Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 8, 2001
Emily Braun Mario Sironi and Italian Modernism: Art and Politics under Fascism Cambridge University Press, 2000. 346 pp.; 16 color ills.; many b/w ills.; 145 ills. Cloth $60.00 (0521480159)

Emily Braun’s book is a milestone in the study of fascist art and politics, not only because Sironi played a seminal role in the development of fascist aesthetics but also due to the theoretical sophistication she brings to her analysis of fascism’s cultural politics. Braun frames Sironi’s production in terms of Roger Griffin’s palingenetic concept of fascism, a generic term deriving from “palin,” meaning “again” or “anew,” and genesis, suggesting creation or birth. At the core of fascist politics was a palingenetic call for a period of renewal or regeneration after a phase of crisis or decline. Fascists addressed both the past and future in their attempt to transcend a decadent present; they wished to build a new society by claiming kinship to glorious or healthy eras from the nation’s past. To achieve their regenerative ends fascists relied on the irrational power of myths to transform society. Having identified enlightenment rationalism and base materialism as the root causes of contemporary decadence, fascists attributed an agitational role to mythic structures as the nonrational or intuitive motivators best able to inspire a revolutionary situation.

In her complex analysis of the fascist theory of myth, Braun cites the French political theorist Georges Sorel, whose 1908 publication Reflections on Violence was avidly read by both Mussolini and members of the Futurist avant-garde. Sorel argued that core myths, rather than rational systems of thought, were the catalyst for all revolutionary transformations, whether religious or secular. The importance of myths lay not in their ‘truth value’ but in their ability to inspire present action: examples included the dream of a united Italy that played a crucial role in the risorgimento, and the nationalism that inspired the heroic exploits of citizen soldiers during times of war. Before 1914, Sorel hoped that the mythic vision of a general strike and ensuing class war would inspire the proletariat to reject the enlightenment precepts girding parliamentary democracy, and overthrow a form of governance synonymous with plutocratic decadence. In the wake of WWI, the Fascists posited national regeneration as the motivating myth, claiming that the Italian soldier had undergone a spiritual transformation as a result of the violence of war, and that every citizen would experience a similar epiphany if myths became the catalyst for an antiparliamentary revolution. To quote Braun, the palingenetic nature of the myth allowed fascists to disavow “the modernity of enlightenment reason for another modernity of activism, instinct and irrationalism.” Since Fascist politics were premised on mythmaking, artists were called upon to develop mythic images able to sustain a revolutionary spirit once Mussolini gained power in 1922. Thanks to Braun’s brilliant study we can now fully appreciate Sironi’s seminal role as Fascism’s foremost mythmaker.

Having analyzed Sironi’s wartime initiation into the Futurist and Fascist movements, Braun first turns her attention to Sironi’s urban landscapes of 1920-21 to consider how his conflation of fascist ideals with the pictorial language of metaphysical painting lent mythic import to his unsettling images. Using pictorial techniques developed by De Chirico, Sironi shrouded the urban scene in silence and immobility, thus denuding it of the vibrancy and energy so evident in Futurist images of the city. The stage-like appearance and monumentality of the humble buildings and dormant factories echoed the compositional clarity of quattrocento painting, which effectively lent epic significance to the urban environment. The only objects animating these stilled images are the trams and trucks that criss-cross streets devoid of any other activity, whether industrial or pedestrian.

Most importantly, the trucks lent historical specificity to Sironi’s subject matter, for as Braun demonstrates they are those of the Fascist squads, and the urban landscapes they patrol are the proletarian suburbs of Milan, where Sironi had taken up residence following the war. During the course of 1920, labor unrest in Milan had culminated in a series of strikes and factory occupations; the Fascist squads had initially supported the strikes as harbingers of a Sorelian revolution, but they turned against the workers when the labor unions adopted Soviet-style tactics. For Sironi, Fascist attacks against bolshevism amounted to a heroic conflict on the part of those factions of the working class who endorsed the revolutionary, antibourgeois import of Mussolini’s movement. In this light the empty streets, uncanny perspectives, and factories evoke the moment of general strike, while the Fascist trucks are a portent of the impending violence needed to usher in a national revolution. Here the stylistic features of quattrocento painting are combined with a contemporary even—the Fascist insurrection in Milan—to lend epic significance to this early moment in the history of fascism.

