The painter Renato Guttuso was famous in the 1970s, when he served as something like the Italian Communist Party’s (PCI’s) official artist. He won the Lenin Peace Prize in 1972 and beginning in 1976, held office as a Senator with the PCI. He was a figurist, unlike most of his contemporaries who were devoted to abstraction. Not everyone in the art world admired him; the Party’s imprimatur was a double-edged blessing. His “realist” style looked suspiciously like socialist realism to those who adhered to the abstract creed. But Guttuso, who died in 1987, and the PCI, whose demise came in 1991, now belong to history, and the time is right to take a fresh look.
I recently spent a fascinating hour and a half doing just that at “Guttuso”, one hundred paintings, drawings and theatrical sketches on show until February 10 at Rome’s Complesso del Vittoriano--the big white monument in Piazza Venezia, the one the Romans used to liken to a set of dentures, before there were implants. The earliest work in the show is an accomplished water-color of a Sicilian garden that young Renato, born to free-thinking middle-class parents in Bagheria near Palermo in 1911, made when he was twelve. One of the last one, painted two years before his death, is an indifferent sketch of a reclining nude, in the slightly smutty rear haunch view with garter belt that the artist favored when his powers were declining.
With perhaps those two exceptions, there is little realism on display at “Guttuso.” One of his gods, instead, was Picasso, whom Guttuso first studied in reproductions during the Fascist 1930s and who later became the Italian painter’s great friend when he spent time in Paris after the war. Early works like (Flight from Etna, 1938) or the harsh, doleful , with their tangle of limbs and loins, human and animal, although they resemble no particular works by Picasso, share Cubism’s restlessness, and have all the human and political urgency of a Guernica. His Crucifixion, steeped in the cruelty and suffering of war and of late Fascist Italy, brought Guttuso some attention, not all favorable: the Church abhorred the picture and actually ordered Catholics not to look at it.
|Blue Window, 1940|
But politically engaged paintings were only part of his production. A convinced anti-Fascist, Guttuso would take part in the Roman resistance in 1943, yet through the 40s and 50s he also continued to paint portraits, landscapes and still lifes, often deploying the fruits and vegetables of his native south, sometimes with jarring elements thrown in, such as the pair of sharp scissors that accompany a bevy of lemons. Color became a powerful element in his compositions: being a particularly successful example. Guttuso designed stage sets and costumes and even illustrated books. The moody artichokes and raffia-covered flask of wine he drew for the cover of English cookbook writer Elizabeth David’s 1954 classic Italian Food, and the ink-drawn illustrations of its opulent ingredients, so exotic to early post-war Britons, were the first glimpse many outside Italy had of his art, albeit only as book illustration. My own copy, bought in 1970, was in many ways my introduction to Italy, which I’ve never stopped seeing though Guttuso’s sharp, expressionist optic.
His small, early paintings, some of them, like the [veering toward abstraction, are the surprise of the exhibit, but they did not represent Guttuso’s highest aspirations. “I’ve always believed a painter’s honor depends on painting large pictures,” he said. And indeed he is best known for his large narrative paintings: “history paintings” as the genre was once aptly named. Large pictures, but not murals, he specified. Works of art in their own right, not works of illustration, pedagogy or exhortation.
|Togliatti's Funeral, 1972|
, a battlefield of red flags and black and white figures representing the great pantheon of Communism assembled in honor of the departed PCI secretary, is perhaps the best-known of these, its style a cross between history painting and graphic art. Caffè Greco features De Chirico and Buffalo Bill in the crush of a Roman bar; Beach, set at the people’s beach of Ostia, is a tumble of brown Roman bodies with a trim, spry Picasso drying himself on a green towel.
These most ambitious of his paintings don’t always manage to transcend muralistic description. One, however, is truly outstanding: his great portrait of the Palermo street market, Into those nine square meters Guttuso has spilled a great cornucopia of cardoons and fennel, tomatoes and eggs, octopus and squid, swordfish and tuna, lemons and melons, cheese and sausages, a side of beef showing all its ribs and a butcher carving away at it. Nature’s merchandise is so exuberant and so vital it saturates every inch of the space, except for a narrow corridor down the middle, where a small huddle of shoppers move through the scene on a vertical axis. The figures, none of which engage the viewer or each other, are cryptic, slightly ghostly. As a proper still life should, this one makes us think of mortality. . Three meters by three, a challenging square canvas.
The Vucciria market, Guttuso said, was one of his first discoveries when he moved to Palermo as a student in the early 1930s. “When I began to paint, among my first subjects were those colors, those planes of light.” But his great painting of the market was not done until 1974, when he was living in Varese, Lombardy, “under the pallid light of the north.” He said the picture was “a great still life” imbued with all the noise, the energy and the violence of “the markets of poor countries.”
|La Vucciria, 1974|
In order to paint from life, Guttuso had an agent ship him the eggs, the cardoons, the tuna, by air from Palermo to Milan. He then persuaded a local butcher to loan him a side of beef “for no more than two hours” so he could sketch it into the composition. The minutes ticked by, and then the hours. The butcher was counting how long his beef would survive without refrigeration. Guttuso, meanwhile, was molding those ribs and haunches into his most powerful memento mori.