by Christopher Adams (University of Essex / Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art)
In geographical, political and aesthetic terms, there can be few areas of twentieth-century art history currently considered more ‘peripheral’ than Italian Futurist painting of the 1940s (1).
The work produced during these years is often (erroneously) taken to be synonymous with a genre which came to be known as ‘aeropainting of war’ at the beginning of that decade: an art form representing the culmination of Futurism’s increasing focus on the military application of aviation from the mid-1930s in the context of contemporary political developments (2). This aeropittura di guerra is extremely problematic due to its apparent enthusiasm for the violence and destruction wreaked by the Axis powers during World War Two, and is consequently viewed with disdain even by many of those working in the field of Futurist studies (3). Nevertheless, as an embodiment of the movement’s enduring belief that war was ‘Futurism intensified’ (4), this key tendency demands much closer attention than it has hitherto received. Indeed, given that aeropittura di guerra reflects the fundamental ideological consistency of the movement, its comparative neglect raises important questions about how we evaluate the worth of artworks generally, and highlights inconsistencies and double standards in Futurist scholarship more specifically, as well as focussing attention on the complex relationship between war art and propaganda.
Reluctance to engage with this imagery has led to an assumption that its aspirations were solely of a political character, and to the misconception that it reflected the retrogressive stylistic qualities favoured by a regime in thrall to the anti-Modernist cultural agenda pursued by its Nazi ally. However, whilst it certainly expressed the movement’s broad solidarity with Fascism, aeropainting of war resists simplistic classification as ‘propaganda’, eschewing the characteristics typically associated with such imagery: stylistic conservatism, overt didacticism, and emotive scenes of human stoicism, heroism, suffering or sacrifice. Moreover, it cannot be divorced from the context of Futurism’s own, pre-existing, estetica della guerra and estetica della macchina. More than a commitment to conveying politically exigent messages, it is an interest in these long-standing thematic and iconographic preoccupations that is most evident in Tullio Crali’s depictions of the acrobatic manoeuvrings of fighter planes (Fig. 1), Angelo Caviglioni’s abstract explorations of the forces unleashed by modern weaponry (Fig. 2) and Tato’s sombre images of war machines (Fig. 3) – works which in fact reflect an awareness of the expressionist-realist style then being employed by artists associated with the Corrente movement, such as Renato Guttuso.
Ultimately, the term propaganda seems no more applicable to this imagery than it does to the war art of any other nation involved in the conflict – much of which was also considerably less interesting, aesthetically speaking. This is an appraisal yet to find widespread acceptance within the academic community, and yet the fact that contemporary commentators acknowledged the visual interest and richness of this work suggests the extent to which purely political objections have coloured post-war judgements of the genre’s artistic worth.
(1) This period is also ‘peripheral’ in terms of Futurism’s own internal development, in the sense that it represents the concluding phase of a movement which had been in existence for over three decades by this point.
(2) A fascination with flight had fed into Futurist aesthetics since the earliest days of the movement, reaching a pinnacle at the end of the 1920s with the development of ‘aeropainting’. Over the course of the 1930s countless attempts were made by the movement’s artists to capture not only the visual novelties experienced in flight – such as vertiginous, topsy-turvy landscapes – but also to explore its metaphysical dimensions.
(3) See, for example, Günter Berghaus, Futurism and Politics: Between Anarchist Rebellion and Fascist Reaction, 1909-1944 (Providence and Oxford: Berghahn, 1996), pp. 255-57.
(4) F. T. Marinetti, Emilio Settimelli and Bruno Corra, ‘The Futurist Synthetic Theatre’ (1915), in F. T. Marinetti, Let’s Murder the Moonshine: Selected Writings, ed. by R. W. Flint (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1991), pp. 131-37 (p. 131).
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