Art Beyond Fascism
Running at Florence’s Palazzo Strozzi until the end of January 2013, the exhibition “The Thirties. The Arts in Italy Beyond Fascism” features artists who came to public notice after exhibiting at the Venice Biennales during Italy’s Fascist era. It provides an opportunity to cast a fresh look at the artistic culture of this tragic historical period of European civilisation in the 20th century – one with regard to which there has been little variance of opinion to date among its interpreters and judges.
In their preface to the exhibition catalogue the curators tried to concisely express their vision of art - not through the lens of the socio-economic, ideological or political causes of Fascism, but through the lens of the vitality of a true artistic culture. The historical importance of this culture rests on foundations different from ideological precepts, on professional criteria such as the autonomous worth of the creative personality, and that personality's role outside the constricted temporal boundaries of the history of art. Significantly, the authors of these introductory texts compare this new exhibition with the show "Art of Italy: 1915-1935" (Arte moderna in Italia: 1915-1935) organised nearly 50 years ago by Carlo Ludovico Ragghianti. Work by many participants of that earlier exhibition are featured at this new one as well, only in a different context, among them Giorgio de Chirico, Carlo Carra, Lucio Fontana, Carlo Levi, Massimo Campigli, Marino Marini, Giorgio Morandi, and finally, RAM, Giacomo Manzu, Renato Guttuso and Gino Severini. Today their creative legacy enjoys international renown.
The organisers included works by several non-Italian masters, such as Germany's George Grosz, Otto Dix and Adolf Ziegler, whose art of that period stands in apparent contrast to that of their Italian peers of the same era. We could also imagine side-by-side with the Italians several Soviet artists of the Stalinist era, like Alexander Deineka, Arkady Labas or Alexander Matveev, whose works are arguably located beyond totalitarianism. Thanks to their talent and professional culture they were able to rise above historical circumstances and their ideological environment, and resist the drive towards political enslavement of their personalities. The spiritual stand-off between the artistic intelligentsia and the authorities, however, was nothing like a fight to the bitter end, or open resistance. Perhaps the artists' introspective opposition came, first of all, in the form of their loyalty to their artistic vocation, and the stance of a figure who lives, to quote Alexander Pushkin, according to the principles he has prescribed for himself.
The initiators of the exhibition were faced with a truly modern challenge: they had to introduce opportunities for talking about art in the language of art, without ignoring specific historical facts and events - the realities of direct or indirect pressure from totalitarian state power steering the destinies of individuals. With its chosen arrangement by names and works rooted in comparison of the leading art schools and centres of Italian culture of the 1930s, such as Florence, Milan and Rome, it unleashes our imagination and provides new insights into the not-yet distant past. To achieve this, narrow, dogmatic and consume-rist attitudes to art need to be cast aside.
Looking at the artwork of the period, the viewer becomes aware of the dramatic disconnection between the artists and the authorities. History shows us a paradoxical move away from the entrenched belief that the most significant and important works of art were created on commission for royalty, state institutions, the church or powerful art patrons who ruled through their economic power. If one remembers the "golden age of Dutch art", however, the fairness of such statements becomes questionable: the Dutch artists were working for private customers, ordinary citizens, representatives of the middle classes and guilds - and this did not make their art less valuable when compared to art that served the interests of, and extolled and immortalised, the state.
This phenomenon confirms the logic of the conclusions of the 19th-century Austrian theoretician Heinrich Wolfflin, who argued that the history of art is composed of the histories of individual artists and their works. Certainly, we are talking here not only about genre and narrative preferences of commoners, about catering for their tastes - let's not factor these considerations into the main objectives when considering the Florence exhibition. What we are interested in most of all is not the modern relevance of the concept of the creators of the show from the viewpoint of presentation of the artwork of a certain period or this artwork's conformity (or lack thereof) to the ideological dogmas of a totalitarian state, but rather the mere possibility of the existence of an art reluctant to become a servant of the political regime, the existence of artists who placed themselves on the other side of state power.
