Renato Guttuso: Revolutionary art on the 50th anniversary of 1968. Civic Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art of Turin

The Civic Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art of Turin dedicates an important and focused exhibition to the painting of Renato Guttuso (Bagheria, Palermo 1911 – Rome 1987), a prominent personality in the history of 20th century Italian art and a key figure in the debate on the relationship between art and society, which was to significantly mark much of his life in the years following the Second World War.

On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of ’68 GAM offers an exhibition dedicated to the painter Renato Guttuso and the relationship between politics and art, a fundamental element of his artistic work.

The itinerary starts from the 1938 shooting campaign, inspired by Federico Garcia Lorca’s shooting, to continue the analysis of the uninterrupted meditation on the theme of the struggles for freedom, of which the condemnation of Nazi violence in the stinging Gott drawings is strong mit uns 1944. It continues through a sentimental elaboration in works such as Fight of French miners 1948, to arrive in the sixties to the results of a participatory military testimony, with works such as Vietnam 1965.

The work ends with the funeral of Togliatti 1972, a work that embodies a life of militancy for man and artist Renato Guttuso.

Renato Guttuso
Renato Guttuso, born Aldo Renato Guttuso (Bagheria, 26 December 1911 – Rome, 18 January 1987), was a painter and political Italian, improperly referred to as exponent of socialist realism, the protagonist of the neo-realist painting Italian artists that are expressed in the New Front of the Arts.

Son of Gioacchino (1865 – 1940), land surveyor and amateur watercolourist, and Giuseppina d’Amico (1874 – 1945) – who preferred to report his birth in Palermo on January 2, 1912 due to conflicts with the municipal administration of Bagheria due to liberal ideas of the spouses – the little Renato showed early his predisposition to painting.

Influenced by his father’s hobby and by frequenting the studio of the painter Domenico Quattrociocchi as well as the workshop of the chariot painter Emilio Murdolo, the young Renato began barely thirteen years of age to date and sign his paintings. Most of them were copies (nineteenth-century Sicilian landscape painters but also French painters such as Millet or contemporary artists such as Carrà), but original portraits were not missing. During his adolescence he also began to frequent the studio of the futurist painter Pippo Rizzo and the Palermo artistic circles. In 1928, barely seventeen he participated in his first collective exhibition in Palermo.

His art, linked to expressionism, was also characterized by a strong social commitment, which also led him to political experience as senator of the Italian Communist Party for two legislatures, during the secretariat of Enrico Berlinguer.

He was born in Bagheria, near Palermo in Sicily, but from 1937 lived and worked largely in Rome. In his youth he joined the Gruppo universitario fascista, but later he became an anti-fascist and atheist. He joined the banned Italian Communist Party (PCI) in 1940 and left Rome to become an active participant in the partisan struggle from 1943. He was also an opponent to the Mafia. In 1972 Guttuso was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize. In 1976 he was elected to the Italian Senate as a PCI representative for the Sicilian constituency of Sciacca.

Renato Guttuso’s father, Gioacchino Guttuso, was a land surveyor and amateur watercolourist. There are a number of portraits of Gioacchino in the collection donated to the mayor of Bagheria. Renato Guttuso began signing and dating his works at the age of thirteen. Guttuso lived close to a house amongst the Valguarnera villas and Palagonia, which he would soon represent in paintings inspired by the cliffs of Aspra.

In Palermo and in Bagheria Guttuso observed the dereliction of the 18th-century villas of the nobility, abandoned to decay as a consequence of political infighting within the municipal chambers. At the same time, his family suffered a period of economic stress because of the hostility shown by Fascists and clergy towards his father.

Guttuso went to Palermo for high school studies, and then to the University, where his development was modelled on the European figurative trends of the day, from Courbet to Van Gogh and to Picasso. In the early part of the 1930s, Guttuso was a frequent visitor to the studio of one of the most prolific futuristic painters, Pippo Rizzo. His works opened doors for him in Milan and to further travel throughout Europe.

As Guttuso’s expressionism became stronger he painted more scenes of nature in flower, lemon trees, saracen olive trees, all in an environment suspended between myth and island insularity, so that, when sent to the Quadriennale expo of 1931, he joined a collective of six Sicilian painters, acclaimed by the critic Franco Grasso as a “disclosure, a Sicilian affirmation”. Back in Palermo Guttuso opened a studio in Pisani street and together with the painter Lia Pasqualino and the sculptors Barbera and Nino Franchina, formed the Gruppo dei Quattro (The Group of Four).

Rejection of the academic principles and social art
Guttuso became a member of an artistic movement named “Corrente”. The movement stood for free and open attitudes, in opposition to the official culture, and chose a strong anti-fascist position in thematic choices through the years of the Spanish Civil War.

In Milan, where he stayed for three years, Guttoso was part of Corrente di Vita. Here he developed his “social” art, his moral and political commitment being visible in paintings such as Fucilazione in Campagna (1938), dedicated to the writer García Lorca, and Escape from Etna.

