Fondazione Prada recreates art shows held under the rise and fall of fascist Italy

Fondazione Prada recreates art shows held under the rise and fall of fascist Italy

As Italy’s recent general elections on Sunday 4 March solidified the growing presence of far right and anti-establishment parties in Italian politics, it seems an apt coincidence that a current exhibition at Fondazione Prada explores the role of artistic and cultural production during the rise and fall of the country’s fascist regime. The vast show, ‘Post Zang Tumb Tuuum. Art Life Politics: Italia 1918–1943’ – among the largest that the institution has ever held – identifies the environmental, temporal, social and political contexts that contributed to Italian art during this period.

Curated by Germano Celant and designed by New York-based 2x4, the Milan exhibition centres on the partial reconstruction of 20 public and private exhibitions held both in Italy and abroad. Private rooms and exhibition halls featuring over 100 artists — Giacomo Balla, Giorgio de Chirico and Giorgio Morandi alongside their respective movements futurism, Valori Plastici (‘plastic values’), Novecento Italiano, among others — are rebuilt within Fondazione Prada’s sprawling galleries.

Installation view of ‘Post Zang Tumb Tuuum. Art Life Politics: Italia 1918–1943’ at Fondazione Prada, Milan

Paintings, sculptures, architectural drawings, tapestries and furniture are placed in their original arrangements, while ghostly apparitions printed in greyscale appearin lieu of pieces either destroyed or unobtainable. Collected photographs, letters, exhibition catalogues and newspaper clippings are shown in tandem, illuminating the fascist government’s role in supporting and surveilling the arts in the guise of syndicated exhibitions and prizes.

Opening in 1918 at the close of the First World War, the exhibition’s first reconstruction is the private home of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, founder of the futurist movement, whose sound-poem Zang Tumb Tumb inspires the show’s onomatopoetic title. Marinetti’s writing glorified the violence of war, what he called ‘the dreamt-of metallisation of the human body’, and spurred on Mussolini’s cause in the form of a cultural counterpoint. The walls are hung with fawning portraits of Marinetti by Růžena Zátková and Fortunato Depero in the brashly colourful style that came to define the movement.

Installation view of ‘Post Zang Tumb Tuuum. Art Life Politics: Italia 1918–1943’ at Fondazione Prada, Milan

From there, the exhibition travels through time. Moving from the 1921 German exhibition ‘Das Junge Italien’ (‘The Young Italian’), featuring a wall of Morandi’s still lifes, to Adolfo Wildt’s room at the 13th Venice Biennale in 1922. The ‘Mostra del Novecento Italiano’, organised by cultural critic — and mistress of Mussolini — Margherita Sarfatti, delves into the cry for a ‘return to order’ in Italian art that endeavoured to erase the avant-garde exploration of the early 20th century. The exhibition, inaugurated by Mussolini in 1923, showcased work by Mario Sironi, Carlo Carrà, Arturo Martini, and more.

Further along, Mussolini’s propaganda machine reaches its zenith in the cathedral-like Deposito, which hosts imagery from the ‘Exhibition of the Fascist Revolution’, held in Rome at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni from 1932-1934. White panels as tall as houses are projected with life-size images in black and white from the event, which four million Italians made their way to the capital to see.

What begins with the futurist movement’s avowed glorification of the act of war finds its logical artistic conclusion in Corrado Cagli’s simple, excruciating line drawings. Cagli, an Italian artist of Jewish descent, became a US citizen during the war in order to join the military, returning to Europe as an American solider. Sketched in oil, the drawings illustrate the horrors of the Buchenwald concentration camp, which Cagli helped liberate in 1945. A chilling but necessary reminder of the ultimate cost of a nation’s descent into the grip of fascism.