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1918-68: Italian Art, Life and Politics in the Shadow of Fascism

With neo-fascist populism on the rise, two shows in Milan and Florence offer a timely look at a turbulent period in Italian history

My walk to Milan’s Fondazione Prada took me past the Via Balilla – a street named, like several others in Italy, for the fascist youth organization launched in 1926 as a vehicle of cultural indoctrination. Not coincidentally, the street abuts the Parco della Resistenza – a juxtaposition of renewed poignancy these days. Italy’s recent elections saw the regionalist Lega (League) win an unprecedented 18 percent of the vote, with other strains of neo-fascist populism on the rise in and out of parliament. Focusing on art and architecture during fascism’s ventennio nero (black twenty years) – Germano Celant’s ‘Post Zang Tumb Tuuum. Art, Life, Politics: Italia 1918–1943’ affords a sweeping look at a period from which Italian identity, and perhaps that of the West at large, still struggles to liberate itself.

The exhibition’s clunky title risks alienating an audience unfamiliar with its allusion: a poem by futurist ringleader F.T. Marinetti, who duly glorified Italy’s bellicose aggression before and during World War I, lending momentum to Benito Mussolini’s burgeoning regime. Upon entering the galleries, we find Fortunato Depero’s painting of Marinetti in hectoring declamation, his mouth emitting the tri-colour bands of the Italian flag. The show stages far more than a survey of futurist exploits, however. Indeed, Marinetti’s group was just one strain of a vibrant – and relatively pluralist – fascist culture intent upon finishing the work of the country’s belated unification in 1861. If the futurist insistence upon modernity and virility galvanized early fascism’s revolutionary impulses, the regime’s consolidation after 1922 meant that it needed to shore up political legitimacy. Deeming fascism ‘the Church of all heresies’, Mussolini set about mediating between seemingly endless paradoxes: activism and conservatism, populism and elitism, modernity and tradition, coercion and compensation. This entailed assimilating to fascist culture all manner of representations and iconographies, from the Roman empire to rationalist architecture and abstract painting.

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Giacomo Balla, Quadro fascista, also known as Le mani del popolo italiano (The Hands of the Italian People), c.1925, three panels enamel on canvas, each: 1.7 x 1.1 m. Courtesy: © Giacomo Balla by SIAE 2018

More than merely sample this eclecticism, however, the exhibition uses archival photographs and innovative hangings to recreate the circumstances in which the Italian public engaged with images at the time. For example, we find Giacomo Balla’s painting The Hands of the Italian People (1925) mounted on a wall which reproduces its original installation: not as a single panel, but part of a polyptych pulsating with the colours of the Italian flag. Fascism strove to be a secular religion, and Balla’s stylized ‘altarpiece’ gains from this historical reconstruction. Glass cases further flesh out such context, displaying periodicals, pamphlets and other materials, while panels detail historical events, with each room hosting a particular timespan.

Yet Celant refuses a merely chronological – or thematic – grouping of objects. Rather, works appear in rooms dedicated to dates often long after their realization. Visionary plans by the futurist architect Antonio Sant’Elia from 1912–14, for instance, appear next to Giuseppe Terragni’s fascist monument in Como from 1927–29, based upon Sant’Elia’s designs. Giorgio de Chirico’s metaphysical paintings from the early 1910s, meanwhile, are hung in a room dedicated to 1936: the year of the Museum of Modern Art’s landmark ‘Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism’ exhibition. The show thus insists upon the often belated afterlives of images and objects, and the overdetermined nature of their reception. So, too, does it manage to convey the sheer variety of imagery produced in the name of fascism: from canvases by abstract painters enamoured of architectural rationalism to Achille Funi’s neoclassical pomposity. The morbid symbolism of Adolfo Wildt’s sculptures sit in the same room as Depero’s late-futurist tapestries, full of folkish exuberance.

Glimmers of muted anti-fascist resistance appear throughout, from Mario Mafai’s paintings of wilted flowers to Aligi Sassu’s study for the Death of Caesar (1937). Like the bloody civil war which racked Italy from 1943–45, the show’s last room is split into two facing sides. On the right sit various designs for the planned E42 exhibition, a compendium of fascist architectural ambitions; and on the other, paintings of the war’s violence by artists emboldened by the regime’s gradual collapse. Yet this conclusion affords no valedictory ending. One of the exhibition’s most haunting images – for me, at least – was one of its least monumental. A 1924 illustration by Mario Sironi for Popolo d’Italia – a newspaper founded by Mussolini – reveals an innocent citizen impaled by the pen/sword of the ‘anti-fascist press’, blood dripping like ink from its tip – an early, visual quip about ‘fake news’.

