Having faced outrageous neglect in the hands of the British art establishment before and after his death in 1987, Renato Guttuso: Painter of Modern Life at the Estorick Collection in London is a welcome retrospective of a fascinating figure of post-war realism.
Whilst the early Bolshevik avant-garde has been successfully co-opted into mainstream artistic discourse, isolated from its outwardly radical orientation, socialist realism has received little discussion let alone praise, a ‘don’t touch’ area within the history of art. Accordingly, the Sicilian painter Renato Guttuso was scorned in the West by both bourgeois and ‘radical’ art worlds anxious by the partisan nature of his work – in particular, his fidelity to the Italian Communist Party (PCI), that party of millions which he joined under conditions of illegality, fought in the Resistance with and eventually became a Senator for. A recent insurgence of interest in the PCI has led to seminal writings by its militants and leaders published and discussed in the English-speaking world; Painter of Modern Life may not be a conscious continuation of this phenomenon, but certainly will further feed the appetite of those turned onto this colourful, obscured and somewhat tragic past.
As Luciana Castellina pointed out in her brief but poignant memoir of the time, there was not a single contemporary art gallery in Italy throughout two decades of fascism. In oppositional spirit, modern art became vital to a significant bloc of Italian youth thrilled by the social and aesthetic potential of the new political situation. The post-war years ushered in a constellation of young artists for whom rejecting the dithering pomp of fascism necessitated a taste for the real, a tangible social art that whilst illustrating the tough present also illuminated the hope of a better world. Although a recognised artist prior to the Liberation, Guttuso – as a result of struggle with the Resistance and helping to organise L’arte contro le Barbarie, a PCI-sponsored exhibition in liberated Rome, belonged to this frenzied cultural milieu. The aforementioned principles branded his artistic practice: to quote Peter De Francia, Guttuso’s work was intended to ‘cut through all the dithering’, the ‘cult of self-expression’ and overfed individualism that had characterised art under Italian fascism.
Works such as Death of a Hero (1952) pay tribute to the workers cause throughout the years of fascism, resistance and post-war social struggle. Depicting a bandaged, gasping figure lying in a hospital bed, a red flag adjacent, Guttuso here offers a crafted articulation of the PCI’s reputation as the Party of martyrs. Homage is paid to classical revolutionary works by Delacroix and David, whilst the figure of Goya resonates throughout his painting for Federico Garcia Lorca, the playwright murdered by fascists during the Spanish Civil War.
Neighbourhood Rally (1975), a vivid, floral work prominent in the second gallery, depicts a communist flat block demonstration. There are crumpled headlines from L’Unita, looks of determination, photographs of Communist veterans (and Pablo Picasso), clenched fists, and faceless individuals. This work hardly depicts class power in the overbearing manner that socialist realism, according to received wisdom, cannot help but represent – there are bearded youths, Marilyn Monroe, and more red towels than red flags on display. It does, however, capture the warmth and strength of the natural constituency of Italian communism, the popolo comunista comprising the bustling slum crowd. Particularly striking also is The Labourer (1956), which ambitiously displays workplace alienation under capitalism – an individual hammering a tool in an environment of total abstraction and skilfully rendered formlessness.
Away from outright political works such as these, gentle depictions of coffee cups, shark skulls, newspaper stands, watermelons and sun-drenched rooftops feature abundantly. It comes as no shock that Guttuso illustrated Italian Food, the seminal Elizabeth David cookbook. By no means, also, do these works display detachment with his overtly ‘political’ output. For a certain type of individual, being a communist during this period meant not defence of show trials or foolish devotion to the Soviet Union; it meant enthusiasm for all earthly delights, and Guttuso’s work brims with this joy of living, encapsulating a love for all things and a desire for the future in which life can be ours.
Also discussed is Eric Estorick, the art dealer behind the eponymous Collection, on his championing of Guttuso as others balked under Cold War pressure. Disregarding the awkward political certainties of Guttuso’s work with the intellectual stride characteristic of the wealthy and informed liberal, Estorick appreciated a generic ‘humanism’ within Guttuso’s oeuvre. For Estorick, the prominent red flag in Death of a Hero merely represents a ‘symbol of the allegiance of a dead man to a belief’, rather than the ‘ideological commitment to Communism per se’ that it blatantly represents. Whilst Roberta Cremoncini writes that his approach is reflective of a perceived ‘ability’ to separate politics from artistic judgement, how can this be anything but a true disservice to a militant Communist artist? In effect, Estorick defends Guttuso against Guttuso, attempting to rescue him from his uncompromising principles regarding the intertwining of clear radical politics and art in the interests of neutrality and polite society.
Nevertheless, one has to tolerate these bloated distortions of art as long as we tolerate that art belongs to those who can afford to purchase and accrue it. Renato Guttuso: Painter of Modern Life is, limitations notwithstanding, a welcome opportunity to enjoy an excellent and underrated talent from a forgotten period of possibility, wholly deserving of further attention.
Renato Guttuso: Painter of Modern Life at the Estorick Collection, Canonbury Square, London, runs until the 4th April. Marcus Barnett is a writer and music promoter based in Manchester, and is the secretary of spring.