‘The racial laws were the worst of Mussolini’s wrongs, but he did many other good things.’ As if on cue for a coda to this lamentable exhibition, Silvio Berlusconi recently obliged – on Holocaust Memorial Day, no less – with one of his by-now familiar, botched apologies for Italy’s Fascist past. That his remarks would not have seemed entirely out of place as a wall text in the Palazzo Strozzi’s galleries goes some way to evoke the selective commemoration proffered by this fitful and confused show, which was curated by Antonello Negri. ‘The exhibition,’ read an introductory panel, ‘invites you to explore the decade without prejudice.’ One could argue that a decade which ended with the establishment of Racial Laws and the active deportation of Italian Jews invites anything but unprejudiced reflection on its objects, as if these latter could be retrospectively excised by curatorial fiat from the culture that nourished them.
A large oil on canvas by Mario Sironi (The Family, 1932) was hung at the entrance to the show; a text called attention to the image’s ‘echo of the painting of the 15th and 16th centuries’. This evinces something of the exhibition’s blithe disregard for ideological implication: Sironi was the de facto painter of the Italian Fascist party. Nearby, a giant bust of the aviator Arturo Ferrarin by the sculptor Adolfo Wildt from 1929 made for perhaps a more palatable alternative than his portraits of Mussolini; the curators called attention, in any case, to Wildt’s formal innovations rather than his political allegiances. Fair enough, but the very size and scale of these works tell a political story. Artists like Sironi came aggressively to reject easel painting in favour of the mural and the propaganda function that it was believed to serve – imperatives alluded to only obliquely in later rooms on ‘public art’.
After this introductory sampling, ‘The Thirties’ undertook a survey of the decade’s tendencies, mapped according to city. Or rather, according to a few cities; even leaving aside the fact that expressions of regional culture were taboo by this date, these metropolitan rubrics proved less than helpful. What was Giorgio Morandi – a permanent fixture of Bologna’s art scene – doing in the Florence room? More importantly, why should his work be cleaved from the pro-Fascist politics of the ultra-nationalist Strapaese movement that we now know he sympathized with? To be sure, the exhibition resurrected the work of a few lesser-known artists. Yet even the abstract canvases by Mario Radice and Osvaldo Licini formed part of spiritual inquiries yoked to explicitly Fascist notions. This need not dictate how we read these images, but it must surely inflect the historical matrix in which we consider them. This applies equally to Mario Mafai’s paintings of buildings razed to make way for Mussolini’s Third Rome, as to Art Deco-influenced glass wear etched with reliefs of girls giving the Fascist salute. Sadly, such histories appeared at every turn underemphasized.
The exhibition’s final rooms explored ‘Artists’ Journeys’ and the ‘impact of Paris and Berlin’ – as if an international, and widely anti-Fascist avant-garde in France were the historical apposite of state-sponsored Nazi aesthetics. The room’s text goes so far as to stress the ‘cosmopolitan character of Italian art in the 1930s’ – the decade when Mussolini’s imperatives of economic and cultural ‘autarchy’ proved the order of the day. Indeed, after a few years as one of the ‘Italiens de Paris’, Giorgio de Chirico returned to a very different Italy, and sent a personal letter to Il Duce swearing his national(ist) bona fides. The disregard for such matters appeared all the more inexplicable given that the exhibition displayed a local newspaper (Il Tevere), in which the Italian-German accord is discussed in the same pages as the ‘foreign […] Bolshevik and Jewish’ tendencies of much recent art. The ‘vigorous artistic battle’ that the exhibition aimed to evoke entailed not simply the free rivalry of forms and ideas, but an elaborate system of coercion, consensus and state-sponsored competition.
The curators did invoke some of the aesthetic opposition to Fascism, such as works exhibited at the Bergamo Award – a less reactionary event than its counterpart in Cremona. Had the exhibition proposed a dialectic between Fascist culture and anti-Fascist resistance, such juxtapositions would have been less striking in their casualness. Instead, these divergent strains were lumped together under the generalizing ‘lens’ [sic] of the 1930s and its ‘contrasts’.
By the time one arrived, in the last room – After the Questioning (1935) by the German Communist painter George Grosz hung next to Adolf Ziegler’s The Four Elements: Fire, Water and Earth, Air (before 1937), which enjoyed pride of place in Adolf Hitler’s Munich apartment – all bets appeared off. A focus upon Italy seemed at once flouted entirely and addressed through the back door. On the ground floor, various items related to the exhibition were for sale, including an ‘Art Monopoly’ game for children, which comprised highlights of the exhibition such as The Four Elements: Fire, Water and Earth, Air; a more fittingly glib distillation of the show’s appositions could not be imagined.