“Post Zang Tumb Tuuum. Art Life Politics: Italia 1918–1943,” currently on view at the Fondazione Prada in Milan, is a masterpiece in its own right. The team of curators under the direction of Germano Celant has created an exceptionally comprehensive and highly original presentation of Italy’s post-World War I and Fascist period by assembling an impressive array of paintings, sculptures, porcelain pieces, and carefully designed objects of daily life and industry, as well as publicity posters, photographs, and films.
The exhibition is masterfully conceived with one key criterion in mind: all the artworks are presented in their political, intellectual, cultural, architectural, and even industrial contexts. Carefully adhering to a political timeline described in sufficient detail to please even the most erudite connoisseur of Italian politics and society, the curators have chosen to display the works of art exactly in the way they were first presented to the Italian public.
The interiors of various collectors’ houses, art galleries (both Italian and foreign), industrial lobbies and the assorted halls of the new Fascist buildings, as well as the older ones that housed the Venice Biennales, the Milanese and Roman Triennales where artists first displayed or produced their works, have been faithfully reproduced in blown up photographic form. In some rooms, practically every painting or sculpture has been assembled to recreate the original context. The paintings have been hung in their exact spots, the sculptures placed in their proper spatial orientation, and any missing pieces have been represented by photographic presences.
The result is stunning. We are led back into the period: each work of art is strengthened by the presence of its historic neighbors. We are privy to their original settings as the epoch springs back to life, thanks also to a vast presentation of contemporary reviews and photos.
Above all, the curators stress from the onset that this is not an exhibition of Fascist art. The point is made by beginning the narrative in 1918, four years before Mussolini conquered power and at a time when left and right wing divisions were still unclear, and by ending it in 1943 when Mussolini was removed from power two years before Nazi Germany was vanquished. This is an Italian story where politics and art are intimately intertwined, not because the artists were toadies of the Fascist regime, but because their art preceded, at times accompanied and even incarnated Fascism, while also remaining at other moments aloof from its tenets by transcending them.
Mussolini could rely on Italian artists whom he both sponsored and welcomed because both shared the same Zeitgeist: a total fascination with modernity and speed, a similar condemnation of “philistine” bourgeois stances, and a shared search for an Italian ‘spirit’ that found its roots in classical Rome. The exhibition makes clear that what we would nowadays call Mussolini’s “Italy First” stance did not hamper artistic independence. The Fascist State on the contrary cultivated its artists as an avant-garde of its own modernity, and the artists responded in kind.
The most salient artists of the early epoch such as the Futurists Marinetti and Balla, or even de Chirico predated Fascism. What is less known and the exhibition demonstrates is the degree to which the great artistic names of Italy’s post-1945 modernity such as the painters Giorgio Morandi and Lucio Fontana, or the architects Pier Luigi Nervi and Gio Ponti or even the neo-realist film directors such as Fellini, De Sica, and Rossellini had consolidated their brilliant careers during the fascist years before becoming postwar stars. Without in any way legitimizing or accepting Fascism, the exhibition clearly shows to what an extent Mussolini was no Hitler, even in artistic terms. Multiple artistic influences continued to thrive in the peninsula.
Another major difference was the presence of several Italian Jewish artists such as Carlo Levi or Mario Mafai in the Italian artistic landscape. Even when they were officially marginalized by the Racial Laws of 1938, they continued to work and resumed their artistic place in postwar Italy. Artists crossed the political divides in a continuum of modernist styles and perspectives which allowed for no clear cut ideological breaks. One may not like every artistic representation in the exhibition but none could be condemned as a mere Fascist ideological creation. The art works on display are often innovative, thought provoking, and powerful, even beautiful. They have all outlasted the regime under whose wing they were created.
So, what if any lessons can be drawn from such a powerful exhibition? First, that art, politics, and society are intertwined while still retaining their respective individualities. Artists cannot be easily turned into lackeys. The second, and more preoccupying lesson for our times, is that artists who live in non-democratic and even totalitarian regimes can accommodate themselves quite nicely to their environment perhaps because they remain wrapped almost narcissistically in their own work.
Mussolini’s totalitarianism, unlike Hitler’s or Stalin’s, could accommodate itself to the surrounding artistic world and as a result it could also profit from it. Stalin produced martyrs and heroes through his fierce repression. Hitler produced exiles and victims through his extreme racial and political exclusion. Mussolini instead kept the artists (just as the artists kept Mussolini) without imposing his ideological vision. The artists’ ability to accommodate themselves to his regime casts a shadow on art’s quixotic link to democracy. It is a tribute to the creativity of the Fondazione Prada exhibition to have shown the nuances behind this complex political and artistic interaction.