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Tuesday, May 26, 2020

In Memoriam: Frederika Randall's review of Mario Sironi exhibit at the Vittoriano

Frederika Randall, an exceptional person, writer, and friend, died Tuesday, May 12 at her home in Rome, where she lived with her husband and loving and intellectual companion, Vittorio Jucker. Born in Western Pennsylvania, Frederika lived the last 35 years of her life in Italy. Her keen eye and judgment made her a valued public intellectual (a term she asked us not to use - you can't complain now, Frederika), publishing trenchant cultural and political commentary in The Wall Street Journal, The Nation, and elsewhere. Her bio of herself here explains her life journey and also her lifetime of significant accomplishments and awards. She was a translator of the nearly-untranslatable, bringing to life authors as diverse as the 19th-century Ippolito Nievo ("Confessions of an Italian") and 21st- century Giacomo Sartori ("I am God").

In Frederika's memory, we are re-posting several of the posts--which remain popular--she wrote for RST. We re-posted  "Liberation Day: The Politics of  'Bella Ciao'" just 3 weeks ago (not knowing how precarious her life was at that point) for Italy's locked-down Liberation Day. Ten days ago we re-posted her review of a Renato Guttuso exhibit. Here we re-post her 2014 review of a show at the Complesso Vittoriano featuring the 20th-century Italian artist Mario Sironi. The review illustrates everything we've just said about Frederika - her keen eye, her trenchant criticism, her lyrical writing. She will live on in our--and all her friends' and family's--memories, and in the eclectic body of work she left to the world.


Sironi, Self Portrait
You have a great artist in your midst, perhaps the greatest of these times, and you don’t know it. Picasso, addressing feckless 20th-century Italians, was talking about Mario Sironi. It was a peculiar tribute, coming from a man who belonged to the Communist party until the day he died. While Sironi, on the other hand, was a believing Fascist even before 1921, when he began working as graphic artist for Mussolini’s paper, Il Popolo d'Italia and the review Gerarchia. He even adhered to the Republic of Salò, the German-backed Italian puppet state of 1943-45, and that was much more of a minority camp than Fascism ever was.

For a taste of this political outlier—and yes, great painter—I recommend Sironi 1885-1961 show at the Complesso del Vittoriano in Rome until February 8, 2015. There are ninety paintings, graphic works and sketches for murals neatly organized to follow the artist’s life path: born in 1885, studies in
engineering, a nervous breakdown, art school, meeting Boccioni and Balla, Futurism, the Novecento, bleak urban landscapes, a brief Metaphysical phase, Fascist illustration, publicity for automaker Fiat, an Expressionist turn, followed by the huge murals commissioned by Mussolini for new Fascist public buildings in Milan and Rome.

Things looked bad for Sironi when the Liberation came on April 25, 1945. He took the road out of Milan toward Como and Switzerland, like many Fascists who feared partisan reprisals, and not wrongly. On foot, his dog on a leash by his side, Sironi was stopped at a partisan checkpoint, and only when the poet and children’s writer (and partisan) Gianni Rodari stepped in, was he saved from being shot. After the war, Sironi continued painting, and the vein of melancholy that colors everything he produced seems to have deepened into something like despair. There was no place for a man like him in a postwar Italy where all the artists and intellectuals were anti-Fascists.
This exhibit, the first in Italy dedicated to Sironi in twenty years, was curated by art historian Elena Pontiggia, who provides a very useful biographical framework to hang the artwork on, both in a short film and the good wall quotes.

This doesn’t quite compensate for the fact that not many of Sironi’s greatest paintings are on
display, or that this show is much smaller than that of 1994, which had 400
artworks. But Pontiggia does bring out a crucial fact: that Sironi was a life-long depressive, a man of melancholy who it would seem should have been quite unsuited to the Fascist regime’s celebration of might and right.

Even as a young man Sironi would close himself up in his rooms, seeing no-one, drawing obsessively. “He’ll copy a Greek head 20 or 25 times!!!” reported  Boccioni (exclamation marks his). The Futurists disapproved of antiquated art.
Urban Landscape, 1922
Yet Sironi’s most powerful works are those that don’t celebrate Fascism, modernity, or industry. His urban landscapes, some of them painted in the early 1920s, others after World War II, are haunting, and haunted. When in 1922 he produced one of several paintings titled Urban Landscape, Sironi was staying alone in a cheap hotel in Milan, too poor to bring his new wife there to live with him. Dusty white and brick-colored industrial buildings, a great black swath of train track, a tiny tram and a tiny truck. The only thing that looks animate in the composition is the lowering green and grey sky.

The Yellow Truck, 1918
In another cityscape shown here, an ashy black truck stands immobile where two utterly empty streets of factories and warehouses intersect. There is no life or movement in the painting, just beautiful volumes. Once again, only the sky is alive, with big brushstrokes of smoke and cloud.
The Yellow Truck, 1918, is another work from this period. Big rough brushstrokes, in part painted on newsprint, it suggests a Futurist enthusiasm for the vehicle itself that is utterly absent in urban scenes done even a few years later.

Urban Landscape, 1920

In another urban landscape painted in 1920, a hard brown wall hides what seems to be a construction site. Again, the night sky is roiling overhead. Sironi is no longer celebrating the dynamism of the machine that was Futurism’s trademark. The only thing that’s dynamic is the air. When it comes to the work he did in the 1930s, Fascism’s heyday, the show tries to persuade us that although he worked for the cause, his murals and wall decorations (here, sketches for his mosaic Justice Between Law and Force in the Milan Court of Assizes) were never propaganda for Fascism. But like so many efforts to rescue Sironi from his politics, this doesn’t really ring true. Fascism was not just Blackshirts and castor oil; it was a political creed based on just the kind of myths that Sironi produced in his large allegorical murals. They embody a kind of immobilism, an image of the best of all possible worlds that need never change. Sironi was happy to accept those mural commissions because he wanted to make art for the people, not for bourgeois sitting rooms. But that, too, was a thread of Fascism.

Urban Landscape, 1922

My Funeral, 1960
After the war, Sironi continued to paint, and there are several more gloomy cityscapes here, often painted in a thick impasto of brown, blue and white, that are very striking. He died in 1961, not before producing a small tempera work, My Funeral, in which a tiny hearse in one corner of the picture is followed by a tiny handful of mourners. “Let us hope that after so many storms, so many gales, so much bestial suffering,” he wrote, “that there will nevertheless be a port for this miserable heart to find peace and quiet."  

Fifty years later, his reputation as an artist has been largely detached from his role as a Fascist, but you couldn’t exactly say he rests in peace.

Frederika Randall, Rome

1 comment:

Dianne Bennett and William Graebner said...

From Ronald Johnson:
Frederika Randall functions here as a memorialist, I think. She uses a few of Mario Sironi’s paintings to soften the reader/viewer’s sense of the man. We see an artist who transcends his professed ideologies. Here we see the beauty of a yellow truck or the dark excitement of an urban landscape. Fascist Rome appears to hold more complexity than most remember through viewing these few artistic artifacts of Sironi, thanks to the insightful eye and pen of Randall.