Italian Modern Art in the Age of Fascism
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Italian Modern Art in the Age of Fascism

Anthony White

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eBook - ePub

Italian Modern Art in the Age of Fascism

Anthony White

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About This Book

This book examines the work of several modern artists, including Fortunato Depero, Scipione, and Mario Radice, who were working in Italy during the time of Benito Mussolini's rise and fall. It provides a new history of the relationship between modern art and fascism. The study begins from the premise that Italian artists belonging to avant-garde art movements, such as futurism, expressionism, and abstraction, could produce works that were perfectly amenable to the ideologies of Mussolini's regime. A particular focus of the book is the precise relationship between ideas of history and modernity encountered in the art and politics of the time and how compatible these truly were.

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Arte europea

1 Introduction

Modernism, Fascism, and Cultural Rebirth

Two naked men are walking along a path which leads away from the viewer (Figure 1.1 and Plate 1). A lone figure in the background, who provides the only relief within the otherwise stark and overheated landscape, bears witness to the progress of the painting’s protagonists. As they advance into the dark chasm at the center of the composition—which seems to draw everything toward it magnetically—the men turn to look over their shoulders. One, who embraces his torso as if to protect himself from the elements, wears an expression of pain and displeasure. The other lifts his arm in a gesture of leave-taking and grins excitedly or perhaps hysterically. Painted in 1930 by the Italian artist Scipione, and exhibited at a gallery in Rome which had been inaugurated that year by Benito Mussolini, The Men Who Turn Around depicts figures who move forward while looking backward and display conflicting responses to the nature of their journey.1
In the years leading up to the creation of this work, Italy emerged from the catastrophe of a global war and, following years of social and political instability which led to the downfall of the liberal democratic order, granted power to Mussolini’s Fascist government. In the realm of the arts, following a brief period at the beginning of the 20th century which saw the ascendancy of such novel artistic styles as divisionism, symbolism, and futurism, after World War I artists began to draw upon examples provided by much older artistic traditions indigenous to Italy. This phenomenon, which affected artists across Europe and came to be described as the “return to order,” saw artists turn away from the international avant-gardes toward a more familiar visual vocabulary drawn from regional folk cultures and the national monuments of antiquity and the Renaissance.2 Among the many artists to reengage with the past in this manner was Pablo Picasso whose “neo-classical” figure paintings from 1917 had an enormous influence across the continent. Scipione’s work, which makes explicit reference to familiar icons of historical art—in particular Masaccio’s fresco Expulsion of 1425—can be identified with this broader European interest in traditional painting, not only in its theme but also in the rendering of the torsos and lower limbs of the central figures wherein the academic techniques of chiaroscuro and foreshortening have been used to create a convincing illusion of three-dimensional form and space.
At the same time Scipione also relied upon an approach to painting based upon the work produced by avant-garde artists just prior to World War I—such as the German-born Otto Dix during his expressionist phase—visible in the monochromatic dark red tone which unifies the figure with the landscape, the crudely depicted, mask-like details of the facial features, the evident marks of the pigment-loaded paintbrush as it made contact with the canvas, and the scratches created by dragging the handle of the brush across the paint while still wet. In this way, although Scipione belongs to a generation of artists who were deeply inspired by the national traditions of ancient and early modern art, he did not simply acquiesce to the artistic conservatism promoted by many of his peers in the 1920s and actively encouraged—if not literally mandated—during the 1930s by officials in the Italian Fascist regime. Rather, like many of the artists examined in this book, he also continued to explore the innovations pioneered by artists belonging to European avant-garde movements such as futurism, expressionism, and abstraction, who repudiated conventional artistic skills, focused on the impact of modern industrialization, and destabilized inherited concepts of identity. If, as the Italian art critic Giuseppe Marchiori observed in a monograph on Scipione published in 1939, there is “a contrast, an incoherence of language” in this work “between the expressionist character of the faces and the normal, even academic drawing of the nudes,” Scipione’s painting embodies a conception of art’s relationship to history that rejects any simplistic opposition between backward-looking conservatism and progressive radicalism.3
Figure 1.1 Scipione, The Men Who Turn Around, 1930. Oil on panel, 99.8 × 79.5 cm (39.3 × 31.3 inches), Roma, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea. Su concessione del Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali.
The artists who form the principal focus of this study, Fortunato Depero, Mario Radice, and Scipione (Gino Bonichi)—who were born in 1892, 1898, and 1904, respectively—were aligned with a tendency that has been recently identified by several art historians working on the history of 20th-century art. Contrary to earlier theories explaining any modern artist’s recourse to the past as a form of cultural regression, historians like Devin Fore have argued that artists and writers who returned to more traditional forms in the interwar period “did not reiterate previous paradigms naïvely, but rather invoked them self-consciously.”4 As is evident in the work of artists like Picasso, Giorgio de Chirico and many other artists in this period, this return to preexisting visual cultures was far from constituting an uncritical veneration of the past. On the contrary, it could take the form of an iconoclasm which worked to de-realize the national traditions of the past rather than merely continue them.5 Moreover, as Antonio Del Guercio has argued in The Future Behind in relation to the art of this period,
If a general discourse of “restoration” circulated throughout Europe, the figurative re-articulations that occurred—beginning with those in Italy—not infrequently avoided the most regressive impulses of that environment to reveal in one way or another significant facts about the human condition in the modern world.6
Drawing upon the past as a source of inspiration, and as a standard against which to measure the present, did not necessarily mean a rejection of the contemporary moment of history in which artists found themselves.
The picture we obtain of modern art between the wars in Italy from work like that by Scipione therefore differs significantly from dominant accounts of 20th-century European art.7 The relationship between past and present embodied in these works is not grounded in the idea of a historical forward march toward ever more radical positions and thus refuses the stark opposition between traditionalism and modernism. At the same time, as I argue throughout this book, these works also resist the synthesis of tradition and modernity that historians like Roger Griffin and Mark Antliff have observed as one of the defining features of art produced during the 1920s and 1930s in societies under the sway of fascism.8 Although these Italian modern artists engaged in no outward opposition to the dominant political ideologies of their time, they produced artworks that ran counter to what much official cultural policy promoted in the realm of fine art between the wars. Furthermore, the disjunctive way in which these artists’ works are both of their own time and yet redolent of other times forces us to rethink the periodizing and qualifying terms like “Fascist art” that are used to explain the history of 20th-century European visual culture. As part of this rethinking process, the present study—which examines artworks produced or exhibited prior to, during, and after the years of Fascist rule in Italy—stresses that “the age of Fascism” began well before Mussolini’s rule over Italy and has cast a long shadow over that country since the end of World War II. In so doing, it deals with the broader historical questions involved in understanding the complex interconnections between art and ideology.

