Art during the Rise of Fascism

Chair: Ann Wilson, Cork Institute of Technology



Giovanni Arena, Second University of Naples – CNR-INO National Institute of Optics

An image for the new empire: the aesthetics of politics in Italy during the Thirties and Forties of the Twentieth Century.

During the Thirties and Forties of the Twentieth century in Italy, the main themes in the arts imposed by the facist regime were inspired by ancient Rome, to the colonial conquest and the construction of new enterprises in Africa. These recurrent themes, together with an exhibition apparatus required, mainly technical, did not prevent some artists and architects to achieve peaks of high quality. The propaganda messages that were produced in the thirties and forties of the twentieth century in Italy, are due mainly to two aesthetic trends: one is part of the paradigmatic model of the Exhibition of the Fascist Revolution of 1932, the experimental matrix futurist resolved through the widespread use of photomontage and typography on an architectural scale, highly plastic. The other, a little later, to address rationalistic, headed by those artists and architects working mainly in Milan, Triennale, an international example of Nizzoli, Terragni Pagano. Fascism did not put prohibitions to a pluralism of languages, focusing, of course, but not excluding the monumentalism modern research. As is known, the voices of the vanguard had no feedback as constant in public commissions, which were generally preferred terms which are more tied to the academic tradition. In particular, the policy of the image, in this period takes shape and develops especially looking at ancient Rome, familiarized by the strong presence of “fasci littori”, Roman eagles and lupe breastfeeding. As is known, it was from the war in Ethiopia (1935) that the reference to ancient Rome became a major ideological dimension. In this period the Roman culture found its privileged place also in the field, through the columns, triumphal arches, monumental buildings. The Roman world was indeed significant attention in the programs of the large exposures regime. This programming was to prepare for the celebration of the “new” Roman Empire of Mussolini through the implementation of the Universal Exposition of Rome in 1942 (never realized for the start of the war).

This paper will deal with the delicate question of the re-appropriation of Roman art, Colonial art and the development of the culture of the Great Exhibitions, during the first half of the twentieth century in Italy from the point of view of propaganda, political and social trying to identify functions and tasks of the political, unions and artists, the protagonists of an “artistic integrated circuit” in which no event had to be excluded from the relationship with the history and politics of war.


Arena, Giovanni (2011). Visioni d’oltremare. Allestimenti e politica dell’immagine nelle esposizioni coloniali del XX secolo. Napoli: Edizioni Fioranna.

Braun, Emily (2003), Mario Sironi. Arte e politica in Italia sotto il fascismo. Torino: Bollati


Labanca, Nicola (2002). Oltremare. Storia dell’espansione coloniale italiana. Bologna: il Mulino.

De Micheli, Mario (2000), L’arte sotto le dittature. Milano: Feltrinelli.

Malvano, Laura (1988), Fascismo e politica dell’immagine. Torino: Bollati Boringhieri.

Silva, Umberto (1973), Ideologia e arte del fascismo. Milano: Gabriele Mazzotta Editore.

Frommhold, Erhard (1970), Arte della Resistenza 1922-1945. Milano: Edizioni La Pietra.



Joan Robledo-Palop, Yale University

Photography, Photomontage and War: Documenting Violence in the 1930’s

This paper aims to point out the debates between photography and the representation of truth, to document the threat of war and political violence triggered in Europe after the rise of fascism in 1933. After World War I photographs were assigned the power to documented the real conditions of society, on the one hand in the form of middle class conceptions of tradition and survival as well as in the provocative style of social criticism in its attacks on the social and political establishment. Bertolt Brecht in talking about this new form of documentation in 1931 wrote that ‘the immense picture material that is spewed out by the printing presses every day and that seems to have the characteristics of truth, serves, in reality, only to obscure the facts.’Also in the Weimar Republic, Seigfried Kracauer saw the illustrated magazine press as a source of contradictions and its photographs as constituting a fragmented reality: ‘In the illustrated magazines the public sees the world whose perception of it is hindered by the illustrated journals themselves.’ The problem of distrust in photographs will be addressed at the outbreak of violence, both in Spain in 1936 and in several European countries in 1939, through the particular cases of magazines and print culture developed by an extensive network of international associations of artists and writers against war and fascism. The print culture generated by a specific space to confront the critical relationship of the first generation of globalized depictions of war that appeared in the commercial media and in other representational spaces from this period. Image producers like John Heartfield and Josep Renau rediscovered photomontage as a way to reveal the truth hidden in everyday life images. They introduced an emotional relationship with the viewer rather than the rational construction of reality held by photojournalism, producing a political jolt. Taking photography as a point of departure, photomontage transforms the ‘static’ image to ‘agitated’, suggesting an active ‘reading’ of the image. By examining these relationships, I propose to reassess the impact of events of war and violence in forging new ways of visual communication.


