by Jeremy Dummett
(Extract from Sicily, Island of Beauty and Conflict)
Renato Guttuso was one of Italy’s foremost painters of the twentieth century. Born in Sicily in 1911, as a young man he moved to Milan, before settling in Rome. In a career spanning over 50 years, he made his name at national level for his dramatic paintings of contemporary events, as well as for his portraits, nudes, still lives and landscapes. Under-pinning his work was a strong commitment to the human rights of ordinary people.
Guttuso’s life was full of contrasts. Starting from an impoverished background, he became a partisan against the Nazis in his youth, a lifelong supporter of the Italian Communist Party, an intellectual and friend of artists and writers, and went on to become a highly successful artist. He joined Rome’s elite society, with his studio a salon for the rich and famous, and served as a senator of the Italian Republic.
As an artist, Guttuso remained closely attached to his native Sicily and its social conflicts. Sicily was at the core of his creativity and he returned frequently to renew his connections with the island. Some of Guttuso’s most memorable subjects were the landscapes and the people of Sicily, their vitality portrayed in intense colours, the fire of Etna, the deep blue of the Tyrrhenian Sea, the green, orange and yellow of the fruit and vegetation. Sicily was never far from his thoughts when he was painting. As his friend, Leonardo Sciascia, quoted him as saying, “Even if I paint an apple, Sicily is there”.
Renato Guttuso was born on 26 December 1911 in Bagheria, a small town near Palermo. His birth was not registered until 2 January 1912, in Palermo, raising some controversy over his true birth date. He was the only child of middle-aged parents, his father, Gioacchino, being 48 and his mother, Giuseppina, 36, when they married in 1911. Renato was brought up and went to school in Bagheria, which was both an agricultural centre and the location for country palaces of the aristocracy. The contrast between the lives of the poor agricultural workers and the rich aristocrats was plain for all to see.
The young Guttuso spent a happy but frugal boyhood in Bagheria. Gioacchino worked as a land surveyor, a job which provided a steady if low income. While there was enough food on the table, the family could only afford to eat meat occasionally. They were better off than many, for poverty was widespread in the town, with the lucrative lemon trade controlled by the mafia.
Gioacchino was an amateur painter who dabbled in water-colours. He encouraged his son who showed an interest in painting from an early age. By the time he was 13, Renato was signing his own paintings, which included portraits of his father and urban scenes of Bagheria. His first teachers were friends of his father’s, Domenico Quattrociocchi, a post-Impressionist, and Emilio Murdolo, a painter of scenes on wooden carts, a traditional art form in Sicily. Among the early influences on Renato, which fired his imagination, were the grotesque statues that decorated the grounds of the Villa Palagonia in Bagheria, commented on by visitors since Goethe. In 1924, a visit to Rome with Gioacchino, and his first sight of the city’s exceptional art and architecture, made a lasting impression.
Guttuso continued his education in Palermo, commuting daily from Bagheria. Later he recalled his life as a penniless student, saving money to buy canvasses and eating street food in Palermo’s markets. He was trained in this period by Pippo Rizzo, a Futurist painter who encouraged the young artist, and whose connections in the art world proved useful. In 1929, Renato participated in his first exhibition, which took place in the foyer of the Teatro Massimo, Palermo’s opera house, from which he received favourable comment.
Two years later, two of his paintings were accepted by an important new exhibition in Rome, the first Quadriennale d’Arte Nazionale (four-yearly national art exhibition). This prompted Guttuso to abandon his academic studies. A young man on the make, he left for Milan with three other Sicilian artists, to devote himself full time to his vocation as a painter. In Milan, he became influenced by Expressionism, which opposed the restraints imposed by the Fascist regime, and looked instead to the work of Picasso, Cézanne and Van Gogh. He joined the Corrente movement, which promoted moral commitment in art and the view that it should reflect real life. The symbol of progressive art, favoured by Corrente, was Picasso’s painting, Guernica, representing the Basque town obliterated by bombs in the Spanish civil war.
After completing his military service, Guttuso settled in Rome. Here, in November 1937, he met Mimise Dotti, from a good family in Lombardy, who became his life-long companion. In a portrait from that year, Mimise appears as an elegant northern Italian, fair-haired and fine featured.
Guttuso established his reputation during the period from 1938 to 1941, at the end of which he was 30 years old. Recognition from the Italian art world came with the creation of three paintings, all large, colourful canvasses, depicting violent scenes with realism and strong appeal to the emotions.
