Essay by James Hyman
In 1961 the Tate Gallery in London acquired one of Renato Guttuso's major recent paintings, La discussione (1959-60). The dramatic viewpoint and intense composition draws one into a heated discussion and although the subject is not specific, the inclusion of a prominent newspaper and the collaged application of actual exhibition catalogues suggest that we are in the middle of an argument about art and life. As such the picture encapsulates the concerns with which Guttuso was famously associated in these politicised years after the Second World War. It is appropriate that it was this major work that the Tate Gallery chose to buy, reflecting as it does international perceptions of Guttuso as a committed fighter for an art that engaged with life.
In fact, Guttuso was much more than this and his achievements can be divided into two categories. On the one hand social and political statements and on the other hand a matter-of-fact recording of the objects, places and people around him. The former include the symbolic - as in the use of red in wartime paintings; the allegoric as in The Battle of Ponte dell'Ammiraglio (1951-52); and the explicit as in Newspaper-mural: May '68 (1968). The latter category, meanwhile, is typified by Guttuso's still-life paintings and his erotic drawings. Nonetheless, despite these two modes and the breadth of Guttuso's achievements it is undoubtedly true that in placing Guttuso in an internationally context it was critics and artists of the Left that most warmly embraced the artist and with whom he would be most closely associated. Unsurprisingly, they would gain particular sustenance from Guttuso's political activism as well as his ambitions for painting.
Guttuso's ambitions for a painting that was both modern and committed placed him at the forefront of attempts in Europe to create an independent art that was free from the extremes represented by the Socialist Realism of Moscow, on the one hand, and the Modernist formalism of America, on the other.
This desire united Guttuso and Picasso and it is not a surprise that both artists were barred from entering the United States as dangerous subversives. Picasso never visited America, even when major retrospectives were staged, and even though Guttuso had a major show there as early as 1958 he only travelled there for the first time in 1983. Indeed Guttuso's own contact with America was slight, although he did write in depth on Jackson Pollock and knew the leading American social realist, Ben Shahn.
In finding an independent path or third way, Guttuso was both patriotic and Euro-centric. He sought an art that drew from national roots but also encouraged parallel developments across Europe. This was a third way, that even witnessed Communist artists, such as Picasso and Guttuso, engaging with Modernism, in the pursuit of a powerful new realism.
Guttuso's friendship with Picasso, who after the war came to share the Italian's politics, demonstrates not only a political friendship but also an artistic kinship. The two men first met in 1946 in Paris and had a long-lasting friendship, seeing each other in France and Italy. Guttuso visited Picasso at Mougins and Picasso visited Guttuso in Rome, at the Italian's studio in villa Massimo and home in via dei Ciancaleoni. The two men also exchanged gifts including pictures and sculpture. Both artists sought a rapprochement between formal invention, derived from Modernism, and the dictates of the Party. Their challenge was to produce works that might inhabit a space between the doctrinaire Socialist Realism of Moscow, and the formal excesses of Modernism, extremes that they both deplored. Indeed this is precisely what attracted painters and writers in Britain. For the leading British illustrator, Paul Hogarth, Guttuso and the 'Milan school' were 'a source of envy because of the way they combined a modern style derived from Picasso with a degree of social comment'; and for the British philosopher Richard Wollheim, Guttuso was an artist who 'grasped one of the most important and revolutionary lessons of cubist painting: namely, that the realism of a picture can be enhanced by emphasising the reality of the painting.was progressive painting in which content assumed a new importance. Thus a painting like Picasso's Guernica was not just a response to the horrific bombing of civilians during the Spanish Civil War, but also a major statement about the possibilities of applying a Modernist idiom, derived from the ruptures of Cubism, to depict a contemporary subject in a contemporary manner. Similarly, in Guttuso's La Discussion, the daring rupturing of the picture, which is bisected by a perhaps unbridgeable chasm, well suits the sense of conflict. In the case of both artists the intention was to marry apparently contradictory demands and it is perhaps unsurprising that attacks on their work would come from both sides: by Modernists it was derided as propagandist and by Communists it was condemned for its formalism. Internationally, then, Guttuso was at the forefront of attempts to make art that was accessible, that addressed life and that could speak to ordinary people. This is not to say that he didn't paint with sophistication, but that he also strove for a matter of fact presentation of his subjects. He was, for example, a sensual colourist but did not allow luxuriance to distract from the creation of powerful forms.
Guttuso's international ambitions are especially evident from the use that he made of successive Venice Biennale's as a platform for his largest and most powerful paintings. The manifesto paintings that he showed at the Venice Biennale's of 1952, 1954 and 1956 show that Guttuso well understood the event's importance not just in consolidating his domestic status but also in presenting himself to a world audience. Indeed the impact of the paintings that he showed there profoundly guided the way in which the artist was characterised internationally.
