Mario Sironi was a poet of the grimy and growing suburbs of Milan. In the inter-war years, he made a series of small, thickly worked 'Urban Landscapes', close-cropped, bleak city scenes of factories, smokestacks and apartment blocks.
There are two really fine examples in the Estorick's latest show, subtitled 'Modern Works from the Pinacoteca di Brera'. This is the first time many of these paintings and sculptures, donated by collectors Emilio and Maria Jesi, have been shown outside of Italy. And it's nice to see them outside of their cramped and dingy corridor, tacked on to the back of the Milanese gallery's otherwise very grand, stony rooms.
The collectors' relationship with Sironi is complicated: Emilio Jesi was a dedicated anti-Fascist, and Sironi became more and more involved with the Mussolini regime during the 1930s. By the following decade, his wartime work turned almost unreadably dark and stodgy. Sironi's juvenilia is also derivative, flirting with Futurist and Metaphysical tropes. But none of that matters: these little city scenes are what will last.
By the time he started painting the new city suburbs, Sironi was becoming closely associated with the Novecento artists - who set themselves apart from their Futurist siblings with their respect for the past, and their ambivalence for the new.
Perhaps that's why, in contrast to his less conservative peers, Sironi saw new urban development, and new technology, as a threat. This is clear in Urban Landscape with Truck (1919/20). It's early evening in the city, with the sky a slightly chemical turquoise. In the background, there's a crane, and three monolithic buildings.
In the foreground, a sinister silhouetted truck, moving right to left. And, in the middle, a big, blank, dark brown wall. These are the bleak industrial outskirts. The buildings, the wall, the truck, are all new. But they already show signs of decay. The windows are black rimmed, maybe with soot. The truck is a shadow.
The sense of alienation is still stronger in Urban Landscape with Chimney (1930). It's tempting to see this as the moment that Sironi slipped away into his dark political beliefs. There is nothing that isn't man-made in this small painting, but no sign of people. The residential block in the foreground is caked in soot. The soot's source is in the background, with four smokestacks, the most distant belching a charcoally stream. The brickwork on the three largest smokestacks is almost obliterated by still more grime.
The sky is a sick beige; the sign by the railway splitting the residential from the industrial is smudged, illegible. Even the source of light (from the moon?) is a man-made yellow, rather than silver. The railway tracks catch this light with a demonic glitter.
It's not all doom and gloom at the Estorick, though. Elsewhere in the show, there are dreamy metaphysical tableaux from Carlo Carrà, a lovely pair of Giorgio Morandi still lives, and - as if in riposte to Sironi's gloom - arch-futurist Umberto Boccioni's 1908 self-portrait, with the artist standing proudly, in his smart coat, in front of some shiny new apartment buildings, one still wrapped in scaffolding. The new suburbs haven't yet acquired their sooty coat. There are no trucks on the road. It's a sunny day.
The Enchanted Room: Modern Works from the Pinacoteca di Brera is at Estorick Collection (London). 24 January - 8 April 2018.