In the following chapter, Braun considers Sironi’s brief departure from the pictorial syntax of fascist mythmaking, signaled by a series of allegorical paintings devoted to the theme of melancholy. Painted in the wake of the urban landscapes, they not only allude to Sironi’s own periodic bouts of depression, but more fundamentally to the traditional association of the artistic temperament with melancholia. This disjunction between metaphysical allegory and the regenerative promise of myths was repeated in Sironi’s novecento representations of artistic métiers, despite the fact that Sironi’s imagery was in step with the Fascist initiation of postwar reconstruction. Once again Sironi appropriated the pictorial language of the quattrocento with his use of crisp angles and matte color to portray his half-length figures, but while works such the Architect (1924) are meant to remind us of the artist’s elite status as the fascist constructor of a new society, the architectural backdrop bring together an improbable combination of forms. Compressed into a nebulous space, the architectural elements flanking the architect provoke a sense of the imaginary or fantastic, fully conducive to the aesthetics of magic realism promoted by Sironi’s ally Marguerita Sarfatti. This schism between ideological content and stylistic interpretation, argues Braun, was consonant with the short period between Mussolini’s 1922 march on Rome and the 1925 declaration of a Fascist dictatorship, an era when Mussolini had yet to fully adapt the visual arts to his Fascist program, and stylistic plurality in the arts could stand as evidence of the fascist’s humanistic respect for individual rights and freedoms.

Sironi’s wholesale embrace of the mythic politics of fascism occurred when he abandoned magic realism and turned to representations of the rural peasantry, painted in an Expressionist style in the late 1920s. Critics associated this rustic imagery, crudely simplified form, and gestural exuberance with Sironi’s leftist fascism, which reportedly mirrored the revolutionary spirit of the common people. His energetic application of paint expressed the revolutionary fervor and dynamism of fascism’s origins, while his focus on the preindustrial labor of fisherfolk, rural peasants, and their families signaled his antiurban, antibourgeois exaltation of fascist “return to the soil” politics. The mythic import of works like The Family (1930) is made even clearer when Braun considers the palingenetic dimension of such works, for Sironi’s monumentalized peasants are set in an archaized landscape reminiscent of the fresco landscapes of Giotto, and related scenery found in contemporaneous performances of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Rooted in a primordial landscape, Sironi’s peasant family is removed from the particularities of class identity or a specific geographical locale; instead they are situated in a mythic realm outside the contingencies of historical time. Furthermore, Sironi’s Expressionist celebration of the dignity of labor and familial harmony went hand in hand with a wholesale rejection of urbanism and industrialism as two sides of the capitalist coin.

Mussolini sought to overcome capitalist inequities by declaring a bill of rights for labor in 1927, and subsuming all the professions within a corporate structure in the early 1930s. Cloaked in organicist metaphors, corporatism aimed to harmonize relations between labor and management, city and country, in the name of the collective interests of the body politic. As Braun elucidates, Sironi’s stain glass window, created for the Ministry of Corporations in 1931-32, struck an uneasy balance between individual and collective interests, even as he affirmed the mythic politics of corporatism. Dedicated to the Charter of Labor, the central protagonist in Sironi’s composition is the figure Italy, who ceremoniously raises the charter an alter-like fasce, constructed of stone. Once again style is a vehicle for mythologizing, for the use of stain glass underscores Sironi’s association of fascist corporatism with medieval and early Renaissance guild structures. Sironi bemoaned the rise of artistic vanity during the High Renaissance and called upon artists to adopt the unselfconscious persona of the medieval artisan. However Sironi’s Charter of Labor undermines this collectivist message by depicting himself facing outward towards the viewer, thus betraying the artist’s elite status as a worker whose products are unique in their ability to mold the fascist state of mind. As Braun affirms, Sironi worked for the people but he was not of the people, instead he numbered himself first and foremost among the mythmakers. Braun underscores this point through compelling analyses of Sironi’s architectural installations for the infamous Exhibition of the Fascist Revolution in Rome (1932), his didactic illustrations for Il Popolo d’Italia, and his monumental mosaic, Fascist Work, exhibited at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris.

In sum, Emily Braun’s comprehensive treatment of Sironi’s mythic politics, their slide from leftist revolution to statist propaganda, and his specifically modernist solutions to Fascism’s need for public art, will be a necessary starting point for all future explorations of Italian Fascism’s cultural politics.

Mark Antliff
Duke Univeristy