by Roderick Conway Morris

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Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice
Abstract Speed by Giacomo Balla, 1913

From Futurism and Fascism to Stalinism and the Anachronists

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 24 February 2001


In avant-garde terms the 20th century began well for Italy. In 1909, Futurism burst on the scene, causing uproar all over Europe. By the end of the following decade other innovative artists had made their mark, notably the Metaphysical painters and forerunners of Surrealism Giorgio de Chirico and Carlo Carra, with their disturbing dreamlike visions, and Amedeo Modigliani, with his transformation of traditional forms into a daringly modern idiom.

Even if the actual arena in which these initiatives first saw the light of day was Paris, Italian artists looked set to make a significant impact on the course of art to come.

Although the show does not explicitly address the issue, some of the reasons this did not occur emerge from 'Novecento (The 20th Century): Art and History in Italy,' an exhibition of some 200 pieces by 130 artists spanning the entire epoch. At the same time, this wide-ranging selection by the art critic Maurizio Calvesi helps draw attention to some artists who merit more international attention than they have received.

To put the works in context, the British historian Paul Ginsborg has provided a commentary (illustrated with contemporary photographs and running in parallel through the show) on Italy's social and political development over the period. He has also contributed invaluable additional material to the catalogue. (The exhibition, at the Scuderie Papali, with an additional section at the nearby Trajan Markets, continues until April 1.)

The first large-scale work to confront the visitor is Giacomo Balla's classic Futurist painting of 1913, 'Abstract Speed,' of a motor car in motion, distorted, as the title emphasizes, to a near-abstract blur of lines and color. This canvas turns out to be richly emblematic when one discovers that between about 1932 and 1935, Balla painted on the back of it the stylistically hyper-realist and melodramatic 'The March on Rome' -- Mussolini and his acolytes striding through the streets of the capital in 1922, an anti-democratic event in which the artist enthusiastically took part. Balla painted this, inspired by contrived propaganda photographs, hoping to sell it to a government ministry or the Fascist Party, but failed to find a buyer.

The peculiarity of Futurism among avant-garde movements was that those of its members who survived World War I became identified with the Right. This was partly latent in the nature of the beast: The Futurists' initial obsession with machines and motor cars extended to the worship of airplanes, machine guns, artillery and other weapons of mass destruction, which in due course became symbols of Fascist militarism. Moreover, the Futurists' originally anarchic tendency to hector and exaggerate provided a model for Mussolini's irrational and mendacious totalitarian rhetoric.

On the other hand, as the majority of Italians came to support Mussolini, so, too, did most Italian artists, despite the obvious threat that Fascism posed to their freedom of expression.

The extent of Italian artists' acceptance of Fascism is helpfully and candidly chronicled by Ginsborg in the catalogue. As he points out, even Morandi, who is frequently held up as an example of a painter who distanced himself from the politics of the times, swore the oath of allegiance to the regime, took employment with it and, even after the enactment of vicious racial laws in 1938, accepted a prize from it.

The case of De Chirico provides a grimly comic footnote to the general compliance of artists with the dictatorship. Returning to Italy in 1938, he at first heaped praise on its achievements, before himself being accused of having Jewish blood. His attempts to appease the authorities by offering to teach in art schools for no pay fell on deaf ears, and he presently hot-footed it back to Paris.

Mussolini had no appreciation whatsoever of the visual arts and never elaborated a policy as prescriptive and oppressive as the one enforced by Hitler (a failed, embittered artist). Thus, many Italian artists, while paying lip-service to the regime, could carry on producing works that in no special way conformed to its ideas, even if this did require varying degrees of schizophrenia.

Aside from Balla's 'March on Rome,' there is no 'official' art on display here, a forgivable omission given its mind-bending mediocrity. But the show does confirm that outside this official, government-sponsored realm, the 1920s and '30s remained a productive and interesting period in Italian art, even in the lesser-known area of abstract art.

Ironically, the postwar period brought freedom, but few new artists who seem to have been able to put it to good use. The debate as to the virtues and vices of abstract and conceptual art as against those of traditional figurative art became thoroughly politicized and polarized to the point of futility.

The postwar legacy of Fascism had, in some ways, a more deleterious effect on art than the dictatorship, in that in progressive circles all modern figurative art came to be seen as tarred by the Fascist brush because of the dictatorship's preference for it. The situation became further confused by the Italian Communist Party's attempts to accommodate the Stalinist doctrine of Socialist Realism. The upshot was a great deal of politics and talk, and comparatively little work distinctive enough to attract many admirers beyond the peninsula's shores.

Art's loss, however, became cinema's gain, as the likes of Fellini, Pasolini, Rossellini and Visconti, whose visions in other eras would probably have been realized on paper and canvas, painted their epics, often with blithe disregard for ideological niceties, on the big screen.

After a long period of marginalization, Italian figurative artists, among them the so-called 'Anachronists' championed since the 1980s by this show's curator, Calvesi himself, have won greater respect in at least some sections of the local critical establishment.

But, inevitably perhaps, the most recent works on display, at the Trajan Markets, are overwhelmingly installations of a kind that could have been produced anywhere in the world, and whose only distinctively Italian features are the names on the labels attached to them.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023