Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art
Renato Guttuso (1912-87) "The Massacre", 1943. Oil on canvas, 59 x 73 cm. Raccolta Alberto Della Ragione, Florence
Benito Mussolini and Italian fascism are often seen as the junior partners of German Nazism. This compelling new exhibition of Italian resistance art, mainly from the 1930s and 1940s, vividly explores the arrogance and vanities of the Il Duce leadership cult and its savage outcomes.
The propaganda symbols and imagery of Fascist Italy are known, but the art of the opposition much less so. Against Mussolini is thus a vital exhibition which pulls together paintings, sculpture, photography and cartoons from throughout the Fascist era (1922-43). It focuses particularly on the period after the dictator's July 1943 fall from power, when Allied invasion from the south and Nazi invasion from the north led to a major growth of the resistance and bitter civil war.
Portrayed officially as a demigod in the 1920s, Mussolini was depicted by artists opposing him in the 1940s as a grotesque buffoon. The intense charcoal pictures by Alberto Bazzoni are powerfully representative. His "Cannon-Fodder" (1943) portrays goose-stepping troops reviewed from beneath a Roman arch by Il Duce and his officers. But Mussolini is a monstrous ape surrounded by helmeted sticks. Other Bazzoni sketches depict graphic torture and death at Fascist hands - images immediately recalling Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Renato Guttuso's stunning expressionist painting "The Massacre" (1943) is the cover motif for the exhibition.
Renato Cenni's "Partisans in Action" and "Resting Partisans" (1945), alongside other artists' prisoner portrayals, dramatically convey the combative worker response to bloodthirsty reaction. These are now fighters, not victims. It gives a unique insight into the way the left in the visual arts responded alongside their comrades.
Finally, the graphic photo from 29 April 1945 of Mussolini's final exit, upside down with other leading Fascists, suspended from a garage gantry in Loreto Square, Milan, is a potent conclusion. Hitler's exit was one day later.
Powerful as art, powerful as history.
Against Mussolini will be at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, 39a Canonbury Square, London, until 19 December.