• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Non-Conformist

Leaving aside the virulence of Leopardi’s attack, which is not without a certain personal bitterness, what is striking about his reflections is the value they give to illusion, above all collective illusion, at the expense of truth, and the way this value is connected with self-respect. Anticipating by many years Nietzsche’s argument that morality was fundamentally a question of aesthetics, he praises the English in particular for the ludicrously high opinion they have of themselves. This illusion—for there is no real reason why the English should have such a high opinion of themselves—allows them to treat each other with great respect. The Italians, on the other hand, living in the truth of total disillusionment, do nothing but sling mud at each other, each antagonist holding even himself in the lowest possible regard.2 In one sense backward (they are without a homogeneous polite society), in another they are obliged to be the avant-garde: they must create a collective illusion deliberately and consciously, something that has never been done before. This is the direction in which, whether intentionally or not, the whole of Leopardi’s Discorso tends. A huge effort of will is required, a great act of collective self-deception. Bereft of religion,3 society must enchant itself with its own imagined worth. Such a vision can only put enormous pressure on art and on the artistic elite from whom any such act must originate.4

Back from the war, Sironi was by now all too aware of the need for self-and mutual regard. Nor was he alien to enormous efforts of will. How else had he overcome his depressions? How else survived the trenches? Living in subsidized housing in the depressing suburbs of a rapidly industrializing Milan, he painted gloomy cityscapes where great masses of barren commercial architecture, windows remorselessly black, open up into deep canyon-like streets, at the bottom of which, in determined patrol, moves a tiny tram, or a small black truck. Alternatively, there are imposing nude figures in classical landscapes. The celebrated Melancholy (1919-1920) shows a seated nude in an impossibly dramatic scenario. Like the trams or trucks of the urban pictures, she is at the bottom of a vast canyon with, in this case, a viaduct spanning distant peaks beneath a stormy sky. Knees covered with a drapery so modeled in chiaroscuro as to seem carved in stone, she stares in grim determination at a marble sphere on a pedestal.

It is with some amusement, in the Museo del Novecento in Milan, that one moves from Sironi’s rendering of this theme to Achille Funi’s Melancholy (1930), only a couple of canvases away. Here, despite the generous fleshiness of the seated nude, we have only a pretty wistfulness, a sweet girl who for all her colorful bulk might float away at any moment. Certainly there appears to be something like a halo above her head. Turning back to the Sironi, the essential ingredients of his vision become clear: on the one hand the immense and desolate heaviness of existence, represented in either the flesh or the landscape, whether natural or urban; and then the equally immense effort of will, visible in furious face or dark truck, needed to focus it, to impose on it, to overcome it. Later, Sironi would be ridiculed for the huge feet that began to appear in his paintings, so much so that he would be known as Il piedone—“big foot.” Ever ready to kick, that foot brings together the heaviness and the effort. 5

In 1919 Sironi married Matilde Fabbrini. “Their mutually abrasive relationship,” writes Braun laconically, “would continue until his death.” Marriage too, then, was to be a conflict requiring a constant exercise of will. At the beginning Matilde didn’t even want to leave Rome to be with her husband in Milan. But Sironi won this first round and soon she had borne him a daughter, Aglae, whom Mussolini managed to sit on his lap and promptly drop. For the little girl’s father was moving in very particular circles now. He was a close friend of Margherita Sarfatti, art critic of Mussolini’s newspaper Il Popolo d’Italia and companion of his bed. How fitting that the first man to come to power through a modern use of propaganda should have an art critic for his mistress. How ironic that she should be Jewish. Sironi, as sole and daily illustrator for Il Popolo d’Italia from August 1921 through 1923,6 was to be an essential instrument of that propaganda in the moment of crisis that brought Mussolini to power.

They were heady years. World War I had brought the country to the brink of collapse. In a wave of industrial unrest the Socialists were trying to push it over that brink. The workers occupied the factories. The Fascists claimed to represent the working class, but opposed the Socialists, the factory occupations by workers, and the government. Theirs would be a “third way” between capitalism and communism. The Futurists sided with the Fascists, then broke with them. It was all very confusing. Of his illustrations during that period, Sironi wrote to his wife immediately before she came to Milan:

The dance has begun again and so has the nausea…. Every time it becomes more difficult—and I have the same sensation this time—darkness and complete emptiness and I know well where it comes from! To do philosophy in caricature! And not knowing where to begin. For control or none, for the end of the world or for Turati [the Socialist leader]? Total mystery and indecision! In addition to think about all of these present and future problems makes me anxious, bewildered, and sick to my stomach!

Clearly the situation demanded someone who knew his mind. The flamboyant poet Gabriele D’Annunzio had shown the way, taking, on his own initiative, a small private army to occupy Fiume on the northern Adriatic coast, a territory the Allies had denied to Italy after the war. Though the mission ultimately failed, it captured the imagination. Sironi, in a rare concession to the occasional, dedicated a painting to the event. One of his typical industrial scenes is just readable as the docks at Trieste thanks to the masts of a ship rising above a wall. In what is a shallower canyon than most of his streets, a powerful figure sits on a vigorous white horse in, as always, dramatic chiaroscuro. For the first time one has the impression of the effort of will being superior to the weight it opposes. This is heroism. For the first time Sironi’s private preoccupations are clearly identifiable with a contemporary political figure.

