Post Zang Tumb Tuuum. Art Life Politics: Italia 1918–1943 is an art-historical tour de force. It aims at reconstructing the conditions in which Italian art was produced and experienced during the years that saw the rise and fall of Futurism and Fascism – movements strongly linked since Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s 1909 Futurist Manifesto, which exalted ‘war – the world’s only hygiene – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman’. With over 600 paintings, sculptures, drawings, photos, posters and architectural plans on display, the exhibition is the result of two years of meticulous research carried out by curator Germano Celant and a small army of associate curators, researchers and contributors, involving loans from hundreds of public and private collections and archives. A jam-packed list of acknowledgments features in the accompanying 660-page, encyclopaedic publication, which I mention here because the show finds Celant demonstrating, primarily, his authority as exhibition-maker. With this ambitious historical survey, Fondazione Prada consolidates its scope of operations, further expanded by the imminent opening of the last segment (a giant tower) of its lavish OMA/AMO-designed premises.
The exhibition adopts a strict protocol: its structure and contents are based on photographic and documentary evidence, so that not only the individual artwork but the historical context of its production, display, promotion, circulation and spectatorship are exposed. This recalls the ‘circumstantial paradigm’ introduced by Carlo Ginzburg in Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method (first Italian edition, 1986), equating the methodology of art historians with that of detectives, judges and psychoanalysts, so that clues and symptoms ‘permit the comprehension of a deeper, otherwise unattainable, reality’. And, Post Zang… reveals, Italy’s reality between the two wars was not a pretty one. By focusing on art’s ‘return to order’, as well as its contributory role in Fascist propaganda, this exhibition also discloses the conformism of state-funded artists, critics and academics; the economic mechanisms regulating the relations between arts, craft, industry; and the public’s willingness to participate in a Fascist ‘aestheticisation of politics’, as Walter Benjamin would have it.
The exhibition’s layout, designed by New York-based studio 2x4, mirrors the curatorial perspective to the letter. Enlarging dozens of documentary pictures to architectural proportions, as black-and-white wallpapers, it inserts viewers ‘into’ the original rooms (of museums, biennales, galleries, private houses, artists’ studios), with the artworks repositioned accordingly. The immersive effect is uncannily akin to augmented reality. One room after the other, one travels through exhibitions marked by individual figures and strong works: the impressive, expressionist marble sculptures of Adolfo Wildt at the 1922 Venice Biennale, the algid and magical portraits by Turinese Felice Casorati (supported by liberal ‘cultural agitator’ Piero Gobetti, arrested, beaten and forced into exile in Paris, where he died in 1926, and by industrialist and collector Riccardo Gualino, condemned to confinement in 1931) at the 1924 edition; Giacomo Balla’s aggressively militant paintings at the Futurist exhibition at the 3rd Rome Biennale (1925) and Fortunato Depero’s textile mosaics at the Venice Biennale a year later; the Milanese group show of Novecento Italiano in 1926 (Mario Sironi, Achille Funi, Anselmo Bucci, Luigi Malerba, Leonardo Dudreville, Piero Marussig, Ubaldo Oppi), whose cult of ‘Italianness’ is theorised by art critic (and Mussolini’s lover) Margherita Sarfatti.
Meanwhile, the Venice Biennale offers a crucial stage to the paintings of Carlo Carrà and terracotta sculptures of Arturo Martini (1928), as well as to the sinister monumentality of Mario Sironi’s paintings (1932). One arresting moment is the rendering (in the cavernous basement of the new tower) of the 1932 blockbuster Exhibition of the Fascist Revolution held in Rome, which attracted almost four million visitors and revenues equivalent to €5.6 million. The pictures of the original 19 theme-based rooms are video-projected on huge bannerlike screens, so that the bombastic grandeur of the show is reenacted with chilling accuracy.
Room after room, the uneasiness grows, or at least mine did. With notable exceptions – paintings by Carlo Levi and Aligi Sassu (both arrested), Fausto Melotti’s abstract sculptures, Marino Marini’s nonheroic cavaliers, Corrado Cagli’s painful sketches – the exhibition mimics the increasingly claustrophobic cultural climate of Fascist Italy and the increasingly decorative, conventional and rhetorical subjects of Italian art. Women, for instance, are obsessively depicted as mothers, in line with the regime’s regulation of women’s rights and reproductive role. A monumental curtain, featuring an image of the first group show organised in Genoa, in 1945, after liberation, marks the end of the exhibition, as if a way out were finally possible.
Given the current political climate in Italy, where populist and neo-fascist parties emerged as winners from the most recent general election, I kept asking myself why the role of reconstructing the ideological context of a regime – one that brainwashed its population, brought it to war, imposed colonial domination upon Ethiopia, Libya and Albania, promulgated racial laws, killed members of parliament, silenced dissidents and condemned to deportation and death thousands of people – is entrusted only to the detailed chronology that accompanies viewers along their path, with no obvious critical narrative. Visual and documentary evidence and erudite catalogue essays are all very well, but may not be an effective cure for the collective amnesia that seems to afflict our present as much as our past. Barbara Casavecchia
Post Zang Tumb Tuuum. Art Life Politics: Italia 1918–1943, Fondazione Prada, Milan, 18 February – 25 June 2018
From the March 2018 issue of ArtReview