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.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas