The Italian painter Tullio Crali ought not to be quite such a head-on revelation. After all, his astonishing vision of a solo pilot nose-diving straight into a canyon of skyscrapers, light shattering round his helmeted head, is one of the great masterpieces of futurist art. Yet this riveting survey at the Estorick Collection comes as a surprise from first to last, and not only because it is his first in Britain.

Crali (1910-2000) is a strange case, in life as in art. He grew up in Zadar, on what is now the Croatian coast, but which once belonged to Italy. His family moved to north-eastern Italy in 1922, and it was there, at the age of 15, that he created his first futurist work after reading an article about the movement.

Crali fell hard for the futurist manifesto, with its addiction to motion, speed, modernity and roaring machinery – from the espresso maker to the Gatling gun, the aeroplane to the hurtling motorcar, notoriously described by Marinetti, futurist leader, as “more beautiful than the victory of Samothrace”.

But Crali’s own painting of a car rushing round a bend is more sophisticated than anything by his contemporaries. The vehicle itself is long gone, leaving only the hint of a wheel among magnificent curving vectors of black, cream and red – scintillating traces of its fast departure.

And though he was as committed as his colleagues to the plane as ultimate futurist symbol, Crali’s aeropittura, as they are called, are frequently more original. A terrific painting at the start of this show, called Tricolour Wings (1932), has the plane ascending in sudden stages, scattering its target markings up through the sky like urgent thought bubbles. The plane’s geometry, repeated as if in stop-start motion, perfectly describes the sharp sensation of sudden uplift, catching at each new thermal current. And the sky around it – running all the way from hyperreal clouds to gracious, Titianesque beauty – amounts to a painted collage.

Indeed, though you could never mistake him for anything else, Crali often seems the odd man out of the futurist gang. For one thing, he is a tremendous colourist. Planes rise into moonlight-blue skies or descend through lavender mists. The scarlet stripes of a biplane burn like a cigarette among pearl-grey clouds. And in a work such as Broken Engine, the polished wood of the slowing propeller shines gold against smoke and slate-blue heavens, its deco sheen ineffably glorified.

What is more, there is an undeniably human aspect to Crali’s art. People get into the picture. There are two vast seamen at the prow of a gigantic battleship, trying to steer the ship through a storm with their muckle hands. A female figure raises her shapely arms like elegant wings and the blue air around her vibrates. He can paint the most complicated machinery – steam-driven pistons in a shipyard, or high-rising cranes – and there will be an intimation of human beings moving about below.

Crali himself kept on moving. He left Italy after the second world war for an art school in Paris, remaining there for almost a decade. His drawings of the city describe the brasseries, stairwells and metal chairs of the Jardin du Luxembourg, the shadows along the Seine embankment: Paris, in his words, as “mysterious, deep and moody”. In the 60s he quit Paris for Cairo, then back to Italy, eventually ending up in Milan.

But somehow Crali’s art stands still, as the man does not. In the late 1980s he is still painting aeroplanes as if they were brand new inventions, still showing solo pilots swooping about in glass cockpits. It is as if the international space race never happened.

And his devotion to futurism never seems to waver, even though Marinetti died in 1944 and the movement had its final meeting in 1950. It is hard to decipher Crali’s own politics from anything he wrote or painted; the curators of this show emphasise his belief in futurism as an aesthetic rather than political ideology. But the association with Mussolini’s fascism can hardly be ignored.

So perhaps that is why his later career lies in shadow. The Estorick is showing a number of Crali’s Sassintesi – startling collages of stones, seaweed and assorted bric-a-brac found on beaches and presented upright, on canvases. These appear entirely novel. And every now and again they hit the mark, when Crali takes some sea-carved rock and twists it out of kilter, so that it suddenly looks like a rushing futurist figure.

But he is at his best when most liberated from the movement. One of the most beautiful works in this show is a landscape of Ostia in late evening sun, as the shadows of hill and vale deepen, and rays of dying light arch between earth and sky. Translucent green patches stand for trees and clouds, and everything meets at the vanishing point of the ocean, radiant and serene – perhaps the most beautiful scene Crali ever painted.

Tullio Crali: A Futurist Life is at the Estorick Collection, London, from 15 January until 11 April

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