The overwhelming majority of the artists featured drew inspiration from the idea of creating art for art's sake - a stance that at all times has been questioned and criticised. Then why does this question again strike a chord with the public, why has it been vested with special meaning? "The Thirties. The Arts in Italy Beyond Fascism" provides a new opportunity to try to answer this question with a view of re-thinking the evolution of artistic culture and the process of the arrival of new historical periods, epoques and styles to replace the old ones. Insights into the principles of this process are anchored not only in the dependence on changes in social formations - from primitive communal, feudal, capitalist systems to a post- industrial era - but also in different approaches to understanding the principles of art. If one takes into consideration the choice of the artists featured at the show and is familiar with each one's oeuvre, one can begin studying this problem using a new approach to such a notion as art for art's sake.
The advantages of such an approach certainly do not invalidate established viewpoints and theoretical formulas. They are pre-conditioned by the necessity of a special liberation from the stereotypes of politico-economic thinking held by a majority of partisan historians and sociologists, which presupposes independent judgement with regard to the timeless spiritual and aesthetic worth and artistic import of the nature of art.
Considering the concept of the show, it's worth looking at two thematically close sculptures, "The Swimmer" by Marino Marini and "Olympic Champion" by Lucio Fontana, both of whom were then, like some others, at a point of artistic maturity. The ideals cultivated by the Fascists should be remembered - the cult of brute force and Aryan spirit, glorification of the superman as the basis of state power. The images created in those years by Marini and Fontana show other characters and destinies and have different strengths; their drama is conveyed visually. The athletes' physical might is highlighted not through a superficial idealisation of abstract heroes but in the shapes of the figures of the men who stepped down from the medal stands, in the sensation of the heavy burden of athletic records and estrangement from the outside world. Made of bronze and recalling somewhat Rodin's "The Thinker", the swimmer is seated in a relaxed pose on a sharp-edged wooden "pedestal" resembling an upturned obelisk. The visual narrative of exhausted strength is rendered through a contrast combination of materials with different mass and physical properties - metal and wood -through the shapes of the figure, modelling of the forms, the angle and silhouette of the sculpture.
In "Olympic Champion", made of painted gypsum, the meaning is conveyed through a different visual vocabulary: this sculpture is marked by a different approach to volume, configuration, and execution of an artistic concept. Painting gypsum, Fontana openly imitated toned bronze, thus lending a certain hardness to the material used - this is also evidenced by the colour of the base, which resembles the structure of foliated rock. The athlete's frontal position vis-a-vis the viewer, his pose and lusty forms distinguish this piece from Marini's work, although "Olympic Champion" somewhat recalls Ossip Zadkine's works.
Giacomo Manzu's bronze "David" also deserves attention: the figure of a boy sitting on his haunches, eyes half-closed, with the lean hands of a blind man that seem to explore the space in front of him by touch, and without any ties to his mythical prototype, is a truly tragic image. The mere fact that such a work was created in Fascist Italy seems incredible. The brilliantly executed stooped figure of the child and the chiaroscuro modelling of the shapes of a round sculpture are fascinating for its artistic perfection and Manzu's consummate artistry.
We are no longer interested in when and for what purpose this heart-wrenching and tragic image was created. Some such qualities also distinguish Arturo Martini's terracotta image of a young woman lying in the sun - the work of a sculptor fascinated with elaborate angles and the movement and interplay of light and dark. Adolfo Wildt's sculpture, by contrast, is a piece made of gilded marble, the portrait of a famous aviator who flew from Italy to Brazil, who is represented with a forceful, fierce look in the empty sockets of his eyes that looks like a precursor of the ideology-driven aesthetics of totalitarian art of the Fascist period. Such counterpoints are vital for highlighting the show's conceptual edge.
Touching on the paintings, perhaps Renato Guttuso's "Friends in the Studio" and "Portrait of Guglielmo Pasqualino, Surgeon" are the first pieces that correspond with this reviewer's subjective viewpoint. These works are representative of the ideas enabling a discussion about art in the language of art - the ideas that dominate the concept of the exhibition. Artistic imagination, the feeling of colour and form, drawing and composition, space and light are the qualities that enable us to see and feel paintings, statues and drawings not through the lens of narratives and motifs, themes and genres, but in terms of craftsmanship -something which can be influenced only by talent and professional mastery. We have to disengage ourselves from external circumstances which lure us away from the problem of pure perception and from understanding the viability of art irrespective of time period, instead of within a specific historical context.
