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Against Mussolini: Art and the Fall of a Dictator

Renato Guttuso (1912-1987). The Massacre, 1943. Oil on canvas, 59 x 73 cm. Raccolta Alberto Della Ragione, Florence.

Exhibition preview

AGAINST Mussolini: Art and the Fall of a Dictator, an exhibition of powerful works of anti-Fascist imagery, is on display at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art until December 19, 2010.

While several major exhibitions have been devoted to exploring the propaganda imagery of Fascist Italy, art produced by those hostile to Mussolini and his regime has received surprisingly little attention in recent years.

The exhibition draws on a wide range of material – painting, sculpture, graphic design and documentation – to provide a comprehensive and illuminating study of this under-explored area of modern Italian culture.

The exhibition constitutes a central element of a wider research project entitled The Cult of the Duce: Mussolini and the Italians, 1918-2005, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and led by Prof. Stephen Gundle (Warwick University), working in collaboration with Prof. Christopher Duggan (Reading University) and Dr Giuliana Pieri (Royal Holloway, University of London).

The aim of the project has been to investigate the nature, purposes, functioning and impact of the personality cult of Mussolini in the period from 1918 until 1945. The after-effects of the cult in popular memory have also been studied.

Benito Mussolini (1883 – 1945) began his political career as an ardent Socialist, promoting the overthrow of the Liberal state through an aggressive journalistic style that led him to be appointed editor of the party’s newspaper Avanti!

However, the outbreak of the First World War represented a turning point in his evolving political consciousness, causing him to reject his party’s official line of neutrality in favour of the interventionist cause, seeing in war a chance to shake bourgeois society to its foundations and precipitate revolution.

He established his own newspaper, Il Popolo d’Italia, which functioned as the mouthpiece of his particular brand of Socialism – and of the nascent Fascist movement.

Officially founded in March 1919, Fascism’s programme initially attracted few supporters with its bewildering blend of right-wing nationalism and leftist social reforms. Dismal election results that year encouraged yet another ideological reappraisal on the part of Mussolini, who undertook a further – and irrevocable – move to the Right, abandoning the movement’s earlier republicanism and anticlericalism, and shedding the last vestiges of Socialist ideology in an opportunistic pursuit of power.

In response to the industrial unrest precipitated by the economic problems of the post-war era, Mussolini played on fears of an imminent Bolshevik revolution of the kind he had once encouraged, presenting Fascism as the sole defender of law and order. With support for the movement increasing, the Liberal Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti invited Mussolini to form an anti-Socialist alliance in 1921 which led to the election of thirty-five Fascist Deputies.

However, Mussolini was not satisfied to play a supporting role. The failure to suppress the Fascist ‘March on Rome’ of October 28, 1922 revealed a fatal lack of political will to resist the rise of Mussolini’s movement, culminating in his appointment as Prime Minister at the end of the month.

Having swiftly discarded the democratic framework of Liberal Italy, Mussolini had established his dictatorship by 1925. He then directed his attention to the outside world, determined to make Italy a great colonial power.

Ethiopia was invaded in 1935 and increasing admiration of Hitler’s Nazi regime led to the signing of the 1939 Pact of Steel, which bound both countries to support one another in the event of war – even if one party had unilaterally precipitated the conflict.

Italy declared war on the Allied powers in June 1940 but her military weaknesses soon became apparent and a series of defeats in North and East Africa and the Balkans ensued.

Following the landing of Allied troops in Sicily in July 1943 and heavy bombardments of Rome, Mussolini was overthrown at a meeting of the Grand Council of Fascism and imprisoned on the orders of his former colleagues, who signed an armistice on September 8.

However, having been rescued by German commandos, Mussolini was installed as the puppet leader of a new Fascist regime in the north of the country, now occupied by Nazi forces – known as ‘The Republic of Salò’ after the town on the shores of Lake Garda that served as its administrative centre. As the Allies advanced north through an Italy divided in two by a bitter civil war, Mussolini attempted to escape to Switzerland but was captured by partisans and executed on April 28, 1945.

Mussolini was the first political leader to harness the techniques of theatre, the visual arts and the mass media to a personalised system of rule. One of the key features of the Fascist regime was an orchestrated personality cult involving systematic adulation of the leader. Mussolini was hailed by admirers as a genius, the saviour of the nation, the founder of the empire, a superman and a demi-god.

The cult was vital to the way the regime functioned, integrating the population into a system of consensus that appeared solid until it was undermined by the setbacks of World War Two. Busts and portraits of the Duce were situated in public buildings and private homes, while a number of larger monuments depicted him on horseback or helmeted in warrior mode.

The cult was a product of the Duce’s megalomania but it was also a peculiarly modern phenomenon. It was the result of a complex synergy of Italian nationalism, mass politics, visual culture, popular religion, celebrity and consumerism. Far from being a purely political phenomenon, it was multi-faceted and driven by factors that went beyond the regime itself.

The exhibition Against Mussolini: Art and the Fall of a Dictator relates to the part of the project concerned with the decline of the cult. It brings together some of the diverse paintings and drawings produced in Italy and abroad throughout the Fascist era, but focuses particularly on the years immediately following Mussolini’s initial fall from power in 1943 and the period of civil war and resistance.

