The following is a reproduction of the first two pages of Emily Braun's brilliant book Mario Sironi and Italian Modernism, which was published by Cambridge University in 2000. Her book explains why Mario Sironi (I have previously written about him here) and many other Italian artists could, on the one hand, openly support Mussolini's repressive regime and, at the same time, produce avant-garde art that still fascinates us today. I have illustrated Emily's text with some paintings of "not so widely known" Italian artists.
Ferruccio Ferrazzi, Viaggio tragico, 1925
"On 26 March 1923, at the inauguration of the exhibition Sette Pittori del Novecento (Seven Painters of the Twentieth Century) in Milan, Benito Mussolini first declared his intentions about state interventions in the arts. Installed as prime minister only five months earlier, on a wave of Fascist violence and parliamentary paralysis, he was more attuned to pressing matters of political consolidation than to the fine points of aesthetic discourse.
Carlo Sbisà, Il palombaro, 1931
Nonetheless, Mussolini astutely acknowledged both the privileged position of creative autonomy and the artist's role in shaping a Fascist Italy. In a shrewd, opportunistic statement, the new leader offered an arrangement of benign mutual support in the interest of the "human spirit":
I declare that it is far from my idea to encourage anything like an art of the State. Art belongs to the domain of the individual. The State has only duty: not to undermine art, to provide human conditions for artists, and to encourage them from the artistic and national point of view.
Cesare Sofianopulo, Maschere, 1930
Over the course of twenty years, as the Fascist movement was transformed into a regime, as revolution gave way first to normalization, then to dictatorship, and finally to totalitarian rule, Mussolini's liberal attitude toward the fine arts changed little. The credo that "art belongs to the domain of the individual" became one of the most potent means of drawing intellectuals to the Fascist state while creating an impression of the regime as an enlightened patron.
Alberto Savinio, Self Portrait in the Form of an Owl, c. 1930
As dictator, Mussolini never sanctioned an official style, despite concerted efforts by both intellectuals and party bureaucrats to forge an art of the state. Instead, the regime instigated a cultural policy based on a series of administrative controls, which aimed to discourage opposition with an insidious combination of coercion and tolerance. As a result, the Fascist period was marked by pluralism in the visual arts, which permitted the avantgarde and the retrograde, abstraction and neoclassicism, to be deftly absorbed by the State's eclectic patronage.
Alberto Martini, Ritratto di Wally Toscanini, 1925
Questions of style were generally left to the artists and critics, often resulting in bitter polemics that diverted attention to matters of form rather than content. Intentionally or not, Mussolini's hands.off policy had the effect of dividing and conquering the intellectual community. This made organizing a cultural opposition a remote possibility: the strategy of allowing a margin of creative freedom while awarding capitulation led the majority of artists to coexist with, if not openly support, the regime. Fascist Italy's tolerance of diversity in the fine arts was very different from the attitude of Nazi Germany, where a monolithic and absolute cultural policy dictated both the overall model of volkish culture and a specific style of illustrative realism.
Ernesto Thayaht, Il grande nocchiero, 1939
Moreover, unlike the totalitarian regimes of Germany and the Soviet Union, the Italian Fascist government did not persecute or subjugate the avant-garde, despite attempts to do so by hardliners. (The exception, of course, is Jewish artists, who were persecuted as Jews rather than as artists after the Racial Laws of 1938.) Instead, the Italian situation presents a unique set of historical and moral problems that is tainted by a less than heroic story of accomodation, opportunism, and outright support, rather than rebellion, among the cultural elite."