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The Non-Conformist

The sins and excesses of the artist confirm his genius rather than the opposite. We do not abandon Byron because he abandoned his daughter, not to mention the other women. Our admiration for Caravaggio’s stormy intensity is not marred by the reflection that his temper was such that he once killed a man over a game of tennis. Nor do we shy away from Picasso because he obliged a wife to share his house with a mistress. Poets and painters are demigods perhaps.

All the same, there is one crime that is not forgiven. The Italian artist Mario Sironi (1885-1961) painted on behalf of the Fascist regime. That a pope should commission a painting and call the tune does not perturb us. Likewise when the patron is a rich merchant, from Florence or from Amsterdam. But that a man should have dedicated his art to a totalitarian state, to the point of being largely responsible for creating the iconography by which we remember it, this is anathema. How should we think about Sironi? What are we to make of his paintings?

Alberto Moravia’s novel The Conformist offers a character study of the typical servant of Fascism. Marcello is frightened by violent instincts which he fears set him apart from others. Taking precautions, he does everything to conform, marries a sensible girl, settles down in the civil service; only to find one day that the state is inviting him to murder someone, asking him to indulge exactly the dangerous instincts he sought to repress. It’s a stereotype Susan Sontag develops in her essay “Fascinating Fascism.” And, as Emily Braun shows in her intriguing account of art under Mussolini, it is entirely inapplicable to its greatest exponent, Mario Sironi. This man was no conformist. On the contrary, he was independent and controversial even when most engaged in promoting the regime. Nor, so far as we know and despite the fiercest of tempers, was he ever involved in any act of political violence. He did, however, indulge in the delirium that his art might change the world. Are not painters, along with Shelley’s poets, the “unacknowledged legislators of the universe”? Rightly, Braun sets out to show what kind of world it was and how he imagined he might transform it. Context is all.

Born in 1885, Sironi was eleven when his father died. Enrico Sironi had been a civil engineer. Mario’s maternal grandfather was an architect. The idea that a man can shape the environment was thus available to him from early on. Despite reduced means and six children to bring up, Mario’s mother didn’t forget the family’s cultural pretensions. The house in Rome was always open to painters and writers, and one of those who came was Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, philosopher of Futurism and author, years later, of the notorious manifesto War, Sole Hygiene of the World.

Was it in this adolescent period that Sironi learned, partly from a mother’s desire to fare bella figura, partly from the revolutionary opinions of her guests, that hatred of the borghesia that would accompany him all his life? But many brought up quite differently were to profess the same hatred throughout the first half of the twentieth century, extremists of both the right and the left, and even people who were not extremists at all. So much so that one sometimes suspects that this contempt for the bourgeoisie so-called had less to do with class and money than with a deep fear of spiritual complacency, of merely material well-being. The world had to be made new, because it had been found to be empty. “Take out your pickaxes,” wrote Marinetti, “your axes and hammers and wreck, wreck the venerable cities, pitilessly.”

Having begun a degree in engineering, the young Sironi fell into a profound depression and gave up the university for painting. A succession of nervous breakdowns stretching from his late teens to his mid-twenties would lead him to destroy almost all his early paintings and frighten his family into considering the possibility of a sanatorium. In 1910 his friend and fellow painter Umberto Boccioni would write: “Sironi is completely crazy, or at least neurasthenic. He is always at home and closed off in himself. He doesn’t move, speak, or study anymore: it is truly painful.”

Needless to say the young, unhappy, and it must be said handsome artist was reading Nietzsche, playing Wagner on the piano, and modeling innumerable Greek heads in gesso. Significantly, his mental illnesses came to an end when he became a regular and successful illustrator for a cultural magazine. Sironi, it seemed, was looking for a yoke that would harness his energies. He needed a purpose that “bourgeois” life couldn’t give.

Emily Braun’s Mario Sironi and Italian Modernism is the remarkable story of how that yoke was found; or, to put it another way, it is an account of the gradual meshing of a particular political and artistic context with a peculiar and potentially unstable psychology. Sironi himself was well aware that something was up. In 1914, almost thirty now, he wrote to Boccioni: “In Rome there has been a general strike for two days—a violent and anarchic atmosphere—a revelation of beauty in unison with my disfigured ‘ego.’ Also, your article, the ‘Circle.’ I liked it, and the rough tone was like a caress.”

A few months after that strike, desperate to overcome another depression, Sironi finally left the family home, moved to Milan, and began working alongside Boccioni and other Futurists who, together with Mussolini, were campaigning to have the ever uncertain government intervene in the war. Not that they cared particularly for one side or another. But they wanted action. They felt Italy needed action in order to become herself. By the fall of 1915 they had got what they wanted. They were in the trenches together. They had volunteered. But, alas, it was a world quite different from the glamorous vision of national virility depicted in their magazine illustrations. Nobody was prepared for the harsh conditions of the Alpine front where machine guns canceled each other out across a desolate landscape of stone and ice. The troops tunneled in the snow and were often buried there. Sironi was frequently ill. Boccioni records how, on one freezing night, “around midnight Sironi came to me, and together, with our legs entwined, we tried to sleep.”