This period witnessed the destruction of many Fascist symbols and images of Mussolini. Portraits in homes and local Fascist organisations were thrown out while larger works were attacked and defaced. Popular anger reflected the detachment from the cult that the hardships and setbacks of the war brought. Artists shared these feelings and in several cases anticipated them.

Many of the works in the exhibition are characterised by a demonisation and a desecration of the man who had once been hailed as a demi-god, depicting a grotesque figure of tragic or comic proportions. The virile Duce is turned into an obese, mis-shapen man in works that have an air of blasphemy. Others represent meditations on the tragedy of the Nazi occupation and civil war. Together they offer a unique insight into the way the visual arts responded to a period of transition that still remains controversial today.

The exhibition features a large selection of satirical drawings by the Paduan artist Tono Zancanaro (1906-1985) depicting the grotesque figure of ‘Gibbo’ and his entourage – a thinly veiled caricature of Mussolini and the grandees of the Fascist regime. Zancanaro began the series of drawings in 1937, the works being fed by a series of diverse influences and inspirations.

The name ‘Gibbo’ was taken partly from the character of Gibbon in John Ford’s film The Informer and partly from the animal, while Gibbo’s monstrous, bloated form was inspired by patches of damp on the walls of the hospital where the artist was confined during the late 1930s after being mistakenly informed that he was terminally ill.

Described by one critic as ‘half-man, incomplete, shapeless, deformed, immature and abortive’, Gibbo embodies the inflated pomposity and obscene squalor of the Fascist regime.

Similar in tone is the work of Mino Maccari, who is represented by images from his Dux series, which presents the dictator as a lascivious buffoon. The small scale of Maccari’s works was in deliberate contrast to the monumental dimensions of the cult statues and paintings.

There are also a number of drawings made by partisans during the final months of the war, documenting the capturing of German soldiers, battles in the mountains and fellow partisans at rest in their makeshift barracks. In their directness and simplicity these drawings reflect the revival of realism in Italian art that was to become the dominant aesthetic tendency of the post-war years.

Exhibited in the spring of 1945, these works were created by the artists Nicola Neonato (1912-2006), Vittorio Magnani (1912-1994) and Renato Cenni (1906-1977) – under the pseudonyms Pollaiolo, Marcello and Neri – who worked for the newspaper Il Partigiano (The Partisan). Neonato went on to fresco the memorial chapel at Dachau.

As they were described by the newspaper, ‘these drawings, born between one battle and another, between the joy of victory and the sorrow for one’s fallen companions, in leaking, drafty barracks full of smoke […] will remain among the most important documents of the events through which an oppressed people is fighting for its freedom’.

One of the most renowned exponents of post-war realist aesthetics was Renato Guttuso (1912-1987), who had also fought in the Resistance during 1944. Key works on view include the Picasso-inspired Massacre (1943) and a study for his famous work Flight from Etna (1940). Considered by the artist to be his first politically-charged image in its symbolic depiction of peasants fleeing in terror from an encroaching wave of lava, the finished work was, ironically, the star of the state-sponsored Bergamo Prize of that year.

A section of photographs is dedicated to the equestrian statue of Mussolini that was inaugurated in the Littoriale stadium in Bologna in 1929. A large-scale work by Giuseppe Graziosi (1879-1942) fused from Austrian cannons captured during the First World War, it remained mounted on a pedestal until the human figure was pulled down by an angry crowd in July 1943.

The head was seized by loyal Fascists who conserve it to this day. The remainder of the statue was taken down after the war and was turned into two figures of a male and a female partisan which now stand at one of the city’s gates.

Foreign perspectives are also considered through satirical drawings published in magazines such as Punch as well as the work of eye witnesses to the dramatic events surrounding the fall of Mussolini.

The British painter Merlyn Evans (1910-1973) was serving in Italy in April 1945 and had witnessed the public exhibition of the corpses of Mussolini, his mistress Clara Petacci and other members of the Fascist hierarchy in Milan’s Piazzale Loreto. His painting The Execution was made from his memory of this macabre spectacle, the jostling, jagged, abstract forms intending to represent the rage of the surging mob.

Works from two painting cycles by Mario Mafai (1902-1965) entitled Demolitions and Fantasia can also be seen. The first chronicles Mussolini’s destruction of large areas of ancient Rome to make way for Fascism’s public works programmes and new districts such as the zona augustea. Although not explicitly political, these works have been seen in retrospect as covert denunciations of Mussolini’s megalomania.

The Fantasia cycle is, by contrast, openly condemnatory of the violence and savage brutality of Fascism and strongly recalls Goya’s Disasters of War.

The cult of Mussolini cast a shadow in post-war Italy and nostalgic Fascists continued to cultivate their admiration in private. But, for the majority of Italians, the failings of the dictatorship and the horrors of war were sufficient to end any attachment to Fascism’s dreams of building a mighty nation.

Artists played a vital part in portraying these horrors and in visualising the disenchantment with the man who led the country for more than twenty years. Their works stand as testimony to that particular, tragic phase in Italian history that preceded the rebirth of democracy. They also offer something more: a stark condemnation of the vanities of dictatorship and of the violence that is an intrinsic part of Fascism.

To this extent they offer a universal message of humanity and peace that is no less urgent in our troubled times than it was in the middle of the twentieth century.

Against Mussolini Gallery

Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, 39a Canonbury Square, Islington, London, N1