The peasants are revolting
EXHIBITIONS Renato Guttuso was one of the great heroes of communist art. His dramatic anti-fascist allegories, now on show in London, have earnt him a place in Italian history. But are they any good?
Sunday 26 May 1996
Yet Guttuso may well find supporters among those who believe in populist art. Is not populism on the increase? Two months ago, in Glasgow, we saw the first new museum to be founded on the principle that most modern art is too remote from its proper audience. Both the British Council and the Tate Gallery have recently started to support the veteran realist Leon Kossoff. Neo-conceptualists do not hold the field. Two of the most (financially) successful painters at the moment are Paula Rego and Peter Howson. They both practise a kind of lumpen realism with emblematic overtones, a style not far removed from Guttuso's.
That's because modern realism tends to be repetitious and self-satisfied. Guttuso himself didn't change much in his long career, from the late Twenties to his death in 1987. Sicilian by birth, he understood the peasantry, but was of a class sufficiently elevated (his father was a land surveyor) to allow him a future as an artist. By the early Thirties he was in Milan, where he saw the poverty of industrial workers. In 1939 he settled in Rome. There he had friends among writers as well as artists (he was also a poet and a journalist), and he joined the Italian Communist Party.
Henceforward the Party was Guttuso's home, his inspiration and guide. One cannot see that it helped his art. He was not made more eloquent by the common struggle against fascism. Even when painting a grand statesman he flinched from the epic. This is the problem with The Crucifixion (1940- 41). Guttuso uses the Christian myth to make contemporary secular points. But the canvas is so unfree, fettered to centuries of previous Italian painting, littered with bits and pieces, passages that obviously come from studio props. The same is so of his pictures of an execution, filled with things derived from reproductions of Goya and Manet.
Guttuso wanted to be a powerful, angry painter, but held back. He also tended to put too many things into his paintings; thus they became untidy and lacked focus. So many pictures would have been better if they were more economical and if Guttuso had looked for a strong central image. And he might then have been of more service to communism. If I were his party leader I would have asked Guttuso to strip everything down by making woodcuts. That would have put an end to his tendency to fuss over paintings. We might have had some direct, frank depictions of - let's see - workers with a banner, or partisans, or Fausto Coppi. It's a pity that Guttuso attempted no subjects of this sort.
Some of the still-lifes (influenced by Van Gogh) are a sort of peasant painting. Alas, Guttuso had difficulty with line. The Whitechapel's small gallery at the top of the stairs holds his drawings. This room is always awkward to hang and light but I've seldom seen it look worse. Apart from the feeble draughtsmanship, the drawings of women are vulgar in a way seldom tolerated these days. Yet he could occasionally do something with black and white. Readers can check this by looking at Elizabeth David's book on Italian cooking, to which Guttuso contributed illustrations.
The book reminds us that his reputation was widespread in the Fifties. The lasting value of this show is not in its art, but in the catalogue, which documents critical responses to Guttuso as part of the realism vs abstraction debate. It was a bad period for art criticism. The debate was about next to nothing. The one painting I admire at the Whitechapel is The Discussion. Ragged it may be, both overstated and unfinished, but its vehemence communicates that these comrades were talking about something that genuinely mattered, namely the social liberation of the poor.
Whitechapel Art Gallery, E1 (0171 522 7878), to 7 July.
GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival
TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Man on naked bike ride gets ejected after becoming aroused
- 2 Charles Kennedy dead: Former Lib Dem leader dies at home aged 55 - latest news
- 3 Ayyan Ali: Pakistan's top model now appears in the courtroom rather than on the catwalk
- 4 Fifa corruption: Europe plots to stage an 'alternative World Cup' in place of Russia 2018
- 5 Jaden Smith wears gender fluid dress to high school prom with Hunger Games actress
The 1975 leave social-media after cryptic comic strip tweet hinting at possible break up
Britain's Got Talent 2015 final: Jules and Matisse used secret dog double for winning tightrope act
Top Gear to follow Have I Got News For You format with 'different host for each episode'
Britain's Got Talent 2015 final: Vote reveals Jules O'Dwyer beat Jamie Raven by just 2% despite using 'stunt dog double'
Britain's Got Talent final 2015: 90 viewers complain to Ofcom about Alesha Dixon and Amanda Holden's 'revealing' dresses
Migrants in Kos: Photos show real tragedy after Brits abroad complain of 'awkward' holidays
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination
British tourists complain that impoverished boat migrants are making holidays 'awkward' in Kos
Michael Gove determined to scrap the Human Rights Act – even if Scotland retains it
Threat to scrap Human Rights Act could see UK follow Nazi example, warns UN official
Why this year's general election was the most unfair in Britain's history