he continued to find creative inspiration from the squad, whose training sessions he still attended.
Prior to that, he was offered the post of Headmaster at the Art School in Cairo, where he fired up the international students with innovative ideas and enthusiasm, in the face of stiff oppostion from the old colonial bastions of conservatism. He also loved wandering about the souks in Cairo, visiting mosques, museums and archeological sites, and getting to know leading figures from the cultural scene. The exhibition contains pages from his sketch books, full of drawings and notes, as well as his examples of his Sassintesi, a word coined by his wife Ada, meaning ‘Stone Syntheses’, whereby the colour, texture, translucence and form of stones, pebbles, rocks and general flotsam, were placed in a harmonious composition, but against neutral black or white, but never painterly, backgrounds. He also experimented with ‘cosmic’ painting, fashion, theatre, graphic design and architecture, but it was his aeropaintings, with their soaring beauty and slipstreamed skyscapes, for which he will be best remembered.
Tullio Crali: A Futurist Life
Canonbury Square N1 2AN
Until 11 April 2020