Italy, we all know, was the cradle of the Renaissance. The hold it has exerted over the art of other countries has, however, endured for more than five centuries. Notably, in the last 100 years, Italy has represented alternately a call to order, and a point of departure for British painters, and the extent of this influence is currently examined in an exhibition at Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum. That it was not all one-sided is reflected in the show’s title, ‘Two-Way Traffic”. Principally, though, the exhibition focuses on the pale tonalities of Colin Gill, W T Monnington, William Coldstream and Winifred Knights. The debt of everyone to Piero della Francesca and Botticelli is immediately evident, particularly in Gill’s monumental 1920s Allegory L’Allegro, an unabashedly Bohemian, John-esque fête-champêtre.
Other themes include Sickert’s fascination with Venice and Nevinson’s flirtation with Futurism, while a number of artists – Roger Fry, Edward Wadsworth and Edward Bawden among them – appear to have been included for the most tenuous reasons, or merely by virtue of the fact that they happen to have painted an Italian scene. The range is also too over-ambitious, and it is a hard task to attempt to explain such diverse topics as the impact of British Post-Impressionism on Italy, the reception of Italian modernism in Britain during the 1920s and the Situationist preoccupations of Ralph Rumney in a 40-page catalogue.
Nevertheless, this is an interesting show which, had it been given a little more funding and a Tate-sized catalogue, would have made a substantial exhibition. As it is, it is still worth visiting, if only for the chance to wallow in the rarely seen langour of Gill and Monnington, each of whom is long overdue for individual appraisal.