• Email
  • Print

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 conflict…where 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.

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.

The secret to these apparent contradictions no doubt lay in the ambiguous nature of Fascism itself, an ambiguity that suited Sironi. At first revolutionary, then reactionary, formed by socialists who became conservatives, Fascism prided itself on being an “anti-ideology” whose only raison d’être was the grandeur of Italy. It spoke of breaking decisively with the past, but also of a return to the greatness of Rome. Essentially, it was gesture without content, tension without consummation.

This vagueness was never more evident than in the establishment of the so-called Novecento movement into which Margherita Sarfatti gathered a number of the country’s well-known painters, including Sironi, immediately after World War I. The declared inspiration of the movement was the desire to shift from criticism to construction. Futurism had been merely iconoclastic. Now the artist would play a privileged part in building a new social order, shaping a new and united national consciousness. But it was never clear what that order or consciousness would be and there was little homogeneity between the painters involved. “True Italian tradition is that of never having any tradition” was the kind of equivocal explanation often given, “since the Italian race is a race of innovators and constructors.”

There is a curious mixture of authoritarianism and anarchy here, elitism and laissez faire. Thus Sironi would have agreed with Giovanni Gentile, Mussolini’s minister of education, when he declared that the artist needed to be involved in the moral, political, and economic life of the nation, creating myths and building consensus, putting in motion the “forces of sentiment and will.” But it was equally important that the content of what one painted never be imposed. And indeed Sironi met the stiffest criticism of his career over his organization of the mural paintings at the 1933 Milan Triennale exhibition. The critic Roberto Papini claimed that the sheer variety he had admitted created a “sense of anarchy” giving the impression that nineteenth-century individualism was alive and well at the expense of Fascist discipline. But hadn’t Mussolini himself declared that he had no intention of creating an “art of the State” since art was “the domain of the individual”? “It would have indicated a scarce awareness of the aesthetic phenomenon,” Sironi answered his critics, “to have demanded the representation of a given obligatory subject.”

Thus Sironi could invite De Chirico to paint a fresco in which, as was De Chirico’s way, the juxtaposition of classical and modern iconography generates an amused irony about the possibility of absolute meaning, while only a room away Sironi himself produced a fresco that, taking its title from Hesiod’s Works and Days, sought in a huge amalgam of classical and industrial figures to weld together past and present in a positive and emphatic dynamic. Alas, the impression of permanence that Sironi always sought was belied by the very poor preparation of the murals’ surfaces. Before the exhibition was over the images were already flaking off.

But technical problems aside, was it really possible to separate style and content in this way, something no other totalitarian regime has ever tried, to allow freedom of content and insist only on a certain “style” that, after all, no one could define, to the point that Mussolini ultimately stated that all he wanted of artists was they produce works that were “strong and beautiful”?

Braun, along with others, suggests that this non-insistence on content was an instance of Mussolini’s astuteness. He gave artists enough freedom, not to mention subsidies and sweeteners, to prevent them from attacking him. And certainly there is an element of truth in this. But it is also true that the lack of imposed content or definable style tells us something about the nature of Fascism. The point can best be understood when we come to the perplexing question of the Fascist “exploitation” of myth.

A myth of course, is a story. It distinguishes itself from other stories by forming part of a larger group of intertwining narratives that, taken together, form the spell, as it were, under which a community lives. Nobody in particular invented these stories, rather all are in their thrall, until, with Leopardi’s “massacre of illusions,” they are cast off. Significantly, when the unhappy idea occurred that mythology might be at our beck and call and that it might be conjured up again to “manipulate the masses,” what is notably lacking is the narrative element. Sironi, but not only Sironi, created endless images suggesting the primacy of Italy and drawing on mythic figures and symbols. But all is static. The figures are rigidly separate. We can never say, this is the story where Saint Peter did this, or this is the story where Caesar did that.

Thus Fascist Work, Sironi’s imposing mosaic for the 1936 Triennale, gives us a huge central figure of Italy—seated, powerful, determined—and then two tiers of symbolic figures: above are images from an antique past, an Etruscan priestess, a Roman horseman. Below are representatives of modern Italy, a mother and child, a helmeted soldier. The only figure to break the division between the layers is a stalwart Mussolini busy with a spade. While the sense of awe and solemnity, the “aesthetic aura,” Sironi claimed he sought to communicate is certainly present and powerful, there is no narrative here, nor any sense of where all this might be going. It is rather as if we had a group of figures waiting for a story to happen to them. Or alternatively for someone like De Chirico to alter one symbol, introduce just one incongruity, and reveal the whole thing as ironic. My Italian father-in-law assured me that nothing was more common, on the parade ground, than for a word or two of a Fascist song to be replaced by some rhyming absurdity, so that everyone could burst out laughing. The eventual narrative, on the other hand, when someone finally put these static figures in motion, would be no laughing matter.7

In January 1939 a journalist at Corriere della Sera submitted a typescript to a Milan publisher. Under the title La fortezza (“The Fort”) it told the story of a young lieutenant who goes to serve his first commission in a remote mountain fortress where a garrison of well-disciplined soldiers waits year after year for an improbable attack from the northern desert beyond. Almost at once the lieutenant fears he is wasting his time. He is desperate to return to the “real” world. But time passes, the disciplined life has a kind of fascination about it, likewise the uniforms, the military gestures, the easy mutual regard between the officers. A brief period of home leave proves to be a failure. The lieutenant finds the relationship with his old girlfriend difficult. People have no special respect for him. He returns to the isolated fortress, the discipline, the stark beauty of the raised bayonet against the Alpine backdrop. But such beauty is madness without the war that would give it meaning. Obsessed now by the idea that one day there will be action and glory, the aging hero eventually falls ill and dies just as, as if conjured by the endless gaze of the fortress lookouts, the northern hordes finally appear and attack.

