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Thirty-seven Friends of Kettle’s Yard, under the expert guidance of Louisa Riley-Smith and Martin Thompson, set out in May on an artistic pilgrimage to the Ticino and Turin. The initial objective was to see the area of the Ticino which Ben Nicholson visited repeatedly in the 1920s, and where he lived for a decade in the 1950s. Our journey took us from Cambridge Botanic Gardens at what seemed like dawn to a glorious evening in Ascona, looking down on and across Lake Maggiore to a landscape of forests, mountains and an ever-changing sky. Monte Veritá proved an excellent base. Now a Bauhaus-style hotel with a distinctive and slightly austere chic, it has been the centre for a succession of artistic, philosophical and social experiments for over a century: it wasn’t hard to imagine the ghosts of Rudolf von Laban and Isadora Duncan dancing upon the terraces, or to feel the energy emanating from the geological hotspots in the grounds – although rumours of naked yoga on the rooftop were never substantiated.
The next morning we plunged into a busy but carefully calibrated programme of galleries and foundations. First stop, down the hill to Ascona, and the Museo Communale, hosting a Marcel Duchamp Dada exhibition, commemorating the 1916 performances at the Cabaret Voltaire, Zurich. This was a suitable initiation to the feast of modern and contemporary art which followed at the Ghisla Foundation in Locarno, housed in a striking red cube approached over water, an empathetic setting for the range of treasures it contained. Finally, we visited the Arp Foundation, where we were shown the archive centre in Arp’s drawing studio, and the discreet minimalist gallery at the end of the garden, a perfect match of interior and exterior, where his sculpture seemed an integral part of the surrounding landscape.
This was a full and richly rewarding day – could the quality be sustained? It was. Day two kicked off in the new Lugano arts centre. Time was short, and there was a mind-stretching exhibition, ‘And Now the Good News’, on the newspaper and its relationship with the photographic image, which seemed like the collective story of all our lives. Away we filed, into the basement next door, to view the Olgiati private art collection, brilliantly introduced by the curator. These introductions were a bonus, and added greatly to the experience. Minds stunned by the collective power of the images we had enjoyed, we embarked on a water-taxi to the haven of a lakeside restaurant, for a leisurely lunch of lake perch and Ticino wine in the shade. Back at Mount Truth, a choice of mountain walk or Japanese tea ceremony completed a perfect day. The colours of the sky that evening were unforgettable: no wonder Ben Nicholson stayed so long.
Next morning to Turin, past rice fields studded with egrets, A gung-ho coach driver, happily rearranging the street furniture, deposited us at the central, comfortable Carlina hotel. Almost immediately, we were out on a guided architectural tour, introducing us to the multi-layered city – Roman, baroque, Napoleonic, art-nouveau, Fascist, post-modernist: it was chilling to see how brutal a rationalist architectural programme can be. But Turin seemed remarkably resilient – a city of print and film, with many metres of second-hand bookstalls within the fourteen kilometers of colonnades. It’s also the centre of the slow food movement, and we were able to take advantage of our leaders’ research into this department.
Turin day two, and a 10.30am start – were we becoming soft? But three venues were on the programme, GAM (the contemporary art museum), the Castello di Rivoli collection in a restored palace, and the Agnelli private collection in a Renzo Piano intervention on the top of the former Fiat factory. As a building, GAM was perhaps the least welcoming venue, but the art displayed, arranged thematically under the topics of Infinity, Velocity, Ethics and Nature, would have required several days to absorb. By this stage, the same artists were beginning to recur, Fontana for example, so it may have been a growing familiarity which helped to bridge the gap between eye and object. I recall vividly two huge, brooding Kiefers. There were, too, some startling juxtapositions, such as the three contrasting images of women, executed by Canova, Marina Abramović and Modigliani. On to the Castello, a set of expansive spaces slightly puzzling to navigate, a minor problem which resulted in the occasional serendipitous surprise, as one encountered Maurizio Cattelan’s hanging horse in an otherwise empty baroque chamber. Finally, back in town to the Agnelli treasures, up several vertiginous levels through the shopping centre and past the spiral roadway featured in The Italian Job, to the art of the wealthy: Canaletto, Canova, Balla, Modigliani, and seven works by Matisse. Visually sated, we took refuge in the wonderful food market, Eataly, across the street.
The pace was beginning to relax. On Monday morning we had another walking tour, this time involving a good deal of slow eating and drinking, as well as a Guarini chapel. The rest of the day was free, but the Friends, by now in full training, fanned out across the city to sample the huge range of museums – Egyptian, Cinema, Car – or the cathedral or even the shops, before reforming for an animated group dinner at the Circolo dei Lettori, the literary society of Turin. It was raining, and we splashed back to the hotel to pack our bags, though we were not quite finished. Milan in half a day! Before being let loose near the cathedral, there was one more private visit, to the Fondazione Achille Castiglioni, in the former studio of this famous designer. We were entertained, enlightened and wholly charmed by his daughter and her niece, and introduced to his extraordinary range of work, each domestic item – chair, lamp, cutlery – full of ingenuity, often breathtaking in its simplicity and humour, examples of the designer as artist and thinker but also as joker. His collection of objets trouvés brought Kettle’s Yard to mind, though his pieces tended to be made of wire or wood or tin, rather than stone. This was a very special and memorable conclusion to a superbly organised and stimulating tour.