Massimo Campigli, Six Women, 1945


Through the works in the Estorick Collection we can undertake a captivating journey through the world of portraiture. In this article, we will explore the unique and diverse portraits on display, shedding light on the artists, styles and narratives that make this collection a rich tapestry of human expression.

Notable Portraits

Due Donne (Two Women),1959 by Massimo Campigli

Created in 1959, this painting is a prime example of Campigli’s unique style, characterised by its simplified forms and emphasis on essential features.

Massimo Campigli, Two Women (Due donne), 1943

Campigli presents two female figures in a composition that captures the essence of elegance and simplicity and the forms of the two women are instantly recognizable as a hallmark of his work. Their features are rendered with a sense of minimalism, reducing complexity while preserving the subjects’ essential characteristics. The muted colour palette, often consisting of soft greys, warm browns, and muted reds, enhances the overall sense of refinement and sophistication.

Campigli’s discovery of Etruscan art at the Villa Giulia, Rome, in 1928 was a revelation and he began to reappraise his approach. Increasingly, his palette grew paler and he used dry, fresco-like paint. By the 1940s a world occupied by women was his only subject matter, except when he made the occasional self-portrait. Campigli exhibited with the Novecento group from 1926 and also developed close links with the ‘Italiani di Parigi’ during the 1930s, with whom he shared a strong interest in the antique. He also had an interest for the Italian artistic tradition and his works are a constant look at the past which contrasts with the Futurist works from the collection.

Dr François Brabander (1918) by Amedeo Modigliani

Modigliani’s portraiture continues to captivate art enthusiasts and remains a testament to the enduring allure of simplicity, elegance, and the exploration of the human spirit through art. His unique style has secured his place as one of the most celebrated portrait painters of the 20th century. Modigliani’s distinctive style, characterised by elongated forms and a sense of melancholy, is evident in this portrait of Franciszek Brabander. The subject’s introspective gaze and the artist’s characteristic use of line and colour capture the soulful essence of the figure.

Amedeo Modigliani, Dr François Brabander, 1918

Franciszek Brabander was born in Krakow in 1887. He studied medicine in Paris around 1910, where he married the sister of Anna Zborowska, the wife of Modigliani’s dealer, Leopold Zborowski. Brabander volunteered as a doctor during World War One and visited the Zborowskis in Nice while on leave in 1918. There, Modigliani painted him in his military jacket. Following the war, Brabander qualified as a doctor and was granted French citizenship.

Brabander lived happily in Paris with his wife and two children until Germany invaded France in 1940. Three years later, having joined the Resistance, he and his family were arrested by the Nazis. His son Romuald survived the war, but his wife and daughter were murdered soon after arriving at Auschwitz. Brabander himself was initially deported to Sachsenhausen, where he worked as a doctor, but was moved to Bergen-Belsen in April 1945, where he perished the following month. His grave lies next to those of his sister and brother-in-law in Père-Lachaise Cemetery.

Modigliani’s portrait is the only known painted memorial to this compassionate and brave man.

Umberto Boccioni. Portraiture Contrast

Modern Idol, 1911 and Study for ‘Empty and Full Abstracts of a Head’, 1912

Modern Idol is a prominent work by the Italian Futurist Umberto Boccioni. Created in 1911, this painting is a prime example of Boccioni’s ground-breaking contribution to modern art.

Umberto Boccioni, Modern Idol, 1911

Modern Idol is celebrated for its dynamic and vibrant qualities. Boccioni skillfully conveys the sense of transformation in the modern world, a central theme in Futurism.

This iconic, arresting image illustrates a passage from the 1910 ‘Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting’: “The human face is yellow, red, green, blue, violet. The pallor of a woman gazing in a jeweller’s window is more intensely iridescent than the prismatic fires of the jewels that fascinate her like a lark.” The specific context of this observation may be hinted at here by the earring that emerges out of the shadow cast by the brim of the figure’s hat – and even alluded to by the electric streetlights behind her, which resemble huge glowing pearls. This interpretation makes the woman’s penetrating gaze less confrontational than it may initially appear, yet the image remains ambiguous, enigmatic and decidedly unsettling in character. The female presence in Umberto Boccioni’s oeuvre tends to be restricted to family members – most notably, the artist’s mother – or other demure figures engaged in domestic tasks such as sewing or reading. However, around the time of his involvement with Futurism other, more psychologically complex, female protagonists appear in his works.