In 1952 Guttuso used the Venice Biennale to exhibit The Battle of Ponte dell'Ammiraglio (1951), a dashing and dynamic glorification of the unification of Italy that celebrated the triumph in arm-to-arm combat of Garibaldi's soldiers. For an international audience the painting demonstrated the possibilities of a contemporary history painting, whilst to an Italian audience it had an added resonance through the inclusion of recognisable personalities, literally updating this depiction of national conflict. In addition to Guttuso, himself, the painting includes his realist friends as Garibaldian soldiers and used anti-realists and abstract painters as their adversaries the Bourbons.
Then at the Venice Biennale of 1954 Guttuso exhibited another major painting, Boogie Woogie a Roma (1953), using this international showcase to universalise these Italian conflicts. The location of the dance may be Rome, but the suggestions of a Mondrian on the wall, sets up a contrast between Italian culture and international modernism, in which the robust vitality of the figures contrasts with the dry flatness of the decorative abstraction.
The following Biennale, Guttuso exhibited an even more audacious painting, La Spiaggia (1955-56). An implicit critique of Soviet Socialist realism and an encouragement to realists across Europe, this epic painting demonstrated that realism did not need to glorify powerful leaders, capture heroic events or even have a single focus of attention, but could simply celebrate the universal, egalitarian pleasure of a beach teeming with people. This celebration of young flesh and youthful physiques was praised by John Berger as Guttuso's masterpiece.
So who were Guttuso's peers? Certainly in Italy there was a circle of acolytes and of painters who pursued similar aims even though at times their work was more obviously social realist than Socialist realist in intention. Artists such as Mucchi, Zigaina and Treccani addressed their surroundings in an unaffected way without necessarily having an active political intent. However, this circle of artists around Guttuso and the La Colonna gallery in Milan, who were supported in journals such as Realismo, did not really have direct counterparts abroad.
Internationally, it might seem that the closest parallel was in France. There the post-war reputations of Pignon, Taslitsky and Fougeron and their presentation in exhibitions such as the annual Salon d'Automne superficially suggest a commonality of interests. But in France the position was extremely complicated. As in Italy, there were major clashes about the future direction of the national Communist Party, the PCF, its relationship with Moscow and engagement, or otherwise, with Modernism. However, what was different in France was the extreme jingoism. In comparison to the fraternal relationships enjoyed by British and Italian realists, both in England and in Italy, French xenophobia hindered opportunities to pursue common interests. Guttuso himself was undoubtedly eager to show in France but sadly he had little opportunity. This was not the result of hostility from art dealers: as is demonstrated by Guttuso's exhibitions in London, dealers were keen to exhibit Guttuso whatever their own political affiliations. Rather, it is attributable to the chauvinism exhibited by the official French Communist artists such as André Fougeron and to the charges of formalism that stuck to Guttuso as they did to Picasso.
Thus, whilst Fougeron's work, at times is strongly reminiscent of that of Guttuso, his attitudes and rhetoric were those of the approved party line, whereas Guttuso always had an independence of spirit which allowed for art that was more personal, formalist and modernist. These differences are exemplified by Fougeron's major painting of this period, Atlantic Civilisation (1953). This attack on America and especially its cultural impact in Europe was certainly far more strident and even crude than Guttuso's work. Despite the massive scale, Atlantic Civilisation is almost caricatural in its presentation of types and is a compendium of the main targets of the PCF. A businessman pays homage to an American car and an electric chair alludes to the Americans' execution of the Rosenbergs in June 1953, for allegedly spying for the USSR. Imperialism is attacked, including French colonialism in Indo-China and Algeria, and there also references to nuclear wear and the plight of the underprivileged.
In France even such propaganda could be attacked by hardline Communists as too modern in its idiom, so it is perhaps unsurprising that Guttuso should instead find friendship with Picasso and his circle, including Léger - with whom he made a shared visit to Picasso - and the painter Pignon and his wife Helene Parmelin.
Pignon and Guttuso were particularly close, as is evident from a discussion and conversation between the two men published in L'Unita in 1949. In it Guttuso and Pignon discuss figurative currents in contemporary art, the importance of Picasso and specifically Guernica and the differing situations in France and Italy after the Second World War. The two men's shared sympathies are also evident from the parallels that may be drawn between their pictures. Guttuso's paintings of workers and of the occupation of the land find a counterpart in Pignon's paintings of 1949-50 showing the plight of French miners, the suppression of strikes and demands for improved working conditions. Both men would also have an inner strength that liberated them from the structures of Party conformity and allowed them to build from the lessons of Picasso.