The first, Fucilazione in campagna (Execution in the country), was conceived as a memorial to the poet, Federico García Lorca, shot by Franco’s soldiers in Spain in 1936. It recalled Goya’s painting of a similar subject.
Fuga dall’Etna (Flight from Etna) depicted a scene, all too familiar in Sicilian history, of people fleeing an eruption of Mount Etna. This painting won Italy’s top art prize at the state exhibition, the Premio Bergamo, in 1940.
The most complex painting, Crocifissione (Crucifixion), was Guttoso’s masterpiece and his most famous work. Bold figures and strong colours tell the story of the crucifixion in a modern context. The protagonists are shown in the nude, including a woman, presumably Mary Magdalene, who is holding a shroud over the body of Christ on the cross. Instead of being the centre of attention, Christ’s face and figure are partly obscured. In the background, a town is being bombed. According to Guttuso, the nudity was not done to shock but to make the figures timeless. As he commented: “This is wartime… I want to paint this torment of Christ as a contemporary scene… a symbol for all those who suffer abuse, prison and torture for their ideas”. The painting was highly controversial, denounced by the Vatican as unsuitable to be seen by Catholics, and criticised by the Fascist regime for its political implications. Despite the opposition, the painting came second in the Premio Bergamo of 1942.
After the fall of Mussolini in 1943, Guttuso fled Rome, returning a year later to join the partisans fighting the German occupation. He was already a member of the communist party. When in hiding, he produced a series of drawings of Nazi atrocities, which after the war were collected in a book entitled Gott mit Uns (God with Us), a motto of the German army.
The years following World War II saw rapid and profound change in Italy, as the country transformed itself from a predominantly agricultural into an industrial economy. Industry, which was concentrated in the north of the country, attracted mass immigration from the south, including from Sicily. Major expansion of the industrial centres took place in the 1950s and ’60s, as people flocked to fill the new jobs on offer. Italy re-emerged onto the international stage as a country of dynamic growth, close ally of the United States and a founding member of the European Economic Community. For Italians, it was a time of national resurgence and rising confidence.
In this environment, Italy’s creative genius reasserted itself. A new wave of writers appeared tackling themes of social realism, from the effects of war to the poverty of the south and the hardship of life in the big cities. Among them were Cesare Pavese, Carlo Levi, Italo Calvini, Alberto Moravia, Elio Vittorini and Leonardo Sciascia. In the cinema, similar themes were explored by a talented group of film directors that included Luchino Visconti, Vittorio De Sica, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Roberto Rossellini. This was the era of films such as Pasolini’s Mamma Roma and Visconti’s Rocco e i suoi fratelli (Rocco and his brothers), which told the stories of ordinary Italians in dramatic style.
In 1946, Guttuso went to Paris to meet Picasso, whose genius he acknowledged. The two men became friends and met regularly thereafter. Picasso remained a major influence on Guttuso throughout his career.
The post-war period was productive for Guttuso who re-established himself in Rome. His social commitment matched the mood of the country and the wave of social realism being portrayed in the arts. He cultivated relationships with his fellow artists, including Mario Mafai, Corrado Cagli and Antonello Trombadori, with whom he liked to exchange ideas. His studio became a meeting place for artists arriving in Rome, who received a glass of wine and words of encouragement from the maestro.
He also built relationships with the writers, several of whom including Vittorini and Sciascia, were Sicilians. Like Guttuso, the Sicilian writers maintained close links to their native island, which were reflected in their work. Some of the writers, such as Levi, Moravia and Vittorini, became the subjects of Guttuso’s portraits.
The relationships with the writers led to commissions for book illustrations. Guttuso supplied designs for the covers of Sciascia’s novels and drawings to illustrate Vittorini’s work. For the publisher Mondadori, he provided illustrations for their new edition of Dante. This work included the Italian editions of foreign authors, such as Hemingway. He did the illustrations for Elizabeth David’s Italian Food, published in 1954, thus reaching an international audience. Guttuso’s interests extended to the theatre and opera, for which he produced costume and set designs.