In 2015, it was discovered that Modern Idol was painted on a panel of linden wood, assembled in a similar manner to supports typical of the sixteenth century. Three vertical boards are glued together at their edges and held in place across the rear by two tapered battens of fir-tree wood slipped into dovetail-shaped slots. This type of panel is highly unusual for a painting of 1911, and was certainly not chosen for economic reasons, being far more costly than a canvas and requiring specialised carpentry. One might logically suppose that the artist reused an antique panel, perhaps to reinforce the Futurist agenda (modernity annihilating the antique). However, investigations have not revealed definite traces of any previous image, although scrape marks on a very radio-opaque surface beneath the outer paint layers are clearly evident in X-rays. To clarify the situation, several micro-samples of wood were extracted from the rear of the panel, as well as from the battens, for dating with the Carbon-14 method. Results placed the cutting of the wood from the live tree in an interval somewhere between the second half of the eighteenth and the first decades of the twentieth centuries, thereby confirming the hypothesis that the support is not antique. Ultimately, this panel – and Boccioni’s reasons for using it – remain something of a mystery.

This painting was one of 24 works purchased by Dr Borchardt when the Futurists’ first major international exhibition toured to Berlin in the spring of 1912.

Created in 1912, Study for ‘Empty and Full Abstracts of the Head’ is a study that explores themes central to the Futurist movement, including the representation of the human form, the fusion of Cubism and abstraction.

Umberto Boccioni, Study for ‘Empty and Full Abstracts of a Head’ (Studio per ‘Vuoti e
pieni astratti di una testa’)
, 1912

This powerful drawing relates to one of Umberto Boccioni’s lost Futurist sculptures, which explored the relationships between the concave and convex forms of a human face. A ‘portrait’ of sorts, its model was the artist’s mother, Cecilia Forlani, who was photographed in front of this preparatory drawing in Boccioni’s studio in 1913. The majority of Boccioni’s three-dimensional works were destroyed in 1927, although a handful remain, including the iconic Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913). In 2019, digital artists Anders Rådén and Matt Smith used surviving images of Empty and Full Abstracts of a Head as the basis for a highly accurate 3D print of the work, which was displayed as part of an exhibition held at the Estorick Collection.

Death of a Hero (Eroe proletario), 1953 by Renato Guttuso

Renato Guttuso, Death of a Hero (Eroe proletario), 1953

This work epitomises Renato Guttuso’s thematic preoccupations and vigorous stylistic approach. The red flag in the background identifies the figure’s Communist affiliations, while his status as a martyr is emphasised by Guttuso’s allusion to the foreshortened pose of Mantegna’s Dead Christ. Throughout his life, Guttuso championed the notion that art should be of its time, accessible to all and, above all, ‘useful’. Picasso’s Guernica (1937) was an important early touchstone for him, and there are frequent echoes of the Spanish painter’s imagery in his own work. Guttuso’s efforts to use art to prompt political or social change were recognised during his lifetime. During the 1970s he was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize at a major retrospective of his work in Moscow and was also made a Senator of the Italian Republic. Long known as Death of a Hero, the title Proletarian Hero appears on the rear of the canvas.

The portraits on show at the Estorick Collection testify to the diversity of Italian art in the 20th century. From the elegance of Modigliani to the dynamism of the Futurists and the enigmatic quality of Campigli’s imagery, these works capture the essence of their time while remaining timeless in their appeal.

In-depth reading

Modigliani: A Unique Artistic Voice

Renato Guttuso: Painter of Modern Life

Further Teachers' Resources

- The beginning of Futurism Read more
- Futurism Emerges Read more
- Capturing Motion Read more
- Giorgio Morandi Read more
- Metaphysical Marvels Read more
- Simultaneity and Synaesthesia Read more
- Shaping Tomorrow Read more

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