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  • Italian Modern Art in the Age of Fascism by Anthony White
  • Richard Read
Italian Modern Art in the Age of Fascism. Anthony White. New York and London: Routledge, 2020. Pp. 206. $160.00 (cloth); $48.95 (eBook).

Visitors to Italy often wryly reflect on the discrepancy between the easiness of much fascist art and architecture on the eye and the repugnant ideology it stands for, a discrepancy that points to the notoriously slippery relations between art and politics addressed in this fascinating book. A robust introduction and conclusion frame three main chapters (two to four) devoted to three artists. Eschewing both the vagueness of a representative survey and the specialization of monographs, these chapters offer in-depth analyses of a handful of works in a variety of media by, respectively, Fortunato Depero, Scipione (Gino Bonichi), and Mario Radice, who in chronological order represent the antecedents, historical moment, and aftermath of fascist art within [End Page 591] the wider history of European modernism. Seemingly conventional, the format is an unusual combination of monadic nesting and temporal dynamism, for the works do not merely illuminate artists' oeuvres but also three "positions"—futurism, expressionism, and abstraction—in forms that mostly deviate from Mussolini's preferred stereotype of sculptural solidity (16). These "positions" are not styles but "strands" of overlap and disjunction between modernism and fascism, region and state, artisans and mechanized labor, country and city, church and state, individual and collective, time and space, body and spirit, and above all different temporalities (160). As clusters of debates copiously informed by historical documents and reviews these strands guide the author's incisive visual analyses and engage with contemporary scholarship to render the book a useful primer on the historiography of Italian art under fascism.

The book begins with a salutary reminder of the atrocities to Libyans, Slovenes, and Jews committed under Mussolini's regime: "Did such appalling statistics have their parallel in the cultural domain?" (5). The answer, as to many questions in this nuanced book, is mixed. Depero is the most obvious culprit, yet minute scholarship shows that his fascist allegiances took ambiguous, conflicted, and peculiar forms. His embrace of mechanized futurist subject matter is undercut by the traditional cloth painting in which he depicts it. Fascist attachment to the rural traditions of the Trentino is complicated by acknowledgment of its recent suffering as an international battleground, by allusions to other Italian places, and by references to exotic cultures often reviled as targets for Italian imperial occupation, such as Libya and Eritrea, but here making an unbiased appearance beside proud Italian primitivist stereotypes. His reduction of human figures to futurist automata reflects not only the endearing practice of toy-making by injured veterans but an evacuation of the individual psyche in readiness for total war. In White's view these incompatible attributes are not failures, but expressions of painful contemporary tensions, whereas Depero's reification of human bodies as robots violently destroys the borders between life and death to drain all but the artist himself of individual autonomy, psychological insufficiency having reduced him to a gaily decorated "automaton who was autonomous" (59).

The third, perhaps richest, chapter takes up the complex relations between state and Catholic church in the expressionist and surrealist work of the Roman artist Scipione. Nothing better illustrates the book's riven anachronic theme than the backwards and forwards facing figures of The Men Who Turned Around (1930) based on Masaccio's Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Dying of tuberculosis, Scipione was a devout Catholic who felt deep ambivalence towards fascism at a time when the church was striking dubious deals to appease the state's ambition to control the nation's faith. Scipione's adherence to the unworldly eternity of Christian time discredited both the secular progressiveness of fascism and the papacy's corrupt presentism. Framed within the eerie emptiness of Roman urban space cleared by Mussolini's demolition of the liberal nineteenth-century city fabric that had masked the regime's supposed direct descent from Roman antiquity, Scipione's art deployed unfashionable baroque, mannerist, and modernist styles to dramatize the return of the repressed in the form of hermaphrodite prostitutes and frail clerics. In The...


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