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Works of art and mercy

22 November 2013

Abigail Willis sees  sculpture, sacred and secular, by an Italian master of the 20th century


Modern work for an ancient building: Dress the Nude (fragment from the Doors of Orvieto Cathedral), bronze,1962, by Emilio Greco

Modern work for an ancient building: Dress the Nude (fragment from the Doors of Orvieto Cathedral), bronze,1962, by Emilio Greco

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 voluptuous style.

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 satisfaction.

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 ancient cathedral.

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. www.estorickcollection.com

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