Gastone Medin’s set design for L’ultima avventura (The Last Adventure; Dir. Mario Camerini, 1932) Photograph: attributed to Aurelio Pesce, courtesy Fondazione Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia – Cineteca Nazionale

The portrayal of modernist design through the medium of cinema is undoubtedly one of the more niche themes to feature in recent London art exhibitions. Yet it is a theme that fits well with the remit of the Estorick Collection, the modern Italian art gallery that is home to the new show called Rationalism on Set: Glamour and Modernity in 1930s Italian Cinema.

In the 1930s, art and design were both in the throes of revolution: cinema was establishing itself as a powerful new cultural medium with the talkie had just having been invented, and the radically new minimalist style of modernism had only recently emerged in full-blown form in Europe and North America.

Carlo Levi and Enrico Paulucci’s set design for Patatrac (Dir. Gennaro Righelli, 1931) Image courtesy Collezione Museo Nazionale del Cinema, Turin

The look we now know as ‘mid-century modern’ was still very much an acquired taste, and for many ordinary Italians, the sleek designs of a Bauhaus chair or a Giuseppe Pagano building must have seemed completely alien. What better means of interpreting this new aesthetic than cinema?

Another of Medin’s set designs, for La casa del peccato (The House of Sin; Dir. Max Neufeld, 1938). Credit as top image

The Cines film studio led the way. Thus we have the stylish interiors of sets for films such as Patatrac (1931), Due cuore felice (1932) and L’ultima avventura (1932) popularising modernist design principles.

Film was also a medium that designers and artists themselves – Giuseppe Capponi, Carlo Levi, Enrico Paulucci – could use to explore the lived reality of their functionalist creations in a controlled environment.

The exhibition, curated by architect Valeria Carullo, is based largely on archival imagery, mainly photos of film sets. It would perhaps have benefitted from more of the actual furniture and other items, displayed as a reproduction set. As it is, the show is mainly of historical and sociological interest, though it does shed a fascinating light on the evolution of a style at a key point in 20th century history.


Rationalism on Set: Glamour and Modernity in 1930s Italian Cinema is on at the Estorick Collection (39a Canonbury Square, N1 2AN) until 24 June