Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Thirties: The Arts In Italy Beyond Fascism

Not the usual fare here, but there have been a lot of people claiming that "liberalism is fascism" (and socialism and nazism and communism, all in one) lately, to the point where it is a regularly repeated mantra in certain inane circles. Often cited for this argument is the racism and oppressiveness of Woodrow Wilson, along with certain FDR initiatives being modeled on ones in Mussolini's Italy, and of course the true fact that Mussolini himself was initially socialist.  Indeed, he did engage in nationalizations of some companies, ones that held well into the post-WW II era, in contrast with the "National Socialist" Nazis who in fact nationalized nearly nothing.  In any case, an art exhibit in Florence, Italy with the title of this post sheds both light on the complicatedness of the fascist era and raises more questions than it answers about that tangled period.

First, we must note Mussolini's socialist background. However, at his core he was a militarist nationalist dictator, and his initial fame came from his splitting with the Italian Socialist Party in WW I, with that party taking a pacifist position and opposing Italian entry into the war, in contrast with those in France and Germany.  Mussolini became the leader of the warmongering faction of that party, soon setting off to lead his own.  In the aftermath of the war, he became the champion of frustrated veterans, and these would always be at the core of the Italian Fascist Party, which gradually moved to the right over time, eventually adopting the racism and anti-Semitism of the Nazis in the late 30s, along with a repressive attitude to culture and the arts, pushing forward certain schools and approaches, although, still less repressive than Germany, there remained some room for dissident artists and movements.

There has been very little effort in Italy to straighten all this out, I think due to how deeply embedded fascism was in Italy, ruling for nearly a solid 20 years, from 1923 to 1943.  Movements and individuals moved in and out of favor and few have been made to face up to what they did or did not do.  As it is, this exhibit claims to approach all this "objectively," and I would say it makes a brave effort, helped by the fact that by now all the artists involved are finally dead.

So, certain movements were not favored by the fascists, notably abstract art and metaphysical art, the latter a particularly Italian movement founded by Giorgio de Chirico, who spent the entire period out of the country in Paris.  One 1936 abstract painting shown was vandalized by fascists.  Besides various hackneyed efforts to look back to the Church or the Renaissance or Rome, the leading pro-fascist movement was the monumentalist Novocentisti one, which indeed combined some of these elements, while looking a lot like the "classical" period of Picasso right after WW I.  The most complicated movement was futurism, which in the teens was followed by many on the left, including the later Soviet poet, Mayakovsky, but which came to be used by the fascists as part of the pro-technology and modernization movement, even as they harked back to antique models (the symbolic "fasces" themselves being a symbol from the Roman era).  In the late 1930s the Novecentisti would be glorified, while the metaphysical and abstract schools were vilified at about the same time the Germans were pushing "Aryan art," and also denouncing "degenerate art."  This coincided with the Italians finally adopting the racist laws of the Germans.

Nevertheless, this exhibit raises many loose ends and questions.  These are symbolized by the strange and unexplained case of Carlo Carra.  He was initially a political anarchist and a futurist painter in the mid-teens.  After that he would become one of the most important followers of de Chirico and the Metaphysical School.  Indeed, the only works of his I had previously seen were from this period.  However, throughout the early part of this exhibit it became clear that by the late 1920s he had become one of the leading Novocentisti and was a major influence on other artists to follow this approach.  Despite that, the exhibit showed an article from 1938 denouncing the politically unacceptable schools and specifically denounced the metaphysical paintings by Carra.  No explanation was given regarding whether he then got in trouble or how this related to his later Novocentisti move or any of this.  After seeing the exhibit I went online and found a big fat zero on this, other than one source indeed noting that he followed the Novocentisti approach after his futurist and metaphysical periods.  This complete lacuna in the records regarding this rather important figure simply makes it clear to me that there is a lot more to all this in the broader cultural history of the period, and probably in other areas as well, which simply have not been delved into in any serious way.  Maybe this exhibit is the harbinger of an impending major reexamination of what it was really all about?


Zorblog said...

As an additional source of information on the subject, I would recommend The Dino Risi movie La Marcia Su Roma

It's about the taking of power by Mussolini, and it's Italian comedy at its best. Much lighter than sources on the subject, highly entertaining, and, I would believe, possibly more informative.

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