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Giacomo Manzù, Bas-relief of Christ with General,
1947 Bronze, 71x51cm Galleria Nazionale d'Arte
Moderna e Contemporanea, Rome

Artists against Italian fascism

As disaffection with established political parties grows, examining the rise and fall of fascism in Italy is not simply of distant historical interest. Corinna Lotz reviews Against Mussolini – Art and the Fall of a Dictator.

“Mussolini was the prototype dictator, a template for leaders from Hitler to Saddam Hussein, who led their people into unwanted and foolish wars,” says Stephen Gundle, who searched hidden archives far and wide to gather art works for an impressive show at London’s Estorick Gallery.

He believes that the condemnation of violence, war and dictatorship by the group of Italian artists brought together here is “worth carrying into our troubled times”.

Against Mussolini – Art and the Fall of a Dictator focuses on war time Italy and the decline of the Mussolini cult mainly through the eyes of Italian artists, but also postcards and caricatures in the international press.

There is a brave and mocking aspect as Mussolini’s pompous posturing is lampooned and undermined. We feel the edge of the humour more sharply when these are seen side by side with shocking images of the horrors of the fascist regime.

There are scenes of torture and suffering, but they are never gratuitous or just for effect. Rather they grow to have an exorcising function. Some will be familiar to students of history, such as Giles’ and David Low’s brilliant cartoons for the Daily Express and Evening Standard, including the hilarious Sad Tale of a Punctured Chin.

Others have not previously been exhibited, such as a group of charcoal drawings by Alberto Bazzoni, unearthed from an obscure drawer by Gundle. Bazzoni uses the brutish pseudo-heroic fascist style but drives home an anti-fascist message.

Gundle notes that a number of the artists, such as Mino Maccari, were initially keen fascists. But Maccari began to use his periodical Il Selvaggio (The Wild One)  to voice criticisms of the regime. By the summer of 1943, he made the Dux - Mussolini series, a bizarre nightmarish depiction of the fallen dictator.

Mino Maccari, Dux series - Mussolini, 1943 oil on canvas 50x41 cm Private collection

Painter Mario Mafai also underwent a transformation. From radiant views of Rome in the 1920s he moved to a tragic depiction of the eternal city. Mafai, like many contemporaries, was shocked by Mussolini’s demolition of the medieval borgo (neighbourhood) around St Peter’s in 1936-37 to make way for the monstrous “Via Trionfale”. His soft elegiac paintings called Demolitions mourned the loss of this old Rome.

Mafai joined the Corrente movement which initially supported the regime, but was shut down in 1940 as its members looked for an alternative to fascist culture. His Fantasie from between 1940 and 1943, as the curators write, “conjure up an apocalyptic view of contemporary Italy”. In their ferocity, they recall the German artist Max Beckmann. In their dream-like vision they refer to Goya’s Disasters of War. By 1945, Mafai was writing for the Italian Communist Party magazine, Rinascita.

Tono Zancanaro, Gibbo is pitied by youth, 1944 Ink on paper, 32x27cm

Amongst the strongest images are Tono Zancanaro’s crazy Gibbo series. Clearly meant as a ridicule of Mussolini and his cronies, Gibbo is a ludicrously bloated, lascivious creature, weighed down by large and many-breasted females who loll about, teasing and dominating him. The series bring to the mind the mocking madness of Picasso’s “Dream and Lie of Franco” etchings. They have an outrageously decadent thrust, recalling both Aubrey Beardsley and images like Picasso’s Rape of Europa.

The work of Nicola Neonato, Vittorio Maghani and Renato Cenni, which appeared under pseudonyms in the newspaper Il Partigiano, depicts the wartime realities not only for the Partisan fighters but also captive Germans. Neri’s modest ink drawings on the flimsiest of papers have a direct authenticity and immediacy.  There is a marked lack of triumphalism over the enemy or heroic idealisation of the partisans themselves. One can only imagine the harsh circumstances under which they were made.

Renato Guttuso, The Massacre 1943, Oil on canvas 59x73cm Raccolta Alberto Della Regione, Florence

Not since the Whitechapel Gallery mounted its pioneering Renato Guttuso show in 1996 have we had the chance to see such work by anti-fascist Italian artists, some of whom worked directly with the Partisan resistance movement. This is a historic show in more senses than one.

23 September 2010

Against Mussolini: Art and the Fall of a Dictator is at the Estorick Collection, 39a Canonbury Square, N1 until 19 December. Open Wednesday to Saturday. Admission £5/£3.50. Highbury & Islington Tube and Rail

The excellent illustrated catalogue with essays by Stephen Gundle, Christopher Duggan and Giuliana Pieri is published by the Estorick Collection at £10.95.

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