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Inspiring, Serene Abstraction from Bice Lazzari's Modernist Pioneer

Bice Lazzari, who was he? Renato Miracco, the director of the Estorick Collection in north London, makes a forceful case for this underappreciated Italian modernist.

There are 40 paintings on exhibit, with nothing in the way of commentary; if you want to learn more about Lazzari's family history, for example, you'll have to conduct your own study. But, although such an approach may seem dangerous at times - it's difficult to gain your bearings in the gallery at first – Miracco's faith in Lazzari's work to speak for itself is certainly not misplaced.

What an amazing show! I've gotten tired of a particular type of abstraction over the years; whatever it meant at the time, it seems to me to be becoming more etiolated.

Lazzari, on the other hand, is making the argument for it all over again. She crafts such beautiful harmony out of conflict, whether internal or external, that her art nearly vibrates at times.

It's also profoundly and enduringly calm, regardless of how strongly it suggests the "obscure forces" that propelled her as an artist - primitive impulses that didn't let up even after she lost her sight at the end of her life. I began to conceive of her paintings as answers to queries I had no idea had been posed while under their influence.

In photos, Lazzari (1900-81) resembles Giulietta Masina, the star of Federico Fellini's 1954 classic La Strada – or so I thought as I struggled to place her in perspective. Few artists caught postwar Italy's unusual solitude and poverty as effectively as Fellini, and this was the milieu that shaped Lazzari as well.

She didn't discover abstraction until after the war, and she did it without the support of professors or even artist role models (Mussolini's fascists saw abstraction as a decadent foreign sickness). "Because of the provincial climate of cultural isolation that prevailed at the time," she subsequently said, "I knew nothing about painting abroad."

Her work evokes the work of her close contemporaries Agnes Martin and (less often) Richard Diebenkorn, both of whom were affiliated with American abstract expressionism, in the Estorick galleries. Her simplicity and sense of color, on the other hand, seem to be the outcome of solo experimentation. At first, she traveled alone.

Lazzari was born in Venice, where her parents worked as wholesalers, and studied painting in both Venice and Florence, where her family relocated in late 1917 and early 1918. After graduation, she was urged to work in design rather than painting since she was a woman. This, however, does not seem to have discouraged her.

In reality, the reverse is true. "When my father died in 1928, I had to face life on a practical level, so instead of walking around with a painting under my arm, I took up a loom and began making applied art in order to continue living in the climate I so adored – namely, freedom," she said.

A striped, handwoven purse and belt from 1929 are on exhibit at the Estorick and look so beautiful – so blatantly contemporary – that they might be sold in a 21st-century Liberty or Selfridges.

Lazzari relocated to Rome in the 1930s, supporting herself by cooperating with designers, and she remained there for the remainder of her life, with the exception of a short spell during WWII when she and her husband, Diego Rosa, worked in Milan with architect Gio Ponti. But, despite the fact that her different projects were often displayed – in the Estorick, one of her hand-sewn pillows has been framed and appears nearly as seductive as her work on canvas – she wasn't able to dedicate herself to painting until after 1945.

She mostly worked in oil until 1964, but after developing an allergic response to it, she moved to acrylic, which she described as "a thankless but strong, sturdy, resilient material" that finally became her "best friend." It may have helped her in more clearly expressing her vision.

Lazzari's late "apparitions" of color, however ethereal, have the aspect of lightning: a hint of eternity, as Miracco says in a catalogue article. Her austerity, akin to Agnes Martin's, is complemented with a bravura that is uniquely hers.

Some artworks are intended to stimulate the mind. But Lazzari's are for the body: you absorb their mood as if it were that of a person you like, with exhilaration gradually giving way to a sense of utter rightness. The early work is furiously geometric: coloured rules scatter like pick-up sticks in Abstraction of a Line No 2 (1925); the repetitive pattern of Continuous Rhythm (tempera on card, 1939) may be used as wallpaper.

Then things start to open up. White and Black (oil on canvas, 1954) is a deliberate misnomer; it's the orange-red backdrop that draws you in like the sun. Marine Tale (oil on canvas, 1956) is inspired by boats in a harbour, with rectangles of every shade of blue and grey evoking bobbing sails, even before you read the title.

What is it about Untitled (tempera and pencil on canvas, 1966) and Acrylic No 5 (acrylic on canvas, 1975) that makes them so appealing? Why was it so difficult for me to move away from these barely visible lines and circles?

I'm worried I won't be able to describe this in words. All I can say is that leaving this exhibition left me with a disproportionately strong sense of loss — and that you would be insane to miss it.

Thanks to at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.

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