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Mario Schifano, NO, 1962, enamel on backed paper, 1.6 x 2 m. Courtesy: Mario Schifano, SIAE 2018; photograph: C.Vannini

In a sense, the Palazzo Strozzi’s ‘Dawn of a Nation’ takes up where ‘Post Zang Tumb Tuuum’ leaves off. Excluding the immediate postwar period, the exhibition focuses on the decade between 1958 and 1968: from the start of the economic boom, to the social upheaval with which the ’60s ended in Italy and elsewhere. Hanging over the show’s entrance is Renato Guttuso’s The Battle of Ponte dell'Ammiraglio (1955) – a painting of a key battle from Italy’s unification, whose prominent red flags double for contemporary communist efforts. In the wake of fascism’s collapse, Guttuso’s realism stood as one of the only modes not tainted by its legacies. The next room makes plain the limitations of socialist realism, however, with Giulio Turcato’s Comizio (1950) transforming Guttuso’s red flags into a series of near-abstract shapes – a gesture which earned the scorn of Italy’s communist leadership. Much of Italy’s artistic culture of the 1950s, in fact, was given over to debates about the relative merits of realism and abstraction. As the exhibition demonstrates, in the 1960s these found themselves supplanted by new aesthetic questions regarding the viability of painting tout court.

It is one of the show’s merits, however, to insist upon the fitful nature of this transition. The conceptual gambits of Piero Manzoni – canning his own shit at the weight of gold, selling his breath in balloons – appear relatively early on in the exhibition. Yet there are no simple or abrupt breaks between media, methods or materials. Indeed, a room dedicated to monochromatic experiments contains not only Manzoni’s legendary achromes, but also Alberto Viani’s largely forgotten biomorphic sculptures in gleaming marble, along with the layered White Transparent Iron II (1966) by Pietro Consagra – an artist generally overlooked in histories of the 1960s. So, too, does the exhibition juxtapose works by Alberto Burri and Lucio Fontana – no less crucial in their rerouting of aesthetics than Manzoni – with informalist paintings by Emilio Vedova and sculptures by Leoncillo, an artist normally associated with a prior generation.

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Michelangelo Pistoletto, Quadro da pranzo [Lunch Painting (Minus objects)], 1965, wood, 200 x 200 x 50 cm. Courtesy: Cittadellarte-Fondazione Pistoletto, Biella

Questions of form duly give way to questions of format. Painted by Jannis Kounellis, the garage door to the Galleria l’Attico in Rome – a venue for increasingly experimental works in the 1960s – epitomizes the mounting ambivalence between painting and objecthood, further underscored by one of Michelangelo Pistoletto’s wooden Minus Objects (1965). Yet curator Luca Massimo Barbero also wisely indicates the lingering dialogue between aesthetic and anti-aesthetic practices: Kounellis’s untitled, gridded painting – dimming artistic gesture to a bare minimum – sits opposite from one of Fausto Melotti’s lyrical, latticed sculptures. Nearby, a small room dedicated to Domenico Gnoli fittingly evokes his paintings as an isolated phenomenon, though his close-up of a bed’s white sheets could just as well have sat across from one of Manzoni’s wrinkled achromes. 

As evoked in television footage at the exhibition’s entrance, Italy’s surging economy witnessed a flood of new commodities by the late 1950s. If anti- and post-fascism had been insufficient to form a new national myth, perhaps neo-capitalism would succeed. Neo-avant-garde artists set about appropriating its forms to ironic ends. A room of philo-pop paintings by Giosetta Fioroni and Renato Mambor reveal Italian artists’ explorations of televised and serialized imagery, while Mario Ceroli’s installation Burri (1966) – with its lone figure based on Cy Twombly, then resident in Rome – sums up the US-Italian exchanges which marked experiments in Rome throughout the 1960s. The wooden homage to Burri anticipates arte povera’s low-tech material strategies, which in several instances intersected with mounting political tensions in ways more nuanced than Mario Schifano’s paintings of communist demonstrators, on display here. If by the 1970s Italy’s artistic tendencies appeared somewhat more pigeonholed – and by the ’80s jolted again by the return of painting – the ’60s proved a more fluid and heterodox time, something the exhibition’s final rooms evoke through a striking economy of means, from Pier Paolo Calzolari’s mixed-media Untitled (1968), to Fabio Mauri’s Screen (1970), and videos by Gino De Dominicis, Mario Merz and others. The lack any female artists aside from Fioroni suggests less the failing of the curator than a lamentable chauvinism in postwar Italian art, though the inclusion of work by Carla Accardi, Marisa Merz or Carol Rama would have further inflected the proverbial re-birth which the exhibition envisions.

‘Post Zang Tumb Tuuum. Art Life Politics: Italia 1918–1943’ runs at Fondazione Prada, Milan until 25 June and Dawn of a Nation: From  Guttuso to Fontana and Schifano is on view at Palazzo Strozzi, Florence until 22 July.

Main image: Renato Guttuso, La battaglia di Ponte dell’Ammiraglio (The Battle of Ponte dell’Ammiraglio), 1955, (detail), oil on canvas, 3 × 5 m. Courtesy: Ministero dei beni e delle attivita` culturali e del turismo and Renato Guttuso, SIAE 2018.

Ara H. Merjian is Associate Professor of Italian Studies at New York University, USA, where he is an affiliate of the Institute of Fine Arts and Department of Art History.

Issue 196

First published in Issue 196

June - August 2018
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