IT HAS been 15 years since the Estorick Collection of Modern
Italian Art opened its doors, showcasing the likes of Modigliani,
Balla, Boccioni, and Morandi in its elegant Georgian premises.
Strangely, however, until now the gallery has never hosted a
sculpture exhibition - an omission that has been rectified with
"Emilio Greco: Sacred and Profane".
Sicilian-born Greco (1913-95) is best known for his sensual
nudes, a clutch of which are duly included here (presumably
providing the "profanity" alluded to in the title). In reality, the
work is entirely decorous, including character- ful portrait busts
of sitters such as Eiko and Maria Baldassarre, as well as
full-length pieces such as the charming (but modestly clad)
Small Bather, executed in Greco's characteristically
His preoccupation with the female form notwithstanding, Greco
also received some high-profile ecclesiastical commissions during
his long career, including a monument to Pope John XXIII for the
Vatican, and a set of monumental bronze doors for the façade of
Orvieto Cathedral. Preparatory works for these provide some of the
show's "sacred" counterbalance.
Greco described the Orvieto commission as the "most important
event in my life"; but its progress was far from smooth. He was
commissioned in 1959, but did not start work until 1962, when the
subject - the Corporal Works of Mercy - was finally decided to his
For Greco, these "capital commands of human behaviour" offered
an eternal theme, not one solely connected with the Church. Often
working 20 hours days (in the process sustaining a debilitating arm
injury), Greco completed his doors in two years, only to have to
wait a further six to see them hung - a delay caused by an outcry
about the suitability of incorporating modern art within the
Such fears turned out to be unfounded, and, in any case, as his
1947 bronze of a seated wrestler shows, Greco's work was steeped in
the classical art of the Etruscans, Greeks, and Romans. His
bas-relief doors for Orvieto also recall Renaissance masters such
as Donatello, while introducing a robust modern sensibility, in
details such as the heavily scored abstract backgrounds against
which the mercy narratives were placed. A bronze fragment of the
"clothe the naked" panel suggests - albeit on a small scale - how
Greco's technique created a richly textured surface for the
cathedral's 23-feet-high central doors.
This strong sense of depth and volume was not confined to his
sculpture. Even Greco's works on paper feel three-dimensional: the
artist uses a bold cross-hatching technique to build images that
seem to rise out of the paper itself, as in a powerful, undated,
drawing of the crucifixion.
For Greco, the human being was "the loftiest expression of
nature", and it was at the heart of all his work. This
retrospective celebrating of the centenary of Greco's birth
confirms the artist's absolute reverence for the human form - be it
the sensuous curves of a crouching nude, the dynamism of a
bullfight, or the tender acts of mercy depicted at Orvieto.
"Emilio Greco: Sacred and Profane" runs at the Estorick
Collection of Modern Italian Art, 39a Canonbury Square, London N1,
until 22 December 2013. Phone 020 7704 9522.