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…

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