In the period 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 met with fierce class struggles and mass emigration. All of this strife led to extreme poverty and socio-economic inequality. Staging Injustice: Italian Art 1880-1917 at the Center for Italian Modern Art, which includes around 20 works of art by 15 artists, mostly on loan from Italian museums, offers an eloquent testimony of this time and tells this very topical story of working-class life, strikes and homelessness from the point of view of left-wing artists. In these works, the beautiful country that attracted and still attracts art lovers seems to slip entirely from view.
Ambrogio Alciati’s “The Miner” (1907) shows the dead worker in a Pietà-like composition, perhaps borrowed from Venetian sacred paintings. Adriana Bisi Fabbri’s Mother (1917) depicts a grieving mother in a style reminiscent of the fin-de-siecle Symbolists. Emilio Longoni’s Reflections of a Hungering Man (1894) shows a poor man in the street watching a legitimate couple eat in a restaurant. Giacomo Balla, who later became famous as a member of the Italian Futurist group, controls Cycle of the Living. The Farmer (1902), a naturalistic image of an impoverished worker. Raffaello Gambogi’s “Emigrants” (1894) revolves around a group of people ready to embark in Liverno. And another Longoni work, The Orator of the Strike (1891), shows a militant activist holding on to a lamppost hanging high above the crowd, to whom he is addressing.
A historical perspective seems essential to understanding the common mood conveyed by this otherwise relatively diverse oeuvre of artworks. And so I throw my thoughts 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 Estate (1901). This is a gigantic work – 18 feet wide and 10 feet high. His smaller, much less dramatic version of this scene, Ambassador of Hunger (1892), is featured in this show. This painting inspired the tableau vivant in the opening credits of Bernardo Bertolucci’s film 1900 (1976), an equally oversized Marxist epic about class struggles in 20th-century Italy. In “The Fourth Estate” a wave of people, simply dressed, comes towards us; in the foreground two men and a woman with a child in their arms. Volpedo’s very ambitious goal was to use the pointillist technique created by Georges Seurat and developed by Camille Pissarro and Paul Signac to treat an iconic left-wing theme, the political triumph of workers.
As heirs to the great Italian traditions of sacred art, dating back to the early Renaissance, these artists faced a real problem: how could they depict injustice in what was essentially a secular setting, and project a hopeful vision of what change was possible? But of course this problem, not solved aesthetically in their art, was soon solved in practice in a way they would have rejected when Mussolini’s Fascists took control of Italy in 1922. These images show the misery of early modern Italy without offering a picture of possible political action. That’s why I found my memory of “The Fourth Estate” (supplemented with the narrated story in 1900) so conspicuous. Even this bold, ambitious painting is ultimately not, I believe, a great political work; While it celebrates the unity achieved, it does not show how that unity emerges from real conflicts. Perhaps, I fear, this monolithically united group could just as easily become fascists. Undoubtedly, this critical judgment is unfair to a courageous artist whose development, like that of his Italian left-wing culture, was cruelly interrupted by his early death at the age of 38. But it explains the ultimate political limitations of Volpedo’s painting.
This admittedly crude analysis relates to the achievements and limitations of this group of paintings at CIMA. What constitutes truly successful political art is not just an awareness of contemporary misery, but a shared sense of what the oppressed could collectively achieve, which Jean-Jacques Rousseau called “the general will” and Karl Marx called class consciousness. Only when there is an awareness of the common interests of the group as a community, collective progressive action to change the world is possible. The works a stage injustice indicate that Italian artists around 1880-1917 had not yet reached such an awareness. In this way, judging from later history, these artists provided a completely truthful picture of their country. The true heirs of these political artists were the neo-realist film directors. Think of Vittorio de Sica The bike 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 cinematic narrative a natural continuation of that story?
CIMA deserves credit for sponsoring this exhibition, which explores political issues that address the threats of fascism, poverty and war that characterize 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 contemporary issues into a progressive cultural movement? Knowing, as Benedetto Croce said, that all history is contemporary history, what can we Americans learn from these Italian artists?
Staging Injustice: Italian Art 1880-1917 continues through June 18 at the Center for Italian Modern Art (421 Broome Street, 4th Floor, Soho, Manhattan). The exhibition was curated by Giovanna Ginex.