Fascism’s Cultural Behemoth

Milan 1919: Fascism was founded as a movement almost exactly a century ago, by journalist and agitator Benito Mussolini along with a gaggle of World War I ...

Milan 1919: Fascism was founded as a movement almost exactly a century ago, by journalist and agitator Benito Mussolini along with a gaggle of World War I veterans. Three years later, with the so-called March on Rome of 1922—the “march” was largely staged; early fake news—Fascism was installed in power and soon set about building its own model of modern totalitarianism (the term was coined to describe it), first cousin to efforts concurrently underway in Lenin’s Soviet Russia.

Over the following 20 years and more, Fascism aimed to occupy every layer and corner of the Italian state, to colonize the consciousness of its people, to transform Italians into anthropologically “new men” and “new women.” It might not seem surprising to us that culture stood at the beating heart of this monstrous hydra, but this is because we still live in a post-Fascist age, which comes after Fascism but is in certain respects conditioned by a model of the modern state inaugurated by Fascism.

It was Fascism that set image, stage, and performance at the core of an ideology of the state, that merged culture and politics until one was all but indistinguishable from the other, as Walter Benjamin intuited in his much-cited formulation of Fascism as the aestheticization of politics. And as we look on today at the grim return of totalitarian impulses across the globe, we might reflect on how this has been made possible in part by the latent and unresolved question of the relation of politics to culture (and identity) in the modern state.

Among all its other aggressive structural interventions—its militarization, corporatization, and regimentation of an entire state and society—Fascism also created a cultural behemoth. It rebuilt and extended the field of cultural activity and set up complex structures to govern it, such that to map it today requires a work of encyclopedic cultural geography and history. These structures made it far harder to label this or that work of art or cultural figure “Fascist” or otherwise.

Such a mapping has been attempted several times, in specialist research and in museums, but few can compete in scale and ambition with the vast, strikingly original exhibition project and book curated by leading critic Germano Celant under the daunting title Post Zang Tumb Tuuum. Art Life Politics: Italia 1918–1943. The project, sponsored by the Fondazione Prada in Milan, was superbly articulated and expertly contextualized, as we shall see, and yet also strangely blind to the politics hidden behind the spaces of art and artistic display.

The specific legacies of Fascist culture in present-day Italy remain deeply ambivalent and shot through with risk. For decades after 1945, in newly democratic republican Italy, any building or book, artwork or film tainted with the brush of Fascism—any hint of what was coyly called “nostalgia” for the 1920s and 1930s—was taboo, unless it could be construed as in some sense a work of surreptitious resistance.

Thus, an entire thread of architectural modernism, the avant-garde bombast of Futurism, or the late allegorical dramas of Luigi Pirandello were all left in the shade, for fear of unleashing their thinly veiled sympathies for totalitarian order, the glorification of violence and war, or the primacy of myth and spirit. Conversely, the “hermetic” poetry of Eugenio Montale or the disaffected ennui of novelist Alberto Moravia were, more or less plausibly, reclaimed as chinks of anti-Fascist light in the ’20s and ’30s, opaque rebellions against a stultifying status quo, linked in turn to international currents such as Eliotic modernism or existentialism.

But this tendency to assign brickbats and medals to the avatars of Fascism and anti-Fascism broke down in the late 20th century. This was in part because the certainties of the postwar era frayed in Italy after the end of the Cold War, in 1989, in Italy almost as much as in Soviet Eastern Europe. The postwar Italian democratic Republic, founded on shared assumptions of anti-Fascism, was succeeded by a fluid politics in which neo-Fascism, new populisms, and a proto-Trump politics in the form of mogul Silvio Berlusconi emerged to confound and confuse both history and the present.

At the same time, documented research in cultural history was gradually building up a more complex and nuanced picture of what was happening on the ground during the Fascist era, revealing a dynamic web of cultural activity, much of it entangled with the Fascist state in one way or another, whatever its explicit aesthetics or politics.


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The show’s disconcerting title—Post Zang Tumb Tuuum. Art Life Politics: Italia 1918–1943—is perhaps the place to start. It is an opaque mix, an art deco cocktail, its ingredients artfully stirred together and hiding at least one surprising absence: Fascism itself is nowhere to be seen, even though it touches everything in both exhibition and book, in ways both predictable and unpredictable. It is worth picking out the title’s ingredients one by one.

