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"The Thirties: The Arts in Italy Beyond Fascism" on view at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence
Vinicio Paladini (1902-1971), Dream Complex no. 1, 1932; oil on canvas; 110 x 135 cm; private collection.

FLORENCE.- Palazzo Strozzi showcases the art of the 1930s from masterpieces by Sironi, Martini, Fontana and Guttuso to design and the applied arts, exploring the most innovative and vibrant art of the era. This retrospective takes an unprecedented look through contemporary eyes at painting and sculpture to design and mass communication during a period of extraordinary change in the arts.

The Thirties. The Arts in Italy Beyond Fascism comprises 96 paintings, 17 sculptures and 20 objects of design and tells the story of a crucial era characterised by an extremely vigorous arts scene in the years of the Fascist regime, against a backdrop that included the embryonic development of mass communication in Italy – radio, cinema and illustrated magazines – which stole numerous ideas from the “fine” arts and transmitted them to a broader audience.

This retrospective illustrates an era that profoundly changed the history of Italy. The 1930s also witnessed the increasing mass production of household objects, which led to dramatic changes in people’s lifestyle, allowing ordinary families to live out a dream of modernity surrounded by designer objects, a practice that continues to this day.

Curated by Antonello Negri with Silvia Bignami, Paolo Rusconi and Giorgio Zanchetti, with Susanna Ragionieri curating the section on Florence, the exhibition takes its cue from the critical perspective of people writing in the 1930s to explore the idea of Italian art as a product of the specific identity of certain “schools” (Milan, Florence, Rome, Turin, Trieste) which not only interacted with one another but also with such international centres as Paris and Berlin. The installation highlights the innovation of the younger generation, giving pride of place both to works of art that had a high profile in the exhibitions of the day and an impact on the overall cultural debate, and to a number of pieces that have rarely, if ever, been shown.

The exhibition presents the 1930s as a complex and lively workshop in which an artistic battle, fought against the backdrop of Fascism, involved every style and trend from classicism to Futurism, from Expressionism to Abstract Art and from monumental art to decorative painting for the bourgeois home. Examining moments of conflict and innovation, it sheds light on the differences between artists with a solid reputation and those of the younger generation, new innovative players who were already imparting a fresh boost to the prestige of Italian art. Ranging from the influence of travel on artists to “degenerate art” (as the avant-garde was branded in Germany and in Italy after the racial laws of 1938) and the artistic phenomenon of muralism, the 1930s are also explored in terms of the masses and their historical role, with the triumph of mass communication which was revolutionary at the time.

One of the most significant innovations in an Italy that was rapidly modernising was the start of mass production. From tubular seats to Luminator lamps, the objects produced in those years marked the birth of design in Italy, which was to be celebrated in the Milan Triennali of 1933 and 1936. Visitors to the exhibition, which is presented in seven sections, can admire not only the masterpieces of such artists as Sironi, Martini, Guttuso and Fontana but also rare photographs and footage of the era, with significant examples illustrating the impact of the design of homes and interiors on daily life and lifestyle.

The exhibits are loaned from major private collections, museums and foundations both in Italy and abroad, including the Kunstmuseum in Bern; the Musée des Années 30 in Boulogne-Billancourt; the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich; the Staatliche Museen in Berlin; the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Rome; the Museo del Novecento in Milan; the MART in Trento and Rovereto; the Museo Revoltella in Trieste; the Museo d’arte moderna in Cortina d’Ampezzo; and the Gallerie d’arte moderna in Florence, Genoa, Palermo, Piacenza, Turin, Udine, and Venice (Ca’ Pesaro).

The Exhibition
Section 1. Centres and Schools

The first two rooms explore the art of centres and schools. In addition to works of art that enjoyed a high profile in the 1930s through being displayed at the Venice Biennali or the Rome Quadriennali, the art of the period is also presented by the cities that set a particular trend in style or taste: the Milan group, with the dominant figures of Sironi and Carrà alongside leading players in the multifaceted Novecentista movement such as Wildt, Tosi and Funi; Florence, with Soffici, Rosai, Lega and Viani; Rome, split between classicism and realism (Donghi, Carena and Ceracchini); and Turin, with Casorati and the city’s response to the influence of neighbouring France (Chessa, Menzio, Paulucci and Mori).

Section 2. Youngsters and “Irrealists”
This section is devoted to the younger generation and sheds light on the new forces that emerged during the decade acquiring a remarkable supranational character. The younger generation expressed its restlessness in an anti-academic vein, with bright colours and echoes of European Primitivism and Expressionism. The Futurist and Abstract avant-garde, from Licini and Prampolino to Radice and Crali, were also open to international influences. The circulation of artists and works of art forged a link between the experiments of Scipione, Mafai, Pirandello, Cagli and Gentilini in Rome and the work of Birolli, Sassu, Fontana, Marini and Melotti in Milan, or of Guttuso from Sicily and the Basaldella brothers from Friuli.

