ArtWeekend

The Art that Flourished Under Mussolini

While unquestionably autocratic, Mussolini did not oppose the proliferation of unofficial artistic styles.

Post Zang Tumb Tuuum. Art Life Politics: Italia 1918–1943 at the Fondazione Prada, Milan, installation view, left to right: Fortunato Depero, “Spazialità lunari o convegno in uno smeraldo” (1924), Giacomo Balla, “Canaringatti (Gatti futuristi)” (1923–24), Giacomo Balla, “Fascisti e antifascisti” (1924–25), Giacomo Balla, “Auto–Stato d’animo” (1920), Giacomo Balla, “Sorge l’idea” (1920), Gerardo Dottori, “Gialli e violetti” (1923), (photo by Delfino Sisto Legnani and Marco Cappelletti, all images courtesy Fondazione Prada)

MILAN — “In a moment historically where there are regimes all over — why not analyse a regime?” these are the words, quoted by Hannah McGivern in The Art Newspaper, that curator Germano Celant used to explain the purpose of his current exhibition Post Zang Tumb Tuuum. Art Life Politics: Italia 1918–1943, currently on view at Fondazione Prada.

The title is a riff on “Zang Tumb Tumb,” a poem by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, dated between 1912 and 1914, which consists of a mixture of sounds and words, the result of Marinetti’s direct observation of the battle of Adrianople during the First Balkan War. As cacophonous as it might sound, it is one of the cardinal texts of Futurism, and Futurism, in post-World War I revival, known as “il secondo Futurismo,” remained a very important presence in the interwar artistic scene of Italy.

Adolfo Wildt, “Il puro folle (Parsifal)” (1930), plaster work, 71 x 73 x 80 cm, Galleria Internazionale d’Arte Moderna di Ca’ Pesaro, Venezia (photo Franzini C.)

With its 600 works of art across multiple disciplines, Post Zang Tumb Tuuum appeases the viewer with a fair share of “big” names of the era, including such works as Umberto Boccioni’s studies in dynamism, Giacomo Balla’s vividly colorful paintings, and Adolfo Wildt’s grotesquely classicist sculptures. However, if Post Zang Tumb Tuuum were just a display of famed interwar artworks hanging in a “neutral” environment, it would have been a predictable textbook-style show. Mind you, I would have enjoyed seeing Balla’s “Canaringatti” (ca. 1923-4), a Futurist interpretation of “cat” art, and Adolfo Wildt’s fragment of “Il Puro Folle” (1930), his interpretation of the mythical figure of Parsifal, regardless.

Instead, curator Celant partnered with the New York design studio 2×4, and together they created 20 semi-immersive installations consisting of partial reconstructions of both private spaces and public art exhibitions of that era, such as the biennali and quadriennali of various cities, placing an artwork — whether it be a painting or a sculpture — within quite a faithful reproduction of its original context, elegantly recreating the missing elements as faded, black-and-white renderings: this is the case, for example, of a 1937 exhibition held at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York, showcasing the works of Giorgio de Chirico, including “Interno metafisico” (1917), which is present in the exhibition, or the third Biennale di Roma from 1925, showcasing Futurist works such as Fortunato Depero’s “Spazialità lunari o convegno in uno smeraldo” (1924). 

Post Zang Tumb Tuuum. Art Life Politics: Italia 1918–1943 at the Fondazione Prada, Milan, installation view, left to right: Pasqualino Cangiullo, “Istantanea dal vero” (1918), Pasqualino Cangiullo, “Treno sul ponte” (1914), Gino Soggetti, “Fanterie d’Italia” (c. 1917), Pasqualino Cangiullo, “Tunnel” (1918), (photo: Delfino Sisto Legnani and Marco Cappelletti)

The result is a multi-faceted and nuanced portrayal of the many shapes of Italian visual culture from the interwar period through Italy’s surrender in World War II, 1918 to 1943, in chronological rather than thematic order. While public art and architecture assumed a reactionary classicist aesthetic, other visual arts — painting, sculpture, even performance — were animated by different currents, including the second generation of Futurists; the Valori Plastici movement and its return to order; and the exponents of Il Novecento, which was heralded by Mussolini’s mistress Margherita Sarfatti and, while similar to Valori Plastici, displayed more of a nationalistic bent. While unquestionably autocratic, Mussolini did not oppose the proliferation of unofficial artistic styles, and even though, from 1927 onwards, the regime had decreed that all art exhibitions needed government authorization and prior publication on the government’s journal of record, their content and form were left mostly uncontrolled. 

