Thursday, June 12, 2014

On Mussolini's Wolf

Alongside the Roman ruins in Aosta, not far from its crumbling medieval and Renaissance churches,  the Piazza della Repubblica frames a fairly busy intersection, a roundabout on the Via Vodice, a number of vending stands, restaurants and bars.  All kinds of bustle that, if you’re an attentive pedestrian trying to avoid being run over in a crosswalk, might distract you from a good look at the piazza itself, famous for its Fascist architecture and sculpture.

We get uncomfortable with the word “fascist”.  Justifiably, it draws forth nightmarish associations.  Less so in Italy, where the films of Mussolini are generally those of him speaking from a balcony, clownish and overwrought, mugging for the crowds and the cameras.  Our associations are those of totalitarian darkness, wrongful imprisonment: Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Pinochet—though not all are technically fascist, we have come to lump their crimes together, and we know them, to some degree, for who they were.  And the art of the totalitarian state has something coercive about it, from Riefenstahl’s breathtakingly beautiful (but malign) Triumph of the Will to the drab depictions of a Worker’s Paradise in Soviet Socialist Realism—all of it, whether technically brilliant or ham-handed, pushes us toward embracing an ideology, a compelled way of life.

But I’ve been struck by the Piazza della Repubblica, and by the revelation that, in this case, I find the fascist art appealing. 

Give me a minute to explain.

Art that enforces an assumed point of view is almost always far down the list of my preferences.  It’s why I never liked Alice Walker, too, by the way (sorry, friends on the Left): when ideology trumps exploration and discovery, when art confirms whatever conclusions you’d already drawn before you encountered it, it loses one of the ways it can best catch on to our imaginations: the challenge of making us consider otherwise. 
Photo: Morgana Germanetto
And the thing about the fascist art of Piazza della Repubblica is that it enforces less than it inveigles.  An obvious thing about the Mussolini period is its adoption of Roman symbols, very often the animal symbolism that accompanied the legends of the empire.  The she-wolf—the legendary creature who nursed Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome—stands atop a column, perpetually framed by the Alps and the deep, bright, merciless Italian sky, so that from a distance she is all the nursemaid a demi-god would want.  But with a closer look, she seems ragged---much more like a wolf in the wild than a symbolic wolf, a mythic wolf.  She is frail up against that deep sky, her legs spindly and braced, both to nurse and simply to stand in two worlds—that of legend, and that of an observed and vulnerable nature.  
Photo: Chantal Piscetta

And the same goes for the eagles facing her, the totemic birds that perch along the gate to the old army barracks, the Caserma Testafochi.  In deep focus behind the guardians of the gate you can see the Roman eagles, symmetrical and abstract, fit to top the standard of a legion, but the guardians are bedraggled, all gristle and feathers, looking back at their ancestors on the cornices of the building, as though they are measuring themselves against the ideal birds, as though they sense the gap of 2500 years.

Photo: Chantal Piscetts
And in this is the challenge and appeal of Mussolini’s artists—that they were better artists than fascists.  Stalin and Goebbels longed for a representative art whose interpretation was simple, direct, and pretty much unequivocal: you look at the statue or poster or film, and you come away with what you expected, with your beliefs affirmed.  Goebbels himself publicly hated everything about Modernism—its fragmentation, its abstraction and suggestion, in short, everything that provoked the audience to imagine, interpret, and think.  Earlier movements such as Symbolism and Impressionism had been condemned as "decadent," as products of mental or visual illness: the artists, quite simply, didn’t see the world the way it was supposed to be seen.

In Italy, though, there was less fear of the difficult.   In fact, many of Italian Futurists—artists who embraced the abstract, fragmented, and mechanized elements of contemporary culture—supported the fascists at first, and before historic parting of ways, had an influence on state art.  And there is something both appealing and challenging in the sculptures on the Piazza della Repubblica: are we following in the footsteps of Rome, or are we haunted by its presence, diminished creatures that can never match its worldly power, though we look over our shoulders at totemic eagles?  The creatures of the piazza challenge us by their associations and positioning: they are examples of symbols caught halfway between heaven and earth, and from that middle ground, casting a kind of ironic skepticism on both the mythic and the natural world, which interpenetrate so thoroughly that, on beholding the wolf and the eagles, you’re struck by the thought that neither world has the whole story.   ©2014 Michael Williams

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