The bilingual title of this exhibition is more than a little unfortunate. The term arte povera, the 1960s Italian movement so christened by the critic Germano Celant, translates as “poor art”. And, as it happens, most of the British imitations of arte povera at the Estorick Collection are very poor indeed. This is a great advert for immediately abandoning Brexit. As part of the EU, we can share in the great artistic heritage of Italy which includes, as this show reminds us, not only Michelangelo Buonarroti but also Michelangelo Pistoletto, not only Caravaggio but also Mario Merz. What can Britain boast? On this evidence, a couple of daft Eric Bainbridge sculptures covered in fur and some solipsistic nonsense by Gavin Turk.
Subtitled Italian influences: British responses, the show claims to chart the influence of arte povera on British art, but the heart and soul of the movement gets lost in translation. The British works look aimless and trivial compared with the pieces here by Pistoletto, Merz and Giuseppe Penone.
At least the exhibition underlines what is so powerful and distinctive about the originals. A drawing using spilt coffee by Penone resembles a satellite image of a river estuary. It speaks of vast and ancient organic processes, of mud, erosion and time. And it’s just a coffee stain. Next to it is Merz’s Cone, of interlaced willow twigs, that evokes the history of architecture and its driving urge, the human longing for security and shelter. These works have a grandeur of imagination and a sense of urgency that even the best British artists here cannot match.
Richard Long’s England 1968 is a photograph of an X shape he made in a field full of grass and daisies by picking the latter away in the shape of a cross. It seems all too English in its uptight reserve. What, if anything, is Long saying? There is so much more feeling and idealism in the Italian artists. Nor do they feel the need to be self-consciously “Italian” in the way that Long is consciously English.
We’re so quirky, so eccentric! We can’t get over our levity. Bainbridge does sculpture as comedy. His 2015 piece The Patination of … is a big Barbara Hepworth-style abstract covered with green-blue faux fur to wittily imitate the oxidation of bronze. Yes, jolly good, but what’s the point of this passionless exercise? And what has it actually got to do with arte povera?
The British artists aren’t just outclassed by the Italians – the connection between most of their works and the arte povera movement completely eludes me. Maybe Ceal Floyer and Lucy Skaer are big arte povera fans but their art owes as much to about 10 other modern art movements as it does to this one.
That may be the fundamental issue the exhibition fails to address. There are no art movements any more. Arte povera was one of the last “isms” of the 20th century. Its influence has long since fused with that of minimalism and conceptualism to create the freewheelin’ art of today. This unfortunate show has other problems, too. Arte povera is a spacious, large-scale enterprise that belongs in warehouses, abandoned factories or dilapidated Italian palaces, but here it is crammed into two small, almost suburban rooms whose weaknesses are sadly exposed.
Yet, for all its faults, the exhibition shows how much we have lost in turning art into mass entertainment. Gavin Turk’s monochrome canvases with his own name pointlessly repeated on them are terrifying images of the emptiness of the 21st-century art industry at its worst. By contrast, Alighiero Boetti’s 1968 drawing Untitled, with its intense array of arcane symbols, investigates the very origin of language. Arte povera was searching for the profound. In Italy 50 years ago, art had a purpose.