Italian Modern Art and Politics between the Wars

One of the questions this book sets out to answer concerns the relationship between the formal qualities of the art works that form the subject of the study and the broader sociopolitical context of a period dominated by the rise and fall of fascism after World War I. After 1945 it was commonly assumed, particularly by left-leaning art historians, that avant-garde artistic movements such as geometric abstraction—which were disdained by the Nazis and publicly vilified in exhibitions such as “Degenerate Art” of 1937—must be inherently antifascist. In 1975 the Italian historian Umberto Silva, for example, argued that the accusation by hardline Fascist writers during the 1930s that all modern art is communist was correct because “there is no real art which is not revolutionary, and there is no modern revolution that is not Marxist.”9 It is now clear that this approach has little validity for a study of Italian art between the wars. This is not principally the case because it is a negative rather than positive definition of art’s relationship to politics, nor even because it can be more readily applied to Germany than to Italy, but rather, and most significantly, because works of avant-garde art such as futurism, expressionism, and geometric abstraction were constantly on display throughout the Fascist period in Italy at both private and official exhibitions and were frequently acquired by state collecting organizations. Clearly, a more sophisticated and less essentializing method is required to fully understand the connections between modern art and Fascism in this period.
An alternative approach involves examining the individual political choices of artists. This also presents difficulties because there are many cases of ambiguous political positioning on the part of individual artists in this period, including compliance, opportunism, resistance, and collaboration, sometimes shifting back and forth over time, or even manifesting at the same time.10 Furthermore, in some cases, archival records are (sometimes deliberately) incomplete or inaccessible and evidence connecting artists to political beliefs is not available. In isolated instances, we may look to individuals like Carlo Levi, who was a known anti-Fascist and declared his art to be such, for information about the political content of his images, but the existence of others working in a similarly expressionist vein who were politically pro-Fascist such as Mario Sironi, makes that approach problematic (Figure 1.2).11 Information about individual political allegiances can certainly provide a useful background to the works, but in the majority of cases, it alone does not yield a deep understanding of how the visual characteristics of the art relate to the political context. The reason for this is that the works’ ideological valency is a distinct question from the artists’ precise political allegiances. The lives of the creator and the art work, while connected, are inevitably separate, which means that the author’s presumed intention has to be weighed against how the work’s meaning can exist outside and beyond that. Another way to approach the issue of modern art’s relationship to politics in this period, one less fraught with difficulties, is to ask a more limited question—what was the art’s relationship to official cultural policy?
In 2003, the then Prime Minster of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, was quoted as saying that “Mussolini never killed anyone. Mussolini used to send people on vacation in internal exile.”12 Such comments are a reminder that the task of the historian remains an important one, particularly given the rise of neofascist movements during the 21st century, both in Italy and elsewhere. To set the record straight, according to one reckoning the list of atrocities committed under Mussolini includes at least 100,000 Libyans who were deported to concentration camps where they were left to starve, 10,000 Slovenes who were ethnically cleansed, and 7,500 Jewish people who were killed.13 Did such appalling statistics have their parallel in the cultural domain? The truth is that Fascist policy toward art during the 1920s and 1930s, like that toward certain other domains of Italian society, w...

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