Moving to Rome, Guttuso opened a study in Via Margutta where, because of his exuberance, his friend Marino Mazzacurati nicknamed him “Unbridled”. He lived close by to significant artists of the time: Mario Mafai, Corrado Cagli, Antonello Trombadori, keeping also in contact with the group from Milan of Giacomo Manzù and Aligi Sassu.

“Crocifissione” (“Crucifixion”) is the painting for which he is best remembered. At the time it was derided by the clergy, who labelled Guttuso a “pictor diabolicus” (“a devilish painter”). The fascists also denounced it for depicting the horrors of war under a religious cover. Guttuso wrote in his diary: “it is the symbol of all those who endure insults, jail, torture for their ideas”. Guttuso also spoke publicly about “The Crocifissione”, saying “this is a time of war. I wish to paint the torment of Christ as a contemporary scene… as a symbol of all those who, because of their ideas, endure outrage, imprisonment and torment”.

He did not stop working during the years of World War II, his work ranging from landscape glimpses of the Gulf of Palermo to a collection of drawings entitled Massacri (Massacres), that clandestinely denounced slaughters such as the Fosse Ardeatine. In 1945 Guttuso, along with artists Birolli, Marchiori, Vedova and others, founded the “Fronte Nuovo delle Arti’ (New Arts Front) as a vessel for the promotion of the work of those artists who had previously been bound by fascist rule. During this time, he also met and befriended Pablo Picasso. Their friendship would last until Picasso’s death in 1973. Socio-political themes dominated Guttuso’s work during this area, depicting the day-to-day lives of peasants and blue-collar workers. In 1950, he was given the World Council of Peace Prize in Warsaw. Guttuso later received the Lenin Piece Prize in 1972.

Later career
In 1938 Guttuso met Mimise Dotti, whom he married in 1956. Poet Pablo Neruda was a witness at their wedding. Mimise would become his confidant and model. After the liberation of Italy from Nazi Germans he finished “Muratori in riposo” (“Workers resting”), an artwork in china ink and watercolour of 1945, a symbol of rebirth of which Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote in 1962:

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The shapes of ten workers
emerge white over white masonry
the noon is that of the summer.
But the humiliated flesh
projects a shadow; is the disarranged order
of the white colors, that is faithfully followed
by the black ones. The noon is a peaceful one.

In the following years Guttuso painted “Peasant Who Hoes” (1947) and “Peasants of Sicily” (1951) in which pictorial language became clear and free of all superfluous elements. Guttuso wrote that those were preparatory sketches for “Occupation of uncultivated lands of Sicily”, exhibited in the Venice Biennale in 1950, asserting:

I believe that these are legacies to my deeper and remote inspiration. To my childhood, to my people, my peasants, my father land-surveyor, the garden of lemons and oranges, to the gardens of the latitude familiar to my eye and my feeling, where I was born. Sicilian peasants who hold the primary position in my heart, because I am one of them, whose faces come in front of my eyes no matter what I do, Sicilian peasants so important in the history of Italy.

In 1950 Guttuso joined the project of the Verzocchi collection (in the civic Pinacoteca of Forlì), sending a self-portrait, and the works “Sicilian labourer”, “Bagheria on the Gulf of Palermo” and “Battle of the Bridge of the Admiral”. In the latter he depicted his grandfather Ciro as a Garibaldine soldier. Guttuso also painted a series from life about the fight of the peasants for the occupation of lands, the zolfatari, or glimpses of landscape between cactus and prickly pears, as well as portraits of men of culture like Nino Garajo and Bruno Caruso.

Fascinated by Dante’s model, in 1961 he made a series of colour drawings, published in 1970, as Il Dante di Guttuso, depicting the characters of Hell as examples of human history, confirming the versatility of his talent. In the late 1960s and 1970s he completed a suite of paintings devoted to the feminine figure, a motif that became as dominant in his painting as it was in his life: “Donne stanze paesaggi, oggetti” (1967) was followed by a series of portraits of Marta Marzotto, his preferred muse of many years. His most famous “palermitano” painting is the “Vucciria” (the name of Palermo’s market), in which, with raw and bloody realism, he expressed one of the many spirits of the Sicilian city.

Mimise Dotti-Guttuso died on 6 October 1986. Guttuso was soon to follow his wife. He died in Rome of lung cancer at the age of 75 on 18 January 1987. On his deathbed, he allegedly embraced again the Christian faith with which he had been critical. However, there are doubts as to what really happened—in his last months, when he was bedridden, a circle of politicians and priests excluded his oldest friends from his villa. He donated many of his works to his hometown Bagheria, which are now housed in the museum of the Villa Cattolica.

After speculation about who would be the rightful owner of the painter’s work, two prosecutors were appointed to settle the dispute between Guttuso’s nephew, his adopted son (who had been adopted only four months before Guttuso’s death, was 32 years old, and already had a natural father), his longtime lady friend Marta Marzotto, Rome’s Museum of Modern Art, along with an assortment of other slighted acquaintances to high-ranking government and church officials.

The Exhibition
Curated by Pier Giovanni Castagnoli and with the collaboration of the Archivi Guttuso (Guttuso Archives), the exhibition brings together and features some 60 works from major museums and public and private European collections. The exhibition highlights some of the most significant canvases of political and civil subjects painted by the artist from the late 1930s to the mid-1970s.