Section 3. Travelling Artists
Paris and Berlin were still, at least until 1933, the two cities at the forefront of artistic development – cosmopolitan centres where a considerable number of Italian artists lived and worked, seeking an environment receptive to the innovation of modernity. Italian artists abroad responded to the appeal from the home country for a form of Italian classicism with an artistic vocabulary in which contamination with “European” taste can be detected in Levi’s search for colour as form, in De Pisis’ and Savinio’s interest in Impressionism and Surrealism, and in the basic independence of De Chirico’s work. The English and French artists who came to Italy, on the other hand, adopted an artistic vocabulary of proven commercial success based on the rediscovery of the 15th or 17th centuries, carrying on the tradition of the Grand Tour in their portrayal of the Italian landscape.

Section 4. Public Art
Devoted to public art and muralism, this section reveals how mass communication encroached on the territory of art. The artist who most encapsulated this trend was Mario Sironi, who subscribed to the idea that a painter had a political and ideological role as a communicator – at a particularly lofty level – of messages for the public. Such works (paintings and sculptures) cannot be moved because they are an integral part of public architecture in stations, post offices, law courts, so they are represented here by preparatory drawings and sketches. The sole – astounding – exception to that rule is Fontana’s sculpture of a Harpooner, in its first, coloured plaster version, designed for the fish market in Milan.

Section 5. Contrasts
This section, which illustrates the bitter tension between avant-garde and tradition – another characteristic feature of the decade – takes a parallel look at developments in Italy and Germany, where modern art was branded as “degenerate” after the Nazis took power and denigrated by comparison with what the party considered to be “pure” German art. The latter is represented by Four Elements by Hitler’s artistic adviser Adolf Ziegler. On display in Italy for the first time, this large picture is considered to be the masterpiece of Nazi painting. Enormously successful in Nazi Germany, it hung in the Führer’s sitting-room, its four bold female nudes representing the four elements, and was popularised through mass reproduction, even appearing on matchboxes. In Italy, this Germanic model became popular after the racial laws were introduced in 1938 and, in an article published in the magazine Tevere, De Chirico’s Metaphysical painting was lumped together with the Expressionist work of Birolli and with that of such Abstract painters as Ghiringhelli, Reggiani and Melotti and of Rationalist architects including Terragni, on the grounds that they were all “degenerate”. This situation is perfectly reflected at the turn of the decade in the contrast between the works shown in the “reactionary” Cremona Award and those in the Bergamo Award, which pointed the way to the new Italian art of the post-war era.

Section 6. Design and Applied Arts
The section focuses on the contrast between mass-produced art, reproduction and the individually crafted, and often luxury, item. This is evoked by juxtaposing objects of interior design with the portrayal of modern environments and manufactured items in clips from Italian films of the period – footage especially assembled by the Cineteca di Milano – and in vintage photographs of interiors from the Milan Triennale’s Historical Archive. The (now rational) interiors illustrate living standards where the emphasis was on mass-produced objects and more abstract solutions for space, light and colour revealing an intransigent focus on composition.

Section 7. Florence
In the final section, the opening selection of works – Artists, poets, musicians: common ground – forge a specific link with Florence, the city which produced the most important, ground-breaking magazines in the fields of poetry, painting, sculpture and music. In a contrasting yet complementary light, the section explores the theme of The Strength of the Province and of Origins through the work of Soffici, Rosai, Viani, Romanelli and Manzù. Between these two versions and depictions of life, a small core of works on Mythology and the Mediterranean in the depiction of the human figure addresses the multifaceted approach to a theme balancing the legacy of the Renaissance and such international players as Hildebrand, Berenson and De Chirico. The Myth of Modernity compares and contrasts the work of an atypical Futurist such as Thayaht, and his brother Ram, with the city’s striving for renewal. And lastly, the creation of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino is evoked through exhibits relating to a performance that was emblematic of the fragile condition of modern man: Volo di notte (Night Flight) by Luigi Dallapiccola was staged in 1940.

A touchscreen at the start of the exhibition allows visitors to peruse a set of period photographs selected from the Touring Club Italiano’s archive to illustrate colonial architecture in Italy’s overseas territories, and pictures showing Italian interiors of the 1930s from Domus magazine (Domus Archive, Milan).

The exhibition is promoted and organised by the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali and the Soprintendenza PSAE e per il Polo Museale della città di Firenze, with the Comune di Firenze, the Provincia di Firenze, the Camera di Commercio di Firenze, the Associazione Partners Palazzo Strozzi and the Regione Toscana. The main sponsor is the Banca CR Firenze.

The Thirties. The Arts in Italy Beyond Fascism is on view concurrently with the Centre for Contemporary Culture Strozzina’s exhibition Francis Bacon and the Existential Condition in Contemporary Art (5 October 2012 to 27 January 2013), in which a selection of paintings by the great master dialogues with the work of five international contemporary artists – Nathalie Djurberg, Adrian Ghenie, Arcangelo Sassolino, Chiharu Shiota and Annegret Soltau – who share Bacon’s interest in exploring the existential condition of man and the depiction of the human figure.

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