Very soon, after the March on Rome, it would be Mussolini who embodied that heroic gesture. In the huge mosaic of 1936, Fascist Work (see illustration on page 30), for example, the big foot definitely belongs to the Duce. As for the ubiquitous black truck of the earlier paintings, all too soon it would be unmistakably the vehicle of the Fascist squadristi, the thugs. And however complicated Sironi might have found politics throughout two decades of Fascism, he would never have any difficulty in offering a positive image of the exercise of will, the imposition of a decision, whatever it might be. In the thousands of pugnacious political illustrations he produced, the gesture is triumphant, almost an infantile fantasy of domination and control. In the paintings, the will is for the most part thwarted, at best gloomily steadfast. “Will to power, will to life, will to grandeur,” he wrote in 1933; “these passwords, these majestic words of Fascism, also express the style of our art.” The private and political worlds had meshed.

But what was that style? Only a year after Sironi wrote those words, the musician Ildebrando Pizzetti commented:

Every time I come across a book, a brochure and article about Fascism and Fascist art, I read it from top to bottom, carefully, applying my intelligence to the utmost, and every time with renewed desire, the renewed hope, that I will come away from it having finally understood what is meant by Fascist art. No doubt it’s my own fault if I haven’t quite grasped what I read, but that desire, that hope, remains unfulfilled.

The question of the existence or not of a Fascist style occupies the central pages of Emily Braun’s book and is intimately tied up with the question: How far was Sironi’s work the result of political expedience, acceptance of a group line, and how far was he his own man creating his own work? Did he really believe, as he claimed, that artistic genius was “the foremost quality of our race” and Mussolini “the Man who will know how justly to esteem the force of our world-dominating art”? Or were these statements part of an exercise of group self-deception of the kind foreshadowed in Leopardi’s Discorso, though Leopardi, no doubt, would have found them even more grotesque than we do?

Some facts must be briefly stated, if only to grasp how complicated the issue becomes. Sironi supported Mussolini from beginning to end, from the March on Rome to the grotesque puppet show of Salò. He was personally responsible for the artwork at the huge Mostra della Rivoluzione Fascista of 1932, which turned the tenth anniversary of Fascist power into a quasi-religious festival and deliberately distorted the facts about how Mussolini had come to power (Braun’s book has impressive and frightening photographs of the exhibition). Sironi was likewise responsible for official Italian pavilions at international exhibitions in Paris and Milan. By 1933 he had actually renounced easel painting as “too monotonous and trite for the complex orchestrations of modern life, too weak to capture the attention of men in this age of great myths and gigantic upheavals.” In short, by turning to the large-scale mural and mosaic, he identified even his “serious” work, as opposed to the merely journalistic illustrations, with the Fascist cause.

On the other hand, it must also be said that his work for Il Popolo d’Italia became sporadic after the alliance with Germany. He never publicly supported (but never spoke out against) the anti-Semitic campaign. Incredibly and inexplicably, he did not become an official member of the Fascist Party until 1936. He did not grow rich through his support of the regime, was always underpaid, took no bribes. He was never admitted to the Reale Accademia d’Italia, an honor Mussolini extended to both Marinetti and Pirandello. Throughout the Thirties he was constantly under fire from the right-wing Fascists, notably the arch xenophobe Roberto Farinacci, who accused Sironi of polluting Italian art with foreign and Jewish influences.

Above all, though, it has to be said that there is a remarkable continuity to Sironi’s painting that seems to go far beyond immediate political circumstance, or indeed artistic fashions. For although a cursory glance through the illustrations in Braun’s book will make it clear how much Sironi owed to the major artists and movements of his time, from Futurism, through metaphysical painting and the various phases of Picasso’s work, nevertheless to look at the paintings more carefully is to appreciate how completely his own personal vision transforms each of these approaches into something immediately recognizable as his own. So much so that in its description of the canvas Drinker with Cup, the catalog of the Museo del Novecento is unable to decide whether it was painted in the early 1930s or the 1950s (when Sironi returned to easel painting), so consistent is it with the artist’s manner throughout his long career. Which brings us back to the question of Fascist style:when there is no gesture to the trappings of Fascism it appears there is no distinctive Fascist style to help date the work.

  1. 2

    Leopardi remarks: “Thus not only does life in Italy have no substance or truth at all, something it doesn’t have elsewhere either, but it doesn’t even have the appearance of the same, so that we might be able to think of it as important” (Discorso, p. 51).

  2. 3

    In an extraordinary few lines on religious fundamentalism Leopardi dismisses the idea that the Italians are a religious people: “Nor should anyone object that the Italians too have their religious practices, since in Italy, as I have said, these are usages and habits not moral customs and everybody laughs at them, nor do we any longer find real fanatics of any kind in Italy” (Discorso, p. 72).

  3. 4

    Let me offer, as a provocative paradigm of this dynamic, the efforts made by the hero of the film Life Is Beautiful (La vita è bella) to convince his son that the guards in the concentration camp they have been sent to are not evil, but merely team leaders in a complicated, beautiful, and exciting game. It is difficult to imagine this sentimental tribute to the heroism of maintaining a façade coming from any country but Italy.

  4. 5

    Braun quotes as sarcastic the advice given to Sironi by the Minister of Education Giuseppe Bottai: “Tell your critics you make the feet of your figures so big so that they can kick them in the ass.” Sarcastic he might have been, but close to the truth one suspects.

  5. 6

    Braun remarks: “Sironi contributed caricatures to Il Popolo d’Italia on a daily basis, with few exceptions, from August 1921 through 1923, with a notable interval between 15 and 28 October, the period of the March on Rome. By 1925, the drawings appeared twice or three times a week, and gradually diminished in frequency around 1930.” (p. 257, fn 2)

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print