However, these parallels are unusual. As a friend of Guttuso's, the British artist Peter de Francia, has observed, the fact that many of Guttuso's major paintings after the War were on particularly Italian themes - from Garibaldi and the unification of Italy to the occupation of the land in Sicily - hindered the appreciation of the Italian in France where the concerns were altogether different. In France where the political atmosphere was highly charged, these paintings must have seemed peripheral, whereas in England where the grip of communism was feeble, Guttuso's less overtly propagandist paintings could also be admired for their demonstrations of the possibilities of a 'third way'. At a time when 'illustration' in painting was being attacked by artists such as Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, Guttuso gave a powerful demonstration of the possibilities for a contemporary history painting that was modern yet told stories.
Despite, or perhaps because communism was so weak, it was in Britain, perhaps even more than elsewhere, that Guttuso was pivotal. There Guttuso gained some of his greatest champions, whose openness to the Italian's work stood in marked contrast to his reception in France. He In Britain Guttuso was especially well served by writers. His first London exhibition in 1950 included a catalogue essay by Douglas Cooper, his second in 1955 a text by John Berger and his third in 1960 an essay by Richard Wollheim. Conversely, the attention given to Guttuso by his British critics, most conspicuously by David Sylvester, Lawrence Gowing and Patrick Heron confirms Guttuso's high status in Britain and the strategic imperatives that these writers felt to confront the threat he posed to their own positions.
British friendships were wide-ranging, for Guttuso had immense wit and charm, and they crossed the political spectrum. In the early 1950s he was feted both by the British establishment and the radical Left, meeting many of Britain's leading culture figures among them Bernard Berenson, Kenneth Clark, Herbert Read, Roland Penrose, Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland. By the mid 1950s, through the British school in Rome and a return visit to London in 1955, he was also embraced by younger artists among them Harry Baines, Derrick Greaves, George Fullard and Alfred Daniels. In 1955 Kenneth Clark hosted a party at the Arts Council where the guests included Henry Moore and that same year Derrick Greaves, who had become friendly with Guttuso, whilst on an Abbey Major scholarship to Rome, also staged a party for him.
British painting of the 1940s and 1950s shows striking parallels with Guttuso and even examples of direct influence. Social concern is widely evident as in Derrick Greaves paintings of peasants in Sicily, Harry Baines lithographs of quarrymen (1953) and Josef Herman's miners, while examples of history painting, frequently suggest the inspiration of Guttuso, as in such individual works as Michael Ayrton The Captive Seven (1950), John Minton's Death of Nelson (1952), Peter de Francia's The Bombardment of Sakiet (1958) and African Prison (1959-60). Affinities, can be inferred, too, in later works such as the allegorical paintings that Derrick Greaves produced in the late 1960s that reflected his anger at the Vietnam War and the way it threatened both man and nature. In contrast to Guttuso's major propagandist works of this period such as Documentary on Vietnam (1965) and Newspaper-mural: May '68 (1968), Greaves's paintings are epic in scale but tender in execution. Greaves's The Ultimate Absurdity (1968-69) (Artist's Collection) presents a linear flower pierced by a knife that pins it down. The impact is enhanced by the use of just black and red. Flower (1968) (Sheffield City Art Gallery) pursues a similar theme but this time the flower is threatened by ugliness in the form of a collaged newspaper, which as in Guttuso's La Discussione, is indispensable to the paintings meaning, declaring 'America bombs in error another friendly village.' Even larger was a triptych entitled Salt and Pepper (c.1969) (destroyed): the left and right canvases each showed a hand holding a canister, flanking a central canvas of a landscape, a reference to the defoliants and napalm used by the American's to find and maim the Vietnamese.
As such examples demonstrate, Guttuso's international importance was not as a doctrinaire or prescriptive propagandist but as a beacon of integrity and independence. Guttuso's achievement was to suggest a way forward for painting and his success may be judged by the international friendships that he developed and the parallels that may be drawn between his works and that of leading painters in Italy, France and Britain. It may also be judged by the enemies that he attracted. The fact that official Communist artists in Paris did not embrace Guttuso indicates the threat that they may have felt to the hegemony of Paris from Guttuso and his Milanese friends. Conversely, in England the energy expended by Modernists in condemning Guttuso, shows how threatened they felt.
Guttuso's international significance, then, lay in the lessons he gave about the possibilities of forging a European realism - a third way - that was distinct and independent from both America and the Soviet Union. Ultimately, Guttuso's work, as with that of de Francia in Britain and Picasso, Léger and Pignon in France, provides a rapprochement between aspects of formalism, such as lessons derived from Cubism, with the desire to make an accessible art that could address a broad audience and could be adapted to political ends. It is a testament to the importance of these ambitions, that Guttuso's example of the artist's freedom to cross boundaries remains as potent today as it did then.
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