With this anecdote in mind it is with some emotion that one stands in Il Museo del Novecento in Milan letting the eye move from a Boccioni canvas to a Sironi. There are many Boccionis, few Sironis, in inverse proportion to their output, of course. For in 1916 Boccioni was dead, a death that exempted him from future sins and criticism, while Sironi was destined to survive not only this war but the next and was ever as prolific as he would remain unrepentant.

Boccioni’s canvases are full of color and bear bold, ingenuously didactic titles: Perpendicular Spiral Construction: Woman Sitting reads one, Dynamism of a Human Body claims another. Both paintings are seductive shakes of the art-ist’s kaleidoscope, a splendid whirl of bright wedges in which the moving figure is almost lost in the exhilaration of its own or the painter’s excitement.

In contrast, Sironi’s one Futurist canvas on show, Self-Portrait (1913; see illustration on page 35),1 is irretrievably gloomy, a fierce stare hidden beneath the most extravagant application of chiaroscuro. Rather than the dynamic movement Futurism was supposed to hail, here the familiar technique of breaking up the image into intersecting planes is used to generate the utmost stasis and a fierce psychological tension. As always with Sironi, the catalog photograph does all it can to make the picture look brighter than it is. But in the gallery the sense of an enormous and doomed effort of will is entirely convincing. Whence, in 1918, would that will be turned?

Emily Braun is efficient and informative as she describes Sironi’s early commitment to socialism, his disenchantment with the left, and his adherence to the more exhilarating if directionless iconoclasm of Futurism. She gives a good picture of the general frustration with Italian parliamentary politics in the early years of the century, the growing desire for a gesture of nation-building and the way this desire was exacerbated rather than quelled by the calamities of the First World War. Her descriptions of the paintings, too, are never less than excellent, particularly of the way Sironi just would not leave the chiaroscuro be, modeling figures, faces, trucks, buildings, and chimneys out of a thick paste of black and white (but mainly black), and then, later in life, creating mosaics that seemed to be painted in chiaroscuro and even sculpting figures so encased in a sort of shell, or even a coffin perhaps, as to create a marked chiaroscuro effect, the figure ever looming from a pool of black. The dark dynamism of the artist’s psyche is clear enough. Yet nothing Braun says quite prepares us for the turn events were to take after Sironi came back from the trenches: his total commitment to Mussolini’s camp. Here, perhaps, it may be worth reflecting for a moment on a trait that still divides the Italian mind from the Anglo-Saxon.

In 1915, claims a note in the Galleria d’Arte Moderna, the collector Riccardo Jucker made Sironi an offer for a small painting entitled La piccola danzatrice. He was astonished when Sironi agreed to sell but insisted on lowering the price. The artist did not think his painting was worth so much (notably it is one of the few Sironis that is not gloomy). And throughout his life Sironi showed scant respect for his own work, signing very little of it, often walking over discarded temperas on the floor, not bothering to catalog it. Needless to say, his opinion of his peers was even lower. Life in Rome, he remarked, immediately after leaving the city, was “a hell full of misery and conflict‌where I placed everyone and everything in a heap of insult and loathing.”

Almost a hundred years before he said this, the thinker and poet Giacomo Leopardi in his Discorso sopra lo stato presente dei costumi degl’italiani paints a picture of his country that, in concentrating on the problem of self-regard, in many ways looks forward to Fascism, and indeed is not without its appropriateness in Italy today. Leopardi starts from the premise that “the massacre of illusions” that has swept away religion and philosophy in Europe has left no basis for morality but the “good taste” of “society,” by which, he makes clear, he means high society. This existed, he felt, in France and in England, where a man is “ashamed to do harm in the same way that he would be ashamed to appear in a conversation with a stain on his clothes.” But Italy, after centuries of poverty and division, found itself without such a society, without this taste, without self-respect. Thus if “the principal basis of the morality of an individual and a people is the constant and profound regard it has for itself,” Italy, where conversation was no more than a “school for insults,” is an entirely immoral place where people do what they do out of the merest habit, laziness, or selfishness, and in the most complete indifference, or even scorn, for the public gestures they make.

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    Curiously this painting, referred to as a self-portrait in the gallery, is reproduced by Braun with the title Head of a Woman (Antigraceful). Sironi frequently reworked paintings, and titles change. Certainly the fixed stare of his self-portraits is reproduced in his many female nudes.

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