Upon entering Against Mussolini: Art and the Fall of a Dictator you are confronted by a powerful work of sculpture. A monumental bronze bust, Il Duce, produced in 1924 by Giandante X, depicts the gargantuan head of Mussolini.
With its Futurist air one might conclude that it should be celebrating its subject (given the Futurist movement’s intimate connections with Italian Fascism). However, the terrifying carbuncular face, its features strangely melted as if made of warm candlewax, suggests instead a prescient depiction of Mussolini’s collapse as a mythologised figure of power.
And that indeed is the theme of the exhibition; the relationship between oppositional art and the fall from power of a tyrant. The title suggests that this is a causal relationship, but I am not convinced that the exhibition sustains this grandiose claim. Quite apart from anything else many, if not most, of the works were produced after Mussolini’s fall from power in 1943. What it does do however is to show the reality of the brutality and misery wrought by the Fascist regime on one hand, and on the other the satirical weaponry used to expunge the myths created by Mussolini’s carefully crafted cult of personality.
The first gallery is devoted to the former and it makes for both compelling and uncomfortable viewing. The highlights of the exhibition are here; the magnificent bronze bust already mentioned, followed by five works by the renowned anti-fascist Sicilian artist Renato Guttuso. There are ink and watercolour preparatory sketches for three well known paintings; Execution in the countryside (1937), The Crucifixion (1940), and Flight from Etna (1938). The first could hardly be more direct in its violence; two figures cocking rifles at point-blank range at a third – said to be in honour of Federico Garcia Lorca, executed by Spanish Nationalists. Interestingly the sketch for The Crucifixion – an allegorical work dealing with the miseries of the war where Christ is the universal symbol for victims of fascism – contains the naked figure of Hitler on a horse, which is not included in the final painting. The final work is an oil painting, The Massacre (1943). This work is a brutal yet anguished depiction of slaughter, no less powerful for its expressionist colour scheme and Picasso-esque abstraction.
Elsewhere in the first gallery the quality of the art is uneven, but this does not detract from its importance as a historical document of this shameful period in Italian history. One of Mino Maccari’s paintings of Mussolini from his Dux series show a bloated balding figure, floating poltergeist-like over the table where his cohorts sit. Mario Mafai’s Fantasie series, painted before Mussolini’s fall from power, form a chilling glimpse of the mechanics of the Fascist power structure with images of torture, beatings and interrogations. The faux-naif style of painting only emphasises the grotesqueness of the violence depicted, and the soldiers’ brutality is rendered all the more disturbing by virtue of their nudity and hideous bestial characteristics. At the far end of the gallery, more or less opposite Guttuso’s Crucifixion study, is another work on the same theme. Giacomo Manzù’s Christ and the General (1947) is a bas-relief depicting a Christ as a partisan – without his crown of thorns and hanging by one arm from a telegraph pole rather than a crucifix – and the general, a bloated, near naked figure, a German officer in the place of the more usual Roman soldier with the lance.
Alberto Bazzoni’s drawings of squadristi – groups of blackshirt thugs – depict another gruesome, pre-war element in the history of the fascist movement. The drawings use the kind of heroic realist aesthetic typical of fascist (and indeed communist) propaganda posters but the content shows a strong anti-fascist sentiment, depicting the terrifying mindless violence with which the squadristi attacked opponents of the fascist regime. This jarring conflict between style and content is all the more compelling when you discover that the artist initially worked in the service of the Fascist regime before turning against it.
The second gallery is dedicated largely to satirical representations of Mussolini, the majority British (from publications such as Punch) but also a large selection from an enormous series of satirical drawings (between 2,500 and 3,000) by Antonio Zancanaro. In these ‘Gibbo’ drawings Mussolini is caricatured as a monstrous lascivious apelike beast. First produced in 1937 they were initially distributed clandestinely amongst anti-fascist sympathisers. The gallery also includes a series of pen and ink drawings made by partisans of themselves and their prisoners in the mid-1940’s, which, whilst not fitting precisely within the principal theme of the exhibition, are nonetheless moving historical documents of the day to day lives of the partisans conveyed with extraordinary immediacy. Their authenticity is so direct that they instantly transport you into the situation within which they were produced.
The exhibition ends neatly enough with Mussolini’s demise. Alongside the classic photographic image of Mussolini’s body and those of his cohorts hanging upside down from the gibbet are a couple of magazine covers that feature close-ups of the dead bodies. These are profoundly disturbing evidence of the violence to which the bodies were subjected – compelling documents of the rage of the people whom the Fascists had oppressed. Juxtaposed with these photographs is an abstract painting, The Execution (1945), by Merlyn Evans, a British artist who was serving in Italy at the end of the war. In this there are no explicit gruesome details, just jagged geometrical shapes to hint at the violence of the scene. It forms an interesting non-figurative counterpoint to the horror of the photographs beside it.
Finally I would recommend watching the documentary shown in an upper gallery that explores the cult of personality fashioned by Mussolini during his rise to power. It usefully documents the mythology surrounding Il Duce which is so devastatingly punctured by the art in the show.