To read the book that was eventually published as Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe is to savor the power of an aesthetic enchantment, a collective illusion, and its uneasy relationship and ultimately its collision with reality.8 By the time Buzzati placed his typescript on the publisher’s desk, the empty posturing of Fascist aesthetics had indeed been taken over by a northern barbarian all too eager to write a script for the solemn figures of its static mythology. Mussolini was under Hitler’s thumb. The Racial Laws were introduced. In one of the strangest gestures of his life, when his close friends Carlo and Eloise Foà chose to flee to the US, Sironi gave the departing Jewish couple his private papers for safekeeping. Despite “Italian supremacy” he was not convinced of victory in the forthcoming conflagration.

The papers Sironi gave to his friends told mainly of his unhappy marriage. Separated from his wife in 1930, only two years after the birth of a second daughter, he had begun an affair with the much younger Mimì Costa. Sironi was a misanthrope, Mimì a flirt. During preparations for the 1933 Triennale he locked her in his car for several hours rather than have her meet his colleagues. Painting murals for the masses now, he worked alone at night because he didn’t want the masses to see him. How hard to be the lonely genius underwriting a populist regime! Meanwhile the passion with Mimì couldn’t last, while the argument with his wife could never end. “I’ve told you over and over again,” he writes to her in 1936, “that I just don’t earn very much.” Proclaiming the innate genius of the Italian spirit, he despaired of incompetence all around him. “Why aren’t all Italians like me?” he demands in a letter to his daughters.

Throughout the war he continued to be a vegetarian, wrote of his love of animals, most particularly his dog, and condemned hunting, an activity depicted heroically in the ancient artworks he diligently studied to find images of a noble Italy. So it is not surprising that he was carrying his exhausted dog when he was finally hunted down himself; he had walked thirty miles to Como from a heavily bombed Milan. Lined up for execution with other loyal Fascists, he was recognized by a young art student among the partisan executioners. Having preached since his early Socialist days that the artist was no different from any other worker, his special semi-divine status was recognized at just the right moment. They couldn’t kill a painter. Freed, he sketched his fellow Fascists’ execution.

Or perhaps it was just the wrong moment. For it is with some awe that one reflects on what Sironi’s inner life must have been in those postwar years. He was sixty now and everything had changed. In 1948 his second daughter committed suicide. Partly as a result the first daughter broke off all communication. His reputation was gone, his very name a scandal. But doggedly he painted on, appropriating Abstract Expressionism now, the same way he had previously appropriated every other style. As steadfast as the figures he had always painted, there were no confessions and no explanations. When he died in 1961, he used his will for one last act of will. His wife Matilde was barred from attending his funeral.

To see the mosaic Fascist Work, one has to make a telephone call. Transferred to the wall of an upper room in the Palazzo dei Giornalisti, Piazza Cavour, Milan, it looks down on a conference hall run by the Hilton hotel organization, representatives, surely, of that international bourgeois capitalism Sironi so hated. How solemn and gloomily powerful his figures are! And how strange to think of this thing being created for the masses, to unite the Italian people, and being seen now mainly by privileged foreign businessmen glancing up from their lists of statistics.

When I ask a disgruntled Hilton man if people often come to see the mosaic, he tells me, “Fortunately not.” Clearly he hardly notices it himself. But out on the street a Benetton advertisement showing a man on death row continues the Italian tradition of a radical split between rhetorical gesture—this sham international piety—and banal reality—the need to sell sweaters. And in Milan’s Stazione Centrale too, one of Fascism’s finest pieces of architecture, the old imperial insignia high up on the lofty arches are barely noticed beside the bold and colorful images society now raises one after another in extravagant and solipsistic praise of itself. A boy’s huge grim frown on the left is altered, by a particular brand of sunglasses, to a huge bright smile on the right. As Emily Braun remarks in laconic conclusion to her excellent book, when it comes to creating social cohesion and shared vision, Sironi and company simply hadn’t grasped “the power of consumerism, whose persuasive myths would prove far more effective than Socialism or Fascist ultrapopulist nationalism.”

Ferreting through my bag on the train I find the glossy Hilton brochure someone put in my hand as I left what is now called “Lo spazio Sironi.” “For an unforgettable stay,” it invites me, “in an oasis of refined efficiency.” Above an illuminated computer screen, a beautifully stern face from Sironi’s Fascist Work dominates the cover. The title of the mosaic is not mentioned.

  1. 1

    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.

  2. 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).

  3. 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).

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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)

  7. 7

    It was precisely the lack of any content behind Fascism’s gesturing that allowed even such an astute commentator as Benedetto Croce to say, as late as 1928 and after the assassination of Matteoti, that he saw in Fascism only “an episode of the postwar period, with some juvenile and patriotic traits, which would be dissipated without doing any harm, but on the contrary leaving behind some positive effects.”

  8. 8

    It is interesting to put these reflections alongside the following remark by Sironi: “All of the Italians represent a centuries-old vortex of willfulness, so much so that one can well say that they have generated an antinatural nature, a creative reality outside of and contrary to common reality.”

  • Email
  • Print