Officially founded in March 1919, Fascism's programme initially attracted few supporters with its bewildering blend of right-wing nationalism and social reforms. Mussolini played on fears of an imminent Bolshevik revolution, presenting Fascism as the sole defender of law and order. With support for the movement increasing, the Liberal Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti invited Mussolini to form an anti-Socialist alliance in 1921 which led to the election of thirty-five Fascist Deputies. However, Mussolini was not satisfied to play a supporting role. The failure to suppress the Fascist "March on Rome" of 28 October 1922 revealed a fatal lack of political will to resist the rise of Mussolini’s movement, culminating in his appointment as Prime Minister at the end of the month.
Mussolini was the first political leader to harness the techniques of theatre, the visual arts and the mass media to a personalised system of rule. On the one hand, Mussolini acknowledged the privileged position of creative autonomy and the artist's role in shaping a Fascist Italy (see my article Italian Modernism). But another key feature of the Fascist regime was an orchestrated personality cult. Busts and portraits of the Duce were situated in public buildings and private homes, while a number of larger monuments depicted him on horseback or helmeted in warrior mode. The cult was a product of the Duce's megalomania but it was also a peculiarly modern phenomenon. It was the result of a complex synergy of Italian nationalism, mass politics, visual culture, popular religion, celebrity and consumerism.
Following the landing of Allied troops in Sicily in July 1943, Mussolini was overthrown at a meeting of the Grand Council of Fascism and imprisoned on the orders of his former colleagues, who signed an armistice on 8 September. However, having been rescued by German commandos, Mussolini was installed as the puppet leader of a new Fascist regime in the north of the country, now occupied by Nazi forces - known as "The Republic of Salò" after the town on the shores of Lake Garda that served as its administrative centre. As the Allies advanced north through an Italy divided in two by a bitter civil war, Mussolini attempted to escape to Switzerland but was captured by partisans and executed on 28 April 1945.
The exhibition Against Mussolini: Art and the Fall of a Dictator (shown at the Estorick Collection in London through December, 2010) relates to the decline of the cult. It brings together some of the diverse paintings and drawings produced in Italy and abroad throughout the Fascist era, but focuses particularly on the years immediately following Mussolini’s initial fall from power in 1943 and the period of civil war and resistance. This period witnessed the destruction of many Fascist symbols and images of Mussolini. Portraits in homes and local Fascist organisations were thrown out while larger works were attacked and defaced. Popular anger reflected the detachment from the cult that the hardships and setbacks of the war brought. Artists shared these feelings and in several cases anticipated them.
The Estorick exhibition features a selection of satirical drawings by the Paduan artist Tono Zancanaro (1906-1985) depicting the grotesque figure of "Gibbo" (above) and his entourage - a thinly veiled caricature of Mussolini. (The name "Gibbo" was taken partly from the character of Gibbon in John Ford's film The Informer and partly from the animal). Similar in tone is the work of Mino Maccari (1898-1989), who is represented by images from his Dux series, which presents the dictator as a lascivious buffoon:
Mino Maccari, Dux series - Mussolini, 1943
One of the most renowned exponents of post-war realist aesthetics was Renato Guttuso (1912-1987), who had also fought in the Resistance during 1944. His key works include the Picasso-inspired Massacre (below) and a study for his famous work Flight from Etna (1940). Considered by Guttoso to be his first politically-charged image in its symbolic depiction of peasants fleeing in terror from an encroaching wave of lava, the finished work was, ironically, the star of the state-sponsored Bergamo Prize of that year.
Renato Guttuso, The Massacre, 1943
A section of the Estorick exhibition is dedicated to the equestrian statue of Mussolini that was inaugurated in the Littoriale stadium in Bologna in 1929. A large-scale work by Giuseppe Graziosi fused from Austrian cannons captured during the First World War, it remained mounted on a pedestal until the human figure was pulled down by an angry crowd in July 1943. The head was seized by loyal Fascists who conserve it to this day. The remainder of the statue was taken down after the war and was turned into two figures of a male and a female partisan which now stand at one of the city's gates. Mario Sironi painted the statue in 1935:
I have previously written about Max Beckmann's vision of Mussolini's death. The British painter Merlyn Evans (1910-1973) was serving in Italy in April 1945 and actually witnessed the public exhibition of the corpses of Mussolini, his mistress Clara Petacci and other members of the Fascist hierarchy in Milan's Piazzale Loreto. His painting The Execution (below) was made from his memory of this macabre spectacle, the jostling, jagged, abstract forms intending to represent the rage of the crowd:
Works from two painting cycles by Mario Mafai (1902-1965) entitled Demolitions and Fantasia (below) are also shown. The first chronicles Mussolini's destruction of large areas of ancient Rome to make way for Fascism's public works programmes and new districts such as the zona augustea. Although not explicitly political, these works have been seen in retrospect as covert denunciations of Mussolini’s megalomania. The Fantasia cycle is, by contrast, openly condemnatory of the violence and savage brutality of Fascism.
These art works works stand as testimony to a tragic phase in Italian history that preceded the rebirth of democracy. They also offer something more: a stark condemnation of the vanities of dictatorship and of the violence that is an intrinsic part of Fascism.