Brecht, Bertolt (1975). “An der Schwelle des zweiten Jahrzehnts” in H. Willmann, Geschichte der Arbeiter-Illustrierten Zeitung, 1921-1938, Berlin: Dietz.

Hardt, Hanno (1996). “Sites of reality: Constructing press photography in Weimar Germany, 1928–33”, The Communication Review, 1:3, pp. 373-402.

Krakauer, Siegfried (1977). Das Ornament der Masse, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.

Zervigón, Andrés Mario (2012). John Heartfield and the Agitated Image Photography, Persuasion, and the Rise of Avant-garde Photomontage, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.



Jörg Martin Merz, University of Münster (Germany)

Picasso’s “Guernica”: Liberation from Militarism!

 Picasso’s Guernica, commonly regarded as a world-famous icon of the horrors of war, has invited numerous interpretations which, though controversial in detail, basically agree that the painting somehow represents the bombing of the Basque town on 26 April 1937 during the Spanish Civil War (Ullmann, 1993; Schneider, 2012). In my talk I dare to challenge this view, suggested by the title at first glance. My basic assumption is that Picasso, rather than presenting a defeatist image of mass destruction from the air, vigorously expressed his damnation of militarism as incarnated in the fascist General Franco.

The obvious lack of specific references in the painting to the historical event was explained away by inferring that it is “a humanist protest against the senseless violence of war in general” or a “universal image of suffering” (Nash, 1998, 17, 72). However, in an interview given in May or June 1937, Picasso is reported to have said: “In the panel on which I am working which I shall call Guernica, and in all my recent works of art, I clearly express my abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death.” (McCausland, 1937). This anti-militarist statement – frequently quoted, but not adequately taken into account – is unequivocally embodied in the central group of the painting: Fragments of a statue of a warrior with broken weapons are scattered on the ground while being trampled underfoot by a horse which is pierced by a spear and bellows in death throes. An equivalent to a smashed equestrian statue of a military leader, this group represents just the opposite of a symbolic image of war such as Franz von Stuck’s canvas of 1894.

It was not by an imaginary military action that the breakdown of the central group, outlined by Picasso already in his first sketch, had been caused, but there is an obvious juxtaposition of the remnants on the ground and the light emanating from the bulb in the upper centre as if it were a supernatural intervention. This was foreshadowed in the related series of etchings entitled Dream and Lie of Franco begun in January 1937 in which Picasso variously depicted the sun as Franco’s adversary. In the first scene the horse is speared by the rider as in the painting. By complementing the series, in June 1937, with four scenes related to the painting, Picasso emphasized the iconographic connection between the two works of art.

The artist’s visceral hate of Franco as voiced in the etchings and in a homonymous pamphlet was elaborated in the painting in a monumental form, albeit without allusions to that person. The breakdown of the “military caste” in the centre of the painting is apparently welcomed with curiosity and devotion by the two females approaching from the right. On the far right, the figure trapped by flames reminds us of “pain and death”, but it is balanced by the family-like group on the left in which the woman and the bull seem to sing as a duet. The unspecified formal repertoire of the painting leaves the field open to interpretations. Consequently, the conventional imagination suggested by the title “Guernica” eclipsed Picasso’s original idea of pacifism, namely disarmament by destroying a symbol of militarism. The scene appears to be timeless, but the electric bulb clearly dates it to the 20th century.


Schneider, Marlen (2012). `Picasso auf der Suche. Guernica und die Atelierstudien zur Weltausstellung 1937.` In Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 75, 239-260.

Nash, Steven A., ed. (1998). Picasso and the War Years 1937-1945 (exh. cat. San Francisco and New York 1998/99). New York: Thames and Hudson.

Ullmann, Ludwig (1993). Picasso und der Krieg. Bielefeld: Kerber.

McCausland, Elizabeth (1937). `Picasso, statement rejecting the fascist position of the Franco rebels.` In The Springfield Republican, 18 July 1937.


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