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Who’s Afraid of Drawing? Works on Paper from the Ramo Collection, Estorick Collection review - surprising and rewarding | reviews, news & interviews

Who’s Afraid of Drawing? Works on Paper from the Ramo Collection, Estorick Collection review - surprising and rewarding

Who’s Afraid of Drawing? Works on Paper from the Ramo Collection, Estorick Collection review - surprising and rewarding

Getting up close to the skin of an artist's thinking

Umberto Boccioni Controluce, 1910© Collezione Ramo, Milan

Paper is traditionally the medium though which artists think. Stray thoughts and experiments can be quickly tried out, pushed further or jettisoned. There are no penalties for starting something which goes wrong or transforms into something else because material is cheap, expendable. Erasure or high finish are equally likely, dead ends and new directions begin in the same place.

Lucio Fontana I vigliacchi (Pratelli, Sironi, Ponti), 1933 © Collezione RamoWho’s Afraid of Drawing is the second exhibition of around 60 works from the Ramo Collection, which itself comprises some 600 works on paper by 20th century Italian artists. Many of the artists included in the collection — Burri, Tancredi, Fontana (I vigliacchi (Pratelli, Sironi, Ponti), 1933, pictured right) — are better known for their paintings or sculptures; but as Irina Zucca Alessandrelli, curator at the Ramo Collection notes, the purpose of the collection is not to collect famous works or typical pieces but rather to track artists' progression throughout their careers, to get as close to the skin of artists’ thinking as possible — to see them “naked”.

It is no surprise then that the Estorick Collection’s show throws up some unexpected pieces. Pino Pascali, for instance, is represented by an almost iridescent tempura wash on cardboard stippled with bitumen and petrol, Untitled (Muffa), 1959 (pictured below). Patches of variegated of blue seem to swirl round rust-red clouds, attracted to their movement like storms on Jupiter or amoeba thrashing and replicating in vitro. At first glance it seems quite different to his large, irreverent sculptures — a mere coloured background, an expendable experiment. But the sensation of simultaneously seeing micro- and macroscopically builds to a kind of childish wonder where logic unmoors in favour of dreams. In this sense it’s clearly related to the bold insistence his sculptures make at reconfiguring space and meaning, the impetus is merely translated.Pino Pascali Senza titolo (Muffa), 1959 © Collezione RamoThe medium can also yield some deeply personal insights. In Untitled (Superficie blu), 1967 by Enrico Castellani, dark paper is stippled with impressions made by pressing it over nail-studded wood. It’s the same technique by which he made his large, textured canvases, but on a smaller scale and with an easier medium. While the physical demands of manipulating the canvas this way eventually became impossible as he aged, he was able to work with paper right up to his death. A halo of yellow spray paint, almost unique in his work, traces an idea considered and then rejected. It’s a redundancy which simultaneously indicates his openness to new techniques and materials while implying the other artists with whom he was in contact at the time. The physicality of the man and the milieu in which he was working are there to be read.

Because of the fragility of the works on display, following the exhibition, each will be left to rest for at least a year in the Ramo archives. Many of the pieces were held in suboptimal conditions before their acquisition — a result of often being considered archival pieces rather than part of the artist’s oeuvre proper  — and this has led to some sensitive conservation. Faint folds at the top and bottom of a partially hatched man and a fluidly lined horse (Untitled (Cavallo e cavaliere), 1950) show how Mario Marini put an apparently unfinished ink drawing away; the decision to retain the ghosts of these folds indicates how, conversely, the sense that the sketch had little value is as important to its after-life as its very markings.

Tomaso Binga E id Erba (Alfabetiere Pop), 1976 © Collezione RamoTo think of these pieces merely as rejects is unrepresentative — but they do challenge preconceptions around what is valued in artists’ oeuvres. A striking, almost sentimental sketch of a woman against a window by Umberto Boccioni (Controluce, 1910) (pictured top) bears very little resemblance to the Futurist paintings for which he is known; nevertheless her expression is captured with idiosyncratic chiaroscuro and close attention to the informal incline of her head and snug fold of her scarf. The impression is of comfort and distance — her position is restful but her eyes are inscrutable. It is paired on the opposite wall with another portrait, Untitled, 1974 by Jannis Kounellis, possibly of a woman, scored into a mat of tempura, charcoal and glue. Again, the expression is intriguing, poised between melancholy and hope; again it is a step away from what is considered to be his main work.

Sometimes though, pieces are immediately recognisable. Such is the case with Emilio Isgrò’s Era perenne, 1972 in which all the words on a page are censored or erased except those considered salient — the slightly contradictory “era perenne” or “it was eternal”. Maria Lai’s Diario, 1972, by contrast, creates a craft-based language of stitched marks to commemorate the passage of time but which can be read only in form rather than content. In this beautiful pairing, insight is equally attained through erasure and occlusion — a fit reminder in this highly personal show that what is hidden or considered expendable can and should also draw our attention.

the decision to retain the ghosts of these folds indicates how, conversely, the sense that it had little value is as important to its life as its markings

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