January 19, 2011

Remembering Renato Guttuso

J. Boyden

Yesterday, January 18th, was the 24th anniversary of the death of Renato Guttuso.

Renato Guttuso (1911-1987) was a communist painter who was born in Sicily. I found out about him watching a long fictional drama called Baaria (2009). Guttuso is not a main character. He only makes a “cameo” appearance but his artwork comes back at times throughout the movie re-enforcing the grand narrative about peasants and farmers struggle for justice and dignity in a society of fascism, poverty and corruption.

Many critics have panned Baaria, perhaps because of it's length but more likely, I think, because it stars a communist politician. It won an award at the Venice film festival and I liked it -- but that is for another review.

Renato Guttuso’s Italian-language Wikipedia page says that he was a militant anti-fascist. He chose anti-fascist themes during the Spanish civil-war. He dedicated some of his paintings to Federico Garcia Lorca, brilliant (and gay) poet, spokesperson for the Republic, and killed by fascists in the civil-war.

Under fascist rule, painters did not have the freedom to address pro-people and democratic themes in art. Yet Guttuso bravely did just that in his painting Crocifissione (1941). The work was declared revolutionary and heretical by the powerful Italian Catholic church. In a society where violence and militarism dominated, the painting was a bold statement against the brutality of war. The Vatican went as far as forbidding the religious from looking at the canvas.

 Crocifissione (1941)
Guttuso became a spokesperson for a new generation of young Italian artists disgusted with the politics and cultural icons of fascism even before the war. His style rejected most academic approaches to painting and embraced a full-range of often brilliant, bright colours. He joined the under-ground Italian Communist Party in 1940.

After the liberation of Italy he produced many famous works of “social art,” focusing on the poor, peasants, and other working people. He was influenced by socialist realism as well as his colleague and friend, Pablo Picasso; and he engaged in the intense debates on style in critique of much abstract Italian art of his time. He also produced sensuous and erotic paintings.

During the Cold War Guttuso painted on a social backdrop of sharp class struggle. The Italian Communist Party, thrown out of an alliance in government, grew to be one of the largest Communist Parties in capitalist Europe but the left faced sharp political and ideological pressure as well as physical attacks, even assassination attempts of leaders. Washington paid special attention to Italy because of the popular support of the Communists. The CIA’s engagement in Italian politics worked to support big Italian capital, the reactionary side of the Catholic church, as well as the Mafia.

These were political forces that Guttuso dedicated his life to fighting, both in paint and in political discourse. He also became a voice for peace at a time when imperialism’s strategies potentially included the madness of a Third, nuclear, World War.

Occupation of uncultivated lands in Sicily (1950)

Later in life he left Italy. He first moved to Paris, painting the young militants of ’68. He taught and exhibited around the world including in the great art museums of the Soviet Union. He was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize. Like the character in the movie Baaria, Guttuso was elected and re-elected to the senate for the Communist Party of Italy.

One of his greatest works in his later life was I funeral di Togliatti (1972, below). Palmiro Togliatti was a resolute anti-fascist and leader of the Italian Communist Party. A million people marched in the streets of Rome for his funeral.

I funeral di Togliatti (1972)
Guttuso held convictions of socialism, communism and democracy that put him conflict with much of the world of art, where the artist’s vision is crudely held ransom by their patron. In this conflict, he not only struggled but produced works of Italian modern art that are know around the world.

We remember your art and your vision, Guttuso.

See more of his paintings: http://www.guttuso.com/
- Comments


  1. He lived like a king. See "Midnight in Sicily" a book that recounts his aggressive acquisitive nature. His fortune ended up in the hands of an adopted "son." The adoption was consummated in record time, and his long-time mistress (who was not interested in inheriting Gattuso's vast fortune) was excluded by the powers that kept Gattuso a virtual prisoner in his own house for the months leading up to his death.

  2. My claim is not that Guttuso was a saint -- rather that his paintings speak to the struggle of working people and humanity. He wouldn't be the first personality to create great art and have serious problems on the personal level, which of course should be recognized. His anti-fascist contribution at the beginning of his life was heroic.

    And at the same time, Anonymous, you should admit that Midnight in Sicily is a 2006 best-seller by an ex-pat Australian which is about Sicilian food and crime, mixed together with personal anecdotes --and some spicy mini-biographies.



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