Antonio Calderara: From Lake Orta | Lisson Gallery

Antonio Calderara, also known as Antonio da Vaciago, lived quietly next to Lake Orta in northern Italy. Born in 1903, he was active from the 1920s, right up to his death in 1978. According to this collection of works, at Lisson Gallery, he specialised in small, jewel-like figurative works on wooden panels early on, eventually moving to almost-abstraction by the end. All his work is linked by a sense of quietude and withholding: quite appropriate for an artist who’s dropped into semi-obscurity.

‘da Vaciago’ is a nickname that plays on Vacciago, a town by the lake, where the artist made his home. The lake’s placid waters were a repeated subject in his work. Early on, Calderara was an admirer of Piero della Francesca, another master of stillness, and there’s also something of a Northern Renaissance saint in his Head of a woman (from 1948), in her slightly elongated proportions, and the sharpness of the colours afforded by the wooden board she’s painted on.

Antonio Calderara - Natura Morta (1950()) Image credit: Studio International

But Calderara’s not a throwback. He gained early instruction from Lucio Fontana (way before the bullet holes on canvas), and was obviously influenced by another Northern Italian recluse of the time, Giorgio Morandi. There’s a still life of cups and vases on show at Lisson (Natura Morta, 1950, above) that tips over from “influenced by” and into “pastiche of”.

From the late 50s onwards though, came a progressive clearing-out of figurative noise. The colours become increasingly desaturated. An untitled work from 1958 (below) shows a transition point: the lake and its shore appear as bands of washy colour, a fingertip touch of figuration only coming from the boat-shaped white streak towards the top of the panel.

Antonio Calderara - Senza Titolo (1958) Image credit: Studio International

By the end, he’d let go entirely. Storie del Lago d’Orta, a series of watercolours from 1976, are arranged on the wall of the final gallery in a grid pattern. This sequence of tiny works on paper begins with a series of rectangles and squares, barely hued, suggesting a horizon - of a lake, presumably.

Each work in the series strips an element away: the final one seems entirely blank. Floating free, towards the infinite. We’re a world away from Calderara’s carefully-worked wooden panels from a few years before.

It’s these late works that Calderara’s mainly been known for - inasmuch as he’s been known at all. The early figurative panels have been borrowed by Lisson Gallery from Calderara’s foundation, which is still active in Vacciago, and have never been seen in public before. By showing us where an artist came from, they make us aware of the length of his journey to where he ended up.

Even though he was always in the same place: painting, by the lake.

Antonio Calderara: From Lake Orta is at Lisson Gallery (London). 06 July - 20 August 2022