The Thirties: The Arts in Italy Beyond Fascism, Palazzo Strozzi, Florence

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What exactly happened to art in Italy during the fascist thirties? This comprehensive survey of painting, sculpture and, to a lesser extent, design and the applied arts, staged in a city which once gave Adolf Hitler and his motorcade a hero's welcome, gives us some answers.

In fact, the question is neither simple nor easily answered. There was state Fascism on the one hand, and then there was the way artists chose to make their works. Many artists just got on with it - for a while anyway. How fascistic is Morandi's wonderful early still life of domestic objects, for example?

In the early 1930s many artists seemed to be relatively innocent of Fascism. They had other things on their mind - how their own art related to the great traditions of making in the past, for example. Now this is a genuine problem, we feel, much greater than the threat of Fascism to artistic freedom at first proved to be.

There is something almost cowed about so much of the figurative work on display here. It is not so much that the subject matter feels archaic - much of it is not. It is the way it is being rendered. Fishermen and peasants decline into absurdity if you burden their forms with too much monumentality. The shadows cast by some of those great and unsurpassable forebears - Piero della Francesca, Michelangelo, Fra Angelico and many others - is almost too long. The ghosts of these great ones are everywhere, stymying, stifling, taming the present.

By 1938, when Italy established its own equivalent of Germany's racist laws affirming Aryan supremacy, things got very nasty indeed. One of the most shocking and affecting documents in a show which is strong on documentation is the copy of Il Tevere dated 24-25 November, 1938. Bolsheviks! Jews! shrieks the headline. We stare at images of works which have been condemned for degeneracy. Several of them hang on walls nearby, by the likes of Giorgio de Chirico, Lucio Fontana and others.

The single most interesting discovery is the work of a young proto-fascist called Lucio Fontana, that man who evolved in later years into a brazen modernist canvas slasher. Look carefully at the young Fontana's ceramic crab of 1936-7. You can almost feel, as you stare down at the seething mess of its livid shape, how it emerged from under his hand. This was a spirit unlikely to be hampered for too long by the cruel absurdities of politics.

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