Post Zang Tumb Tuuum’s chronological, rather than a thematic approach, also adds to the exhibition’s dynamism, giving the viewer a better sense of the multitudes of influences (or aesthetic obsessions) inspiring artists across disciplines year by year: in those decades, aside from Futurist-friendly dynamic studies, these obsessions included motherly female figures and kitschy landscapes, sometimes rendered in regime-friendly grandeur, as well as such flights of fancy such as the aeropittura, Futurist paintings defined by Marinetti and his co-writers in the 1929 manifesto Perspectives of Flight as “the celebration of the airborne and cosmic imagination,” in which “flying aerial painters (aeropittori) gain possession of the sky.” Interpretations of aeropittura present at the exhibition range from pastel-colored skyscapes to vistas that fans of Studio Ghibli’s anime films would surely appreciate.

Post Zang Tumb Tuuum. Art Life Politics: Italia 1918–1943 at the Fondazione Prada, Milan, installation view, from left to right: Fortunato Depero, “Marinetti temporale patriottico” (1924), Růžena Zátková, “Ritratto di Marinetti” (1921−22), (photo: Delfino Sisto Legnani and Marco Cappelletti)

Dividing the rooms by year also highlights the kinds of contrasts in form and content that thematic exhibitions by definition suppress: faceted Futurist shapes are juxtaposed to static pastoral landscapes, such as the Valori Plastici paintings of Mario Sironi; “Forme-Forze nello Spazio“ (1932), an abstract-surrealist work by Enrico Prampolini hangs in close proximity to “Donna allo Specchio” (1927) by Cagnaccio di San Pietro. Cagnaccio’s depiction of a woman applying lipstick in front of a vanity mirror looks, all in all, just like a classical statue, both for her curvaceous physique and for the intricate folds of the robe that barely conceals her nudity. 

Grotesquerie abounds too, such as in “Donna che allatta il filosofo Giovanni Gentile con la tuba” (1934) by Mino Maccari, depicting, in gouache and ink, a matronly woman breastfeeding a diminutive version of philosopher Giovanni Gentile, who appears fully clothed with a top hat. Quite predictably, these “contrasts” stop being simply interesting to look at once Italy enters WWII: the exhibition grimly closes with the studies for the project E42, “Luminous Gardens,” in Rome — sketches on cardboard depicting renderings of “dancing fountains” and gardens with elaborate lighting designs that would never be completed. On the opposite wall of the room, merciless lampoons of Il Duce’s fall from grace hang alongside graphic depictions of corpses in a concentration camp by Carlo Levi and the hellish landscape full of writhing nudes of Mario Mafai’s Il Bivacco (1939): this is one very rare instance of “resistance” art, which is, though not shockingly, is largely absent from the exhibition.

Boccioni, Umberto, “Dynamism of a Soccer Player” (“Dinamismo di un footballer,” 1913), oil on canvas, 93.2 x 201 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York (© 2017, digital image courtesy The Museum of Modern Art, New York / Scala, Firenze)

Rounding out the exhibition is a selection of related materials, including plans for Tetiteatro, an aquatic theater dedicated to the goddess Thetis; the set designs for Futurist Ballet along with several posters by Marcello Dudovich, advertising the department store La Rinascente, with modest 1930s) pin-ups. The addition of such materials to Post Zang Tumb Tuuum helps to make those 25 years more understandable than the a more exclusive reliance on paintings and sculptures would have allowed. 

Italy is plagued by various inferiority complexes with regard to other nations, even in terms fashion, cuisine, and culture. Mostly, they’re unjustified, but as a native Italian, it has become obvious that my compatriots enjoy a good “woe-is-me” wallow. However, after visiting Post Zang Tumb Tuuum, they can at least feel some (grim) satisfaction that among the 20th century’s totalitarian regimes, Mussolini’s was the one that treated cultural expression most respectfully (that is, as long as they were more or less in line with his own vision).It’s a pathetic form of consolation, but one that might induce people to seek more exposure to the artists of Il Novecento, Valori Plastici and the second generation of Futurists, all of which remain largely underrepresented in art historical curricula compared to, say, their German contemporaries. 

Post Zang Tumb Tuuum. Art Life Politics: Italia 1918–1943 continues at Fondazione Prada (Largo Isarco, 2, Milan, Italy) through June 25.

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