In October 1967, on the fiftieth anniversary of the October Revolution, Renato Guttuso wrote an article in Rinascita, the political and cultural magazine of the Italian Communist Party, titled Avanguardie e Rivoluzione (Avant-gardes and Revolution), in which the painter acknowledged that the revolution had irrefutably and effectively been the foundation of a new culture, with which he identified deeply, leading him to close his article with an explicit profession of faith: “Art is humanism and socialism is humanism”.

Starting from the years of the anti-fascist faction, and even more so after the Second World War, like few others in Italy Guttuso was an artist who engaged, with persevering dedication and firm conviction, in seeking a link between political and social engagement and the creative experience; he believed that art, in his case painting, can and must play a role in civil society and that it carries deep-seated moral significance.

Just over fifty years from the article’s publication, and on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of 1968, the GAM in Torino sets out to reassess the relationship between politics and culture with this exhibition dedicated to the Sicilian artist’s experience, bringing together some of his greatest works that address civil and political issues. Notably Fucilazione in campagna (Execution by Gunshot in the Countryside) (1938) that drew its inspiration from the execution of Federico Garcia Lorca and can rightly be taken as the inception of a lengthy and uninterrupted focus on the theme of freedom struggles, leading to the condemnation of Nazi violence in his fierce and shocking drawings of Gott Mit Uns (1944) and later, after the tragic period of the war and dictatorship, to the accents of a reinvented popular narrative marked by the new style and new emotions in works like Marsigliese contadina (Peasant Marseillaise) (1947) or Lotta di minatori francesi (The Plight of French Miners) (1948).

A far-reaching, uninterrupted narrative that led to instances of militant participation in the 1960s, as in Vietnam (1965), or of heartfelt proximity, as in the case of the May events in Paris with Giovani Innamorati (Young Lovers) (1969) and later, towards the end of the exhibition, to his nostalgia-imbued, grieving depiction of Funerali di Togliatti (The Funeral of Togliatti) (1972), condensing the story of a people’s struggles and hopes together with the reasons for the militancy of both the man and the artist.

“After the Second World War – states Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Director of GAM – a debate emerged in left-wing cultural circles between the formalist avant-garde and figurative realism. The question was, which was of the two was more revolutionary and which more reactionary? Today, paradoxically, in an age of augmented reality and virtuality, Guttuso’s painting may appear to us as real and material as the world we are losing “.

Together with this anthology of paintings, and in dialogue with them, the exhibition also includes an extensive repertoire of works on a variety of themes: portraits and self-portraits, landscapes, still lifes, nudes, interiors, conversation scenes. These paintings all belong to same period in which the political and socially inspired works were produced; they have been selected with the aim of providing clear evidence of the high level of formal quality achieved by Guttuso in his use of painting that, for convenience – as curator Pier Giovanni Castagnoli states – we could call pure, in our attempt to assess the intensity of the results he achieved as a painter in both of his creative domains, by providing a comparison of the different horizons of his imagination, hence endowing the exhibition, albeit maintaining the primacy of the main theme of the exhibition, with an extensive representation of the wealth of expressive registers one finds in the extensive catalogue of his work and in the versatility of his creative genius”.

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue published by Silvana Editoriale, with essays by Pier Giovanni Castagnoli, Elena Volpato, Fabio Belloni, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and a selected anthology of writings by Renato Guttuso and critical texts.

Civic Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art of Turin
The Civic Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art of Turin is located in via Magenta 31 in Turin, Italy. It was founded around 1891 – 95. It houses the permanent artistic collections of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is part of the Torino Musei Foundation, which also includes the MAO (Oriental Art Museum), Palazzo Madama and Casaforte degli Acaja (Civic Museum of Ancient Art), the medieval village and fortress.

GAM – the Civic Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Arts – is Italy’s oldest modern art museum. Since opening to the public in 1863 numerous masterpieces has been added to its collections over time. At present, GAM’s collections comprise over 47,000 works, ranging from paintings and sculptures to installations and photographic art, as well as a rich collection of drawings and engravings, and one of the largest artist’s film and video collections in Europe.

On the strength of this heritage, GAM continues to implement its original commitment to contemporary research by constantly linking its historical works with today’s cultural debate and ensuring that the exhibition programme is closely correlated with the collections. Works from the collections are exhibited in thematic groupings that change over time, ensuring that visitors always see the collections from a new angle and can make a fresh analysis of the Gallery’s masterpieces.

Works by both the leading Italian nineteenth-century artists, like Fontanesi, Fattori, Pellizza da Volpedo and Medardo Rosso, and the twentieth-century masters, including Morandi, Casorati, Martini and De Pisis, have reacquired their capacity to speak to the present, and to show off all their complexity on a par with works from the historic international avant-gardes, outstanding examples of which are also in the collection: from Max Ernst to Paul Klee and Picabia, as well as works by the new post-war avant-garde movements, with one of the largest collections of Arte Povera – including works by Paolini, Boetti, Anselmo, Zorio, Penone and Pistoletto – but also the current artistic output to which GAM dedicates extensive exhibition space.