Zang Tumb Tuuum was Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s pioneering Futurist sound-poem (he called his poems “words-in-freedom”) of 1912–14, evoking the noise and fury of war and celebrating its purificatory “hygiene.” Post Zang Tumb Tuuum, then, points us toward a field of culture forged in the wake of modernism and the avant-garde, as much as toward the political rise of the Fascist regime. The dates, however, 1918–1943, start neither with Marinetti’s poem nor indeed with the rise of Fascism, but with the legacy of the Great War; they end with the collapse of Fascism’s first 20-year regnum, in 1943, although Mussolini’s final defeat and death would not come for another two years.

In between, we have the punctuation-free words-in-freedom Art Life Politics, capturing that interpenetrating totality—Benjamin’s aestheticization of politics—in the service of the mythical nation, since Fascism was and is always a form of exacerbated nationalism: Italia.

It was Fascism that set image, stage, and performance at the core of an ideology of the state.

Celant’s project, then, is interestingly hybrid and out of kilter. Fascism is not apparently the direct focus, but more like a horizon of understanding of an epoch, an implicit and ubiquitous force permeating all those elements of art, life, politics, and nation. This is already a bold challenge to certain tired old approaches to the “Fascism and culture” question, which looked for the state to bark out its orders and Kultur to stand to attention.

But this should not be taken to mean that Fascism was somehow soft on or disinterested in culture—on the contrary. As the book demonstrates in its fascinating, sustained, and articulated enquiry, the regime profoundly restructured the entire cultural field, its institutions, its spaces, its economics, its values. In other words, it worked not so much to set up new Fascist artistic forms (although it also did this), but rather a new conception and practice of culture as a system.

The webs and networks set up by the Fascist state to penetrate the cultural sphere were dense and multiply intersecting. These included, in no particular order: art and architecture competitions; literature and art prizes; corporatist structures and state-run unions of artists; architects and writers; a national film school and film studio; cycles of grandiose Biennales, Triennales, and Quadriennales; major one-off national exhibitions and local sector displays (of crafts, of sport, of aeronautics, of empire); legislation and regulation to govern, control, and censor cultural production; and so on. All these and many more were set in motion by ministers, local officials, bureaucrats, and artists and intellectuals themselves, in some cases only weeks after the March on Rome and reaching a high pitch of intensity in the mid-1930s.

As the 16 essays, three dozen case-studies, and hundreds of lavish and context-rich illustrations in Celant’s volume track each of these threads, the regime’s cultural power comes into focus: art was shaped by Fascism in foundational and capillary ways by the sites and structures of its making—and, crucially, of its display. This is the key insight of the book and the most radical principle of the Fondazione Prada exhibition: to understand Fascist art and culture, you need to see and, in a sense, experience the space and time of the historical moment of its first display.

Installation view of Post Zang Tumb Tuum. Photograph by Delfino Sisto Legnani and Marco Cappalletti / Fondazione Prada

Take one of many possible examples of the networked patterns of the Fascist cultural system tracked in the book, the sixth art Triennale, which took place in Milan in 1936. The Triennale had been originally launched in Monza, in 1923, right at the start of the Fascist era, and had moved to nearby Milan in 1933, where it expanded its size and its brief to embrace not only design and decorative arts but also monumental architecture.

In 1936, as part of the sixth Triennale, the young architect Agnoldomenico Pica curated a display, a sort of exhibition-within-the-exhibition, on international architecture. In one part of this, Pica documented over 130 major state-sponsored architectural projects completed since 1922, dominated by grand monumental projects such as Rome’s Città universitaria at La Sapienza (1935), Florence’s Santa Maria Novella railway station (1935), or the entire new city of Sabaudia, in the Pontine Marshes (1934).

