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
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
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.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'