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Friday, September 18, 2009

Fascism: Patron of the Arts

Prompolini, Carpanetti, Terragni, Libera, De Renzi, Maccari, Sironi, De Chirico, Marini, Torres, Casorati, Guttuso. We would be surprised if you'd heard of more than one or two--De Chirico perhaps, or Sironi, or, less likely, Libera or Guttuso. But even these are not household names, and the others--and the list we've offered is only a beginning--rest in obscurity. Yet between the great wars, in the Fascist era that began with the March on Rome in 1922, all did significant work as painters, sculptors, muralists, or architects, and the products of their labor can be found in Rome's Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna or, in the case of the architects, in the city's public buildings.

We have often wondered why these men, and their contributions to 20th-century culture, aren't better known. We found one answer in Marla Susan Stone's The Patron State: Culture and Politics in Fascist Italy (Princeton, 1998). As Stone explains, until quite recently the artists who designed buildings under Fascism or made paintings for its exhibitions were understood as having subordinated their talents and artistic interests to a Fascist dictatorship, damaging themselves and producing inferior, politicized work in the effort to generate a Fascist aesthetic.

According to Stone, something like that happened during Fascism's later years, after 1935, when Italy's invasion of Ethiopia signaled a new determination to be a colonial power, and especially during the war, when the alliance with Hitler's Nazi Germany led the Italian Fascists to advocate a public art that celebrated the unified national state and glorified Fascism's imperial and military ventures. One result, in architecture, was a turn toward a monumentalist style designed to link Fascism with the power and splendor of ancient, imperial Rome. The best example is the complex of buildings designed for E42 (below right)--the Exposition of 1942, intended to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the March on Rome--constructed south of Rome's center. E42 never opened; construction was abandoned during the war.

But before 1934, as Stone makes clear, Fascism proved a tolerant patron of a wide variety of artistic and architectural styles, practicing what she calls "aesthetic pluralism." In architcture, the regime embraced and supported the rational language of international modernism, though sometimes with a monumental flavor. In the early 1930s, rationalist architects designed four post offices in Rome and one in nearby Lido di Ostia, accessible through YouTube.

At the Venice Biennale and other exhibitions, Fascism patronized (and purchased) the works of a wide variety of artists from every major movement, including the Novecento group, which incorporated modern and traditional expressions around Italian themes. Top left, a 1918/19 work in the Novecento vein by Felice Casorati.

Fascist patronage also included aeropittura, which emphasized images of flight; the concretisti, a group that opposed Mussolini but participated in Fascism's national exhibitions; and the scuola Romana (Roman school), which tended toward images of ordinary urban life. At left and below, Mario Mafai's Demolizione dell'Augusteo (1936), from the scuola Romana. The title refers to demolitions carried out in the 1930s near the tomb of Augustus, apparently to make way for the monumental, Fascist structures that now grace that piazza.

This sort of pluralism was unique among the dictatorships of the day. The Nazis followed a very different course. Stone offers the example of Giorgio De Chirico, whose stylized, metaphysical modernism was purged from German museums yet welcomed and celebrated by Fascism.

So, that's a partial explanation for why there's so much excellent 20th-century Italian art and architecture, and for why nobody knows about it. For those with an academic bent and interested in pursuing the matter, we recommend Marla Stone's important book.


1 comment:

Peter @ italyMONDO! said...

"So, that's a partial explanation for why there's so much excellent 20th-century Italian art and architecture, and for why nobody knows about it."

True - as I can honestly say I learned something new as well!