As Maristella Casciato’s essay “Building the Public Scene in Fascist Italy” shows, there is a suggestive convergence in evidence here, in both Pica’s anthology and the cultural politics of its display at the Triennale, which brings together a cluster of characteristic features of the Fascist cultural system: its vast scale; the dynamic and competing architecture styles of the period, within Italy and between Italians and the international sphere; the tensions and petty factionalisms of public, state-run competitions and commissions; the profiles of individual artists and architects who won the commissions; the merging of art, architecture, and ideology (other essays in the volume plot the dramatic emergence in the 1930s of Fascist mural art—the so-called “assault on the wall”—including works such as Mario Sironi’s grandiose frescoes at La Sapienza); and, crucially, the typical Fascist impulse to constantly put itself on display, to stage and restage itself as spectacle and as myth, just as in Pica’s rooms of the sixth Triennale.

Indeed, this last trait emerges over the course of this book as something like a defining Fascist—and perhaps generically totalitarian—cultural imperative: the impulse to display its own cult of display.

Installation view of Post Zang Tumb Tuum. Photograph by Delfino Sisto Legnani and Marco Cappalletti / Fondazione Prada

Post Zang Tumb Tuuum is built on this same principle, or rather on an adapted, critically evolved version of it. In his introductory essay, Celant calls this principle, somewhat awkwardly in translation, “showing the showing.” He argues, compellingly, that we need to historicize cultures of display alongside histories of art and, in the specific case, to reconstruct art and culture under Fascism by “putting the art object back into the system of its use and presentation,” trenchantly rejecting the neutrality of the so-called “white cube” space of the contemporary art gallery.

Thus, both at the Fondazione Prada and in the catalogue, we find dozens of reconstructed art spaces, from private studios to grand public exhibits, with original works of art placed alongside full-scale reproductions of works that were displayed with them in the 1920s and 1930s. The works are dated by display rather than by composition and the result is a fascinating new chronology and a kind of “virtual reality” method for rereading Fascist culture.

Visitors to the exhibition (the book reproduces the experience through its elaborate illustrations and photography) can walk into the space of, say, a Parisian apartment in 1928, its furniture, flooring, and decorations reconstructed in black-and-white, with Giorgio de Chirico’s School of Gladiators there in stunning color on the wall; or visit the Modern Italian Art show in the Kunsthalle in Bern in 1938, with genuine Carlo Carrà canvases looking onto a reclining nude sculpture, a bust of Mussolini perched over the doorframe; or plunge into the epoch-making Mostra della Rivoluzione Fascista (Exhibition of the Fascist Revolution) of 1932 in the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome, with its overweening displays of Fascist glory on its 10th anniversary, visited by millions of spectators then and partially reconstructed and reproduced photographically here.

Celant’s project, however, left some critics feeling decidedly uncomfortable. The immersive “virtual reality” principle is at one and the same time radical in its labor of contextual recovery, but also awkwardly depoliticized—potentially blind to, or at least distracted from the exclusions, censorship, and violence that underpinned all these moments of display and reception. The Fascist cultural system was pervasive, permissive in many ways, and striking in its vitality and complexity, as the stunning breadth and variety of Post Zang Tumb Tuuum definitively shows, but it should hardly need saying that it was not without its darker side, nor was it sealed off from other pervasive systems of Fascist control.

This ambiguity itself offers useful pointers for our post-Fascist age, as we struggle to understand and locate the contemporary authoritarian beyond the noisy bluster of our leaders. A rich description and study of the surface of historical display does much to explain how art navigates and creates its own spaces and conversations through juxtaposition and curation. But what is displayed as art qua art necessarily also bespeaks the ideologies and histories of its time, the hidden dynamics of how culture and politics converge, and this dialogue requires explication within the space of display.

In this sense, the fascinatingly incomplete operation of Post Zang Tumb Tuuum echoes recent debate around the unresolved politics of Western world museums such as the Met, the Louvre, or the British Museum, themselves also cultural institutions that feel at times like staged, white-cube spaces occluding their postimperial legacies.

To display the Parthenon marbles in London today with no explanation of how they were looted by Lord Elgin from the Acropolis in the early 1800s would, for sure, be faithful to how they have been displayed for two centuries, but also complicit with the overweening imperial arrogance that brought them there in the first place. “Showing the showing” at times risks hiding more than it shows.


This article was commissioned by Stephen Twilley. icon

Featured image: Life-size projections of the 1932 Mostra della Rivoluzione Fascista, in Post Zang Tumb Tuum