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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?
All children of the old Communist Party (and there are many of us) will be saddened by Renato Guttuso's paintings at the Whitechapel Gallery, for here is the art we were once instructed to admire - and it's simply not good enough. I also doubt whether the show will be attractive to the bourgeoisie. Even in his still-lifes, the most conventional part of his work, Guttuso makes no attempt to please or ingratiate; and surely his figure-painting lacks point, unless of course you happen to share his somewhat ancient political perspectives.

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.