The artist’s commitment to Sicily was demonstrated in three paintings from this period. In Occupazione delle terre incolte in Sicilia (Occupation of uncultivated land in Sicily), a group of peasants is marching in the hope of finding land. It is a political subject, with the communist red flag prominent, highlighting the perennial problem of land reform in Sicily, where estates of the aristocracy lay uncultivated. His Portella della Ginestra recorded the shooting of eleven people at a workers’ festival in the countryside outside Palermo. Guttuso, who remembered the plight of the peasants from his youth, went to Sicily to support the campaign for land redistribution. There followed Zolfara (Sulphur mine), a painting showing the inhumane conditions endured by men and young boys in the sulphur mines of Sicily.
These paintings show a distinct change in Guttuso’s style. In contrast to his earlier work, which was characterised by well-integrated compositions, they reflect his illustrations and the crude art of social realism practised in the Soviet Union. They are first and foremost political statements, and while effective as such, lack the empathy of his earlier work.
In 1950, Renato and Mimise were married, following the annulment of Mimise’s previous marriage. One of the witnesses was the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. In the same year, Guttuso made his first trip to Moscow where, as a loyal communist, he received a warm welcome. He made regular visits to Russia for many years.
Guttuso was a dedicated artist, steeped in the works of the old masters from Giotto to Raphael and Titian. From Sicily, he recalled the painting entitled Il trionfo della morte (The triumph of death), which he had copied as a student, and the work of Antonello da Messina. He was passionate about his art, usually completing an eight-hour day in his studio. As the journalist, Giorgio Bocca, noted, “Guttuso has to be working. As he talks, reminisces, smokes and hands me another cup of coffee, all the while he is doing an ink drawing, passing the pen from one hand to the other”. True to his southern temperament, sensuality filled his life and his paintings, infusing all his canvasses and his drawings, especially his nudes. A charismatic character who made friends easily, Guttuso was also reserved, and had a touch of melancholy which he normally concealed.
By the 1960s, Guttuso was the most celebrated painter in Rome. The Venice Biennale exhibition of 1960 honoured him with his own room. His contemporary subjects hit a chord with the Italian public. They reminded people of their roots in the countryside at a time of social alienation, as Italy became increasingly industrialised. Photographed alongside well- known figures such as Pasolini and Moravia, and the film-stars Anna Magnani and Vittorio Gassman, Guttuso became a symbol of modern Italian culture. His lithographs and drawings sold in large numbers to the public while his paintings fetched sky high prices at auction.
Increased prosperity led Guttuso to buy a property on two floors in central Rome, near the Colisseum, in the Palazzo del Grillo. The first floor became his studio, while the second floor, with its view of the gardens below, became a private apartment. The studio was where he worked and entertained his guests. The apartment, where he and Mimise lived, was decorated with her portrait, his Crocifissione, and works by Picasso and De Chirico. The Guttusos already owned a property in Velate, in Lombardy, an inheritance of Mimise’s, where Renato had built another studio. He liked the calm of the Lombard countryside and did some of his best work there.
In 1966, Guttuso produced a pictorial autobiography, a cycle of paintings of the people and places from his past. They included portraits of his father and of Mimise, together with images of Sicily, such as landscapes, traditional painted carts and statues from the Villa Palagonia.
Around this time, Guttuso began a passionate love affair with Marta Marzotto, the wife of a leading industrialist. Marta was a well-known hostess with connections in high society. She became his model, featured in a series of portraits and erotic drawings. Their affair lasted until Renato fell ill towards the end of his life. Under her influence, his studio lost its bohemian lifestyle and became a salon for Rome’s rich and powerful elite. Renato never left Mimise, continuing to live with her in the apartment in Palazzo del Grillo, while meeting Marta in his studio.
Guttuso maintained a high work rate in his sixties. In I funerali di Togliatti (Togliatti’s funeral), he paid homage to the leader of the Italian Communist Party, which he had long supported. It contained portraits of Togliatti, and other party leaders, surrounded by a sea of red flags. In 1972, he was awarded the Lenin prize at the time of an exhibition of his work in Moscow.
La Vucciria depicts Palermo’s well-known street market, which he remembered from his youth. A large canvass, measuring three metres square, is filled with the produce of Sicily, the fruit, vegetables, cheese, fish and meat, laid out in neat groups. Enigmatic figures at the sides of the painting create a slightly sinister atmosphere. In a return to his earlier style, the result is a still life recalling the masters such as Caravaggio, which captures the essence of the market. It is one of the artist’s best-known paintings, copies of which are to be seen all over Palