I took a walk from Canonbury Overground station, along the New River, through Canonbury Square, and into the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art. The weather was autumnal and my feelings were too. In a good way.
I was there to see, on its very last day, Franco Grignani:Art as Design 1950-1990. Grignani was born in 1908 and died in 1999. This exhibition picks up on his career from his early forties but he was active before then too. A brief affiliation with futurism (Filippo Tommaso Marinetti's avant garde artistic and social movement that encompassed architecture, music, film, and literature, as much as it did art) saw him participate, in 1933, in Rome's Great National Futurist Exhibition.
Within a couple of years he'd turned his back on figurative work and was moving towards geometric abstraction, as seems to befit a man who'd studied both mathematics and architecture. He opened a studio in Milan that specialised in design and graphics and from there produced work for famous Italian names like Fiat and Pirelli.
In the late forties he developed a fascination with optical effects, predating the movement that came to be known as op art but not, as the programme suggests, anticipating it as such. Many other artists (Francis Picabia, Victor Vasarely, and M.C.Escher) had already used their illusions to create works that confused, bewildered, frustrated, and delighted our eyes.
Field with Horizontal Notched Variation (1956)
Fluctuating Tension (18) (1965)
Together with some of these peers Grignani took an interest in, and inspiration from, Gestalt psychology. Gestaltism, Wikipedia informs me, is a vague, and mind bogglingly confusing, philosophy of mind that emanated from the Berlin School of experimental psychology, An attempt to understand the laws behind the ability to acquire and maintain meaningful perceptions in an apparently chaotic world.
With its roots in the theories of Immanuel Kant, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and David Hume, and developed by Christian von Ehrenfels and Kurt Koffka as well as phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, it sought to define principles of perception, what John Berger, perhaps, may've called Ways of Seeing.
Those involved used the principles of emergence, reification, multistability, and invariance to explain how we see what we see and how some people may see very different things in the same image as others. Gestaltism was criticised for its lack of thorough research and a woolly preference for theory over data and while this may or may not create problems when applying these methods to psychology it certainly helped Grignani and his peers to push their art forward in new and exciting ways.
Numerical Operative (31/B) (1965)
Structural Progression to the Horizontal Centre (1952)
Modular Combinational (1952)
In 1963 the International Wool Secretariat launched an international competition for a new logo. As a member of the panel Grignani was not permitted to submit an entry but so disappointed was he with the standard of the contenders he eventually submitted a piece under the pseudonym Francesco Soraglio.
Needless to say his Mobius strip like blurring of art and design went on to win the competition and the Woolmark design became the thing that Grignani became most well known for. Creative Review voted it best logo of all time in 2011 (ahead of Deutsche Bank, British Rail, and Michelin) and it has been applied to over five billion products worldwide. It's safe to say the Woolmark logo is better known than Grignani himself.
He also designed magazine covers and the artwork for a selection of Penguin books by science fiction and fantasy authors like Ray Bradbury, Philip K Dick, and Michael Moorcock, many of which are on display in the small selection of vitrines placed in the centre of each gallery in this small, yet enjoyable and informative, retrospective. One that succeeds in fulfilling the remit of the Estorick in that it informs a British audience of an area of modern Italian art that they, hitherto, may have been unaware of. It seems Grignani's detachment from the field was very much the making of him as both an artist and a graphic designer.
Posters for Alfieri & Lacroix (1960-1974)
Recticular Field (DN 909) (1975)
Detachment from the Field (333) (1970)