One of the key figures of twentieth-century Italian photography, Giuseppe Cavalli (1904-1961) is surprisingly little known outside his native country. Reacting against the rhetorical and overblown imagery of the Fascist era, Cavalli’s work is imbued with the intimate poetry of daily life. Best known for his subtle studies of reclining nudes and everyday objects such as bottles, glasses and candlesticks, Cavalli in fact steadfastly subscribed to the principle that ‘the subject has no importance at all’ in the work of art – and indeed such elements were simply vehicles for his true subject: light. This exhibition of delicate and timeless images from the Prelz Oltramonti Collection spanned the artist’s brief career, which ended prematurely with his death at the age of only fifty-seven.

Cavalli was born in Italy’s southern Puglia region, and until 1935 practised as a lawyer. Having purchased his first camera – a second-hand Leica – Cavalli settled in the seaside town of Senigallia on the Adriatic coast and thereafter devoted his life entirely to photography. In 1947 he founded a group named La Bussola (The Compass). Its members aspired to the attainment of a high degree of formal purity in their work and shared a conviction as to the essential ‘uselessness’ of art – a position that contrasted markedly with the dominant post-war Neo-realist aesthetic, which stressed the importance of the artist’s engagement with social and political themes. Cavalli expounded the group’s aesthetic in a number of theoretical essays that were published in the most important Italian photographic journals of the day, and also actively promoted photography exhibitions and competitions. In 1953 he founded the Misa group, exerting a formative influence on the young Mario Giacomelli.

Cavalli is undoubtedly best known for his ‘high-key’ style, characterised by the use of bright, even lighting to minimise shadow. This technique endowed his work with a dreamlike atmosphere and an extraordinary subtlety of tone that was further accentuated by his predilection for translucent and diaphanous materials, but also evokes that intense heat and luminosity characteristic of the Mediterranean region. By the early 1950s Cavalli’s work incorporated a much more varied tonal range, and by the end of the decade he had begun to experiment with colour photography, although this exhibition focused solely on his more characteristic black and white imagery.

Master of Light offered visitors the opportunity to experience the quietly intense work of this visionary artist in the tranquil rooms of the Estorick Collection, as well as images by a number of his contemporaries and followers such as Giacomelli, Luigi Veronesi, Piergiorgio Branzi and Pietro Donzelli. It also represented the latest in a series of exhibitions showcasing the work of some of the most important Italian photographers of the twentieth century.

Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau on the set of La Notte by Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960 © Sergio Strizzi Photography

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Pasquarosa, Vase of Flowers, c. 1916

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