Between Italy’s unification as a nation in 1871 and its entry into World War I in 1915, the country faced enormous problems. Political instability was accompanied by fierce class struggles and mass emigration. All of these conflicts have led to extreme poverty and socio-economic inequalities. Staging Injustice: Italian Art 1880-1917 at the Italian Modern Art Center, which includes around 20 works of art by 15 artists, mostly on loan from Italian museums, provides an eloquent testimony to this period, telling this very current story of working-class life, strikes and homelessness from the perspective of left-wing artists. In these works, the beautiful country that attracted and still attracts art lovers seems very far from sight.
Ambrogio Alciati’s ‘The Miner’ (1907) depicts the dead worker in a Pieta-like composition perhaps borrowed from Venetian sacred images. Adriana Bisi Fabbri’s “Mother” (1917) depicts a grieving mother in a style reminiscent of the Symbolists of the end of the century. Emilio Longoni’s “Reflections of a Hungry Man” (1894) shows a poor man on the street watching an authorized couple dining inside a restaurant. Giacomo Balla, who later rose to prominence in the Italian Futurist group, contributes to “Cycle of the Living. The Peasant” (1902), a naturalistic image of an impoverished worker. “Emigrants” (1894) by Raffaello Gambogi centers on a group of people ready to embark at Liverno. And another work by Longoni, “The Strike Speaker” (1891) depicts a militant militant, clinging to a lamppost suspended above the crowd he is addressing.
A historical perspective seems essential to understanding the common mood conveyed by this otherwise relatively diverse body of work. And so, I sent my imagination back to recent memories of the Museo del Novecento in Milan, where at the entrance is the permanent installation of Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo’s famous Divisionist manifesto “The Fourth Power” (1901). It’s a gigantic job – 18 feet wide and 10 feet high. His smaller and much less dramatic preliminary version of this scene, “Hunger Ambassadors” (1892), is in this show. This painting inspired the tableau vivant in the opening credits of Bernardo Bertolucci’s film 1900 (1976), a Marxist epic, also excessive, on the class struggles in Italy of the 20th century. In “The Fourth Estate”, a wave of people, simply dressed, advance towards us; in the foreground, two men and a woman with a child in their arms. Volpedo’s very ambitious goal was to employ the pointillist technique, created by Georges Seurat and developed by Camille Pissarro and Paul Signac, to deal with an iconic subject of the left, the political triumph of the workers.
Heirs to the great Italian traditions of sacred art dating from the early Renaissance, these artists faced a real problem: how, within a fundamentally secular framework, could they represent injustices and project a hopeful vision of change possible? But of course this question, which was not aesthetically resolved in their art, was soon resolved in practice in a way they would have rejected when, in 1922, Mussolini’s fascists took control of Italy. These images show the miseries of early modern Italy without offering a picture of possible political action. That’s why I regained my memory of “The Fourth Estate” (completed with the story told in 1900) so striking. Even this courageous and ambitious painting is not, I think, ultimately a great political work; while he celebrates achieved unity, he does not show how that unity emerges from actual conflict. Perhaps, so I fear, this monolithic unified group might as well go fascist. No doubt the critical judgment is unfair to a bold artist whose development, like that of his Italian left-wing culture, was cruelly interrupted by his untimely death at 38. But this explains the ultimate political limits of Volpedo’s painting.
This admittedly roughly sketched analysis focuses on the achievements and limits of this set of paintings at CIMA. What makes the real success of political art is not only the awareness of the present miseries, but a shared feeling of what the oppressed could achieve collectively, what Jean-Jacques Rousseau described as the “general will and Karl Marx called it class consciousness. It is only when there is an awareness of the shared interests of the group as a community that collective progressive action to change the world is possible. The works in Staging of injustice suggest that Italian artists around 1880-1917 had not yet reached such an awareness. In this way, judging by later history, these artists provided a completely truthful image of their country. The true heirs of these political artists are the neorealist filmmakers. Think of Vittorio de Sica The bicycle thief (1948), which shows both the poverty of a worker who needs his bicycle to support his family, and his despair when it is stolen: isn’t this cinematographic story a natural extension of this story?
CIMA deserves praise for sponsoring this exhibition, which deals with political themes that speak to the threats of fascism, poverty and war that inform our immediate present. Right now, of course, there are progressive movements and activists in this country working to fix our socio-political, economic, and environmental ills. How, then, can the rest of us translate our general awareness of current issues into a progressive cultural movement? Knowing, as Benedetto Croce said, that all history is the history of the present, what can we Americans learn from these Italian artists?
Staging Injustice: Italian Art 1880-1917 continues at the Center for Italian Modern Art (421 Broome Street, 4th Floor, Soho, Manhattan) through June 18. The exhibition was curated by Giovanna Ginex.