Rare is the exhibition devoted to Italian art during Fascism that does not mystify and prevaricate, and this show at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence is no exception. The aim is to consider the works “beyond ideological pressures or the artists’ own ideological stands”, as curator Antonello Negri puts it in the catalogue: when it comes to 1930s Italy, however, that attempt is misguided. At that time, all artists were working under a dictatorship which, through a grand public art programme and through institutional infrastructure – major exhibitions including the Venice Biennale, a series of prizes, and an artists’ union – controlled much of the territory. (One has only to travel through northern Italy by train to see how neo-classicism satisfied Mussolini’s thirst for imperial identification.)
To be fair, Italian artists were not alone in embracing a “return to order”. The rise of an art which looked back to ancient Rome by way of Renaissance masters had swept across post-war Europe as artists backed away from the disturbing ruptures of abstraction towards a calmer, more figure-friendly vision.
Certain artists, most notably Picasso, were making mischief with the ancients. In Italy, the trend was taken seriously. Its chief exponents – artists such as Mario Sironi, Carlo Carrà and Achille Funi – were part of the Novecento group whose patron was Margherita Sarfatti. An influential collector and critic, Sarfatti was also Mussolini’s mistress and she was thoroughly committed to an art that would convey, as she put it, “domination, audacity and empire”.
By the early 1930s, Sarfatti had fallen out of favour with Il Duce. If the Strozzi curators consider this sufficient reason for barely mentioning either her or the Novecento group, they are mistaken. Dozens of the pieces on display here are the work of her protégés, and the context in which they were produced is crucial. As it is, much of the show feels like a journey through a mythical Arcadia where neither history nor politics disturb the mood of timeless calm. Opening the exhibition, Mario Sironi’s “The Family” (1932) is a painting of a mother, father and child, the semi-naked, monumental figures planted stolidly in a barren, rocky landscape. Masterfully executed in dry, scumbled hues of black, umber, terracotta and grey with white highlights, its fresco-like character boosts the image’s archetypal power. A similarly hieratic quality invests Carlo Carra’s muscular “Fishermen” (1935), who appear to have been gazing at each other for centuries in front of their storm-green sea.
Such nostalgic reveries did not have a monopoly. A powerful yet poetic expressionsm emerged in the intense hues and melting contours of paintings by Renato Guttuso and Renato Birolli. A handful of artists ventured into abstraction. Represented by a 1950s reproduction, Lucio Fontana’s skeletal iron bar traces space as poetically as carbon on paper. Osvaldo Licini mixes and matches Kandinsky-bright panels with jagged monochrome patterns to build his “Castle in the Air” (1933-36). The second wave of Futurists – Enrico Prampolini, Tullio Cralli and Osvaldo Peruzzi – paid homage to Mussolini’s fantasy domination of the skies with their fatally mannered Aeropittura. Public art schemes saw artists such as Sironi, Carrà, Arturo Martini and Fontana translate classical correctness into paintings, murals and sculptures that would shore up the image of victorious romanità essential to Mussolini’s propaganda.
This cauldron of styles was not wholly dependent on politics but it was not divorced from it either. The expressionism of Birolli and Guttuso, for example, came as a direct result of their involvement with the Scuola Romana (Roman School) which deliberately distanced itself from the classicism that had won Fascist approval. Yet rather than confront these tendencies directly, the curators devise a series of bewildering categories such as regional schools – where they make no mention of crucial ideological differences – the difference between the old and new generation, and Italian artists who travelled abroad.
There are virtues. Although too small, the section on public art is blessed with Lucio Fontana’s “The Harpooner” (1934), whose lithe, polished body seems to have leapt straight from the water. (It was designed to adorn the fountain of a fish market in Milan.) Also illuminating is a handful of works from Germany. Here two 1920s’ watercolours – typically bitter, sexual satires – by Otto Dix and a gruesome post-torture scene painted in watercolour by George Grosz in 1935 reveal what happens when artists choose not to lose themselves in search of temps perdu.
It is a coup too, to have “The Four Elements” by Adolf Ziegler, who was Hitler’s artistic advisor. With its quartet of pristine Aryan nudes, this saccharine travesty of allegorical painting is hung alongside a work by the Italian Pietro Gaudenzi. Painted to glorify Mussolini’s “Battle for Grain”, this bombastic piece, peopled by grim-faced workers, won the Cremona award which was instituted by the politican Roberto Farinacci to encourage artists to glorify the regime. All one can say in its defence is that it lacks the hackle-raising kinkiness that infects Ziegler’s Stepford-like muses.
Although the wall texts do allude to the bureaucratic machine – exhibitions, prizes, etc – that underpinned much of the work on show, the information is communicated in disjointed fragments that confuse rather than clarify. The reality was that artists were operating in an atmosphere ripe with paradox, contradiction and instability. Certain artists, Fausto Melotti and Lucio Fontana, for example, swung between figurative and abstract styles. Certain Scuola Romana artists, and Birolli – later imprisoned for his anti-Fascism – had no compunction about exhibiting in the Galleria d’Arte di Roma, which was financed by Mussolini. In 1938, a Fascist publication, Il Tevere, condemned as “foreign, Bolshevik and Jewish” not only certain abstractionists and Birolli, but also the more classical painting of Sironi, Carrà and Giorgio De Chirico.
Had the curatorial approach been clearer, the quality and variety of the work on show would have made this a truly fascinating exhibition. Curators must give spectators the facts, then leave it to them to decide whether or not the works transcend the ideologies of their time.
Until January 27, www.palazzostrozzi.org