It would be apt to recall the theoretical musings of the brilliant Russian theoretician and art critic Nikolai Punin, who said that texture was nothing more than a visually captured first impression produced by a painting, looking at which, if one closes one's eyes immediately after seeing it, one retains in memory the essence of the work, which defines the notion of texture. Perhaps at this point we see the beginning of the process of sensual perception of a work of art not as an aggregate of descriptive, historical and literary features, but through experiencing and understanding the materials, means and techniques of artistic expressiveness.
We can see this in Guttuso's and other artists' pieces, as in the picturesque vibrancy of colours, distribution of colour patterns inside the compositional structure of Guttuso's "Friends in the Studio", its tone values and, finally, the railing of the bed on which three figures are depicted crosswise in varying poses - the railing marks off the boundary beyond which the dramatic depth takes on a special psychological colouration. Such soulfulness is achieved here first of all by artistic means that do not require any interpretation of the figures' characters and destinies within the context of a historical situation. These qualities also define the sensual magnetism of "Portrait of Guglielmo Pasqualino, Surgeon". The nervous dynamics of the picturesquely arranged smooth folds on the doctor's gown, the lines of the hands and their sensory motion, the interplay and contrasts of colours, and the doctor's face, frozen within this agitation, concentrated and directed at a strange observer - this face beside a carnival mask conveys Guttuso's take on the portrait of those tragic years.
Carlo Levi's "Portrait of de Pisis with a Parrot", a piece full of irony bordering on grotesque, needs to be explored within the same context, but on a different emotional-psychological level. The painting "Little French Soldier", featuring the same man, de Pisis, whom Levi represented in a completely different visual style, produces a different impression, thanks precisely to the colour scheme. In this piece, too, the main criteria for fathoming meaning are not descriptive details and attributes of a specific time period, but their artistic interpretation. In "Female Figure Rising from the Grave", a large monumental drawing with coal by Carlo Carra, the narrative qualities of the imagery and the symbolical, metaphorical essence have the same astonishing expressiveness as that lent to the graphic, fresco-like, metaphorical piece by the material itself: the greasy and flaky coal on thick, ochreous, sugar paper; the rigid structure of the drawing underlying the irreal space in which the female figure appears.
Massimo Campigli's small piece "The Gypsies" is an equally compelling example of pure artistry at play. The character of the composition, pictorial surface and visual salience make this oil painting on canvas fit for enlargement on a considerable scale, provoking the mind into projecting it onto a larger surface, almost like a wall painting. Mario Tozzi originally uses the qualities of the material - in this case, too, oil and canvas - in a small painting "Figures with Architecture", which, when printed without an indication of its size, creates the impression of a monumental and large image. Here, too, such an impression is initially generated not by the piece's narrative but by the artist's technical skills, the harmony of proportions and the vision of space and light and dark arrangements. Or, for instance, the still-lifes of Giorgio Morandi, which in effect represent self-portraits of the artist's states of mind. For several decades he painted the same household objects, but the colour gradations, changes in the degree of illumination of the pictorial spaces, the habitual placement of objects in frontal position in relation to the viewer create an emotional saga about Morandi's life. Similarly, paintings by Gabriele Mucchi, Giovanni Colacicchi, Gino Ghi-ringhelli, Vinicio Paladini, Pippo Rizzo, Gigi Chessa and Mario Sironi offer opportunities to consider the characteristics of art for art's sake, and for conversation about art in the language of art. The exhibition included sections devoted to design and the applied arts, as well as documents and materials related to the history of architecture, cinema and photography of that period - an array of artefacts that provide viewers with the opportunity to form an objective panoramic view of the times and to make their choice.
The oeuvre of some of the featured artists has long become part of the history of 20th-century world art. Some remain within the century's temporal boundaries, others have progressed into the future -this latter group includes, in our opinion, Lucio Fontana and Carlo Carra, Marino Marini and Giorgio Morandi, Henry Moore and Francis Bacon, Wassily Kandinsky and VladimirTatlin, Joseph Beuys and Oskar Schlem-mer, Henri Matisse and Georges Henri Rouault, Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro. We may be underestimating other artists, whose artistic legacies we still view through the lens of historical stereotypes. The exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence will, I hope, help modern art historians and critics to further disengage themselves from the spell of literary illusions.