In the period between Italy’s unification as a nation in 1871 and its entry into World War One in 1915, the country faced enormous problems. Political instability was met with ferocious class struggles and mass emigration. All of this strife led to extreme poverty and socioeconomic inequality. Staging Injustice: Italian Art 1880-1917 at the Center for Italian Modern Art, which includes around 20 artworks by 15 artists, mostly loans from Italian museums, provides an eloquent record of this period, telling this very timely story of working class lives, strikes, and homelessness from the viewpoint of Leftist artists. In these works, the beautiful country that attracted and still attracts art lovers seems very far from view.

Ambrogio Alciati’s “The Miner” (1907) portrays the dead worker in a Pieta-like composition perhaps borrowed from Venetian sacred images. Adriana Bisi Fabbri’s “Mother”(1917) depicts a grieving mother in a style recalling the fin-de-siecle Symbolists. Emilio Longoni’s “Reflections of a Starving Man” (1894) shows a poor man on the street watching an entitled couple dining inside in a restaurant. Giacomo Balla, who later gained fame as part of the Italian Futurist group, contributes “Cycle of the Living. The Peasant” (1902), a naturalistic image of an impoverished worker. Raffaello Gambogi’s “Emigrants” (1894) centers on a group of people ready to embark in Liverno. And another work by Longoni, “The Orator of the Strike” (1891) depicts a militant activist, holding onto a lamppost suspended high above the crowd to which he speaks. 

Ambrogio Alciati, “Il minatore” (The Miner) (1907), oil on canvas, 48 x 52 3/8 inches, Museo della Società per le Belle Arti ed Esposizione Permanente, Milan (Italy)

A historical perspective seems essential to understand the shared mood conveyed by this otherwise relatively diverse body of artworks. And so, I cast my imagination back to recent memories of the Museo del Novecento in Milan, where at the entrance is the permanent installation of Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo’s famous divisionist manifesto “The Fourth Estate” (1901). This is a gigantic work — 18 feet wide and 10 feet tall. His smaller, much less dramatic preliminary version of this scene, “Ambassadors of Hunger” (1892), is in this show. This painting inspired the tableau vivant in the opening credits of Bernardo Bertolucci’s film 1900 (1976), a Marxist epic, also oversize, about class struggles in 20th-century Italy. In “The Fourth Estate” a wave of people, plainly dressed, advance toward us; in the foreground are two men and a woman with a child in her arms. Volpedo’s very ambitious goal was to employ the pointillist technique, created by Georges Seurat and developed by Camille Pissarro and Paul Signac, to treat an iconic leftist subject, the political triumph of the workers. 

Heirs to the grand Italian traditions of sacred art dating back to the early Renaissance, these artists faced a real problem: how within a basically secular framework could they represent injustices and project a hopeful vision of what changes were possible? But of course that issue, which was not solved aesthetically in their art, was soon resolved in practice in a way that they would have rejected when, in 1922, Mussolini’s fascists took control of Italy. These images show the miseries of early modern Italy without offering a picture of possible political action. That’s why I found my memory of “The Fourth Estate“ (supplemented by the story told in 1900) so striking. Even that brave, ambitious painting is not, I think, ultimately a great political work; while it celebrates achieved unity, it doesn’t show how that unity emerges out of real conflicts. Perhaps, so I fear, this monolithic unified group could as easily become fascists. No doubt that critical judgment is unfair to a bold artist whose development, like that of his Italian Leftist culture, was cruelly cut short by his untimely death at age 38. But it does explain the ultimate political limitations of Volpedo’s painting. 

Adriana Bisi Fabbri, “Madre” (Mother) (1917), oil on canvas, 27 1⁄2 x 27 1⁄2 inches, Museo del Novecento, Milan (Italy)
Adolfo Feragutti Visconti, “Ricordati della mamma!” (Don’t Forget Mom!) (1896-1904), oil on canvas, 60 5/8 x 45 5/8 inches, Fondazione Cariplo, Milan (Italy)

This admittedly roughly sketched analysis bears on the achievements and limitations of this group of paintings at CIMA. What makes for truly successful political art is not just awareness of the present miseries, but some shared sense of what the oppressed might collectively achieve, what Jean-Jacques Rousseau described as the “general will” and Karl Marx called class consciousness. Only when there is an awareness of the shared interests of the group as a community is collective progressive action to change the world possible. The works in Staging Injustice suggest that the Italian artists circa 1880-1917 had not yet achieved such an awareness. In that way, judging by the subsequent history, these artists provided a wholly truthful picture of their country. The true heirs of these political artists were the neorealist film directors. Think of Vittorio de Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1948), which shows both the poverty of a worker who needs his bicycle to support his family, and his desperation when it is stolen: Is that cinematic narrative not a natural extension of this story?

CIMA deserves praise for sponsoring this exhibition, which deals with political themes that speak to the threats of fascism, poverty, and war that inform our immediate present. Right now, of course, there are progressive movements and activists in this country doing the work of repairing our sociopolitical, economic, and environmental ills. How, then, can the rest of us translate our general awareness of the present problems into a progressive cultural movement? Knowing, as Benedetto Croce said, that all history is history of the present, what can we Americans learn from these Italian artists? 

Luigi Nono, “Abbandonati” (Abandoned) (1903), oil on canvas, 37 6/8 x 53 6/8 inches, Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia, Galleria Internazionale d’Arte Moderna di Ca’ Pesaro, Venice (Italy) (2021 © Archivio Fotografico – Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia)

Staging Injustice: Italian Art 1880-1917 continues at the Center for Italian Modern Art (421 Broome Street, 4th floor, Soho, Manhattan) through June 18. The exhibition was curated by Giovanna Ginex.

David Carrier’s most recent books are Art Writing Online: The State of the Art World and Philosophical Skepticism as the Subject of Art: Maria Bussmann’s Drawings. His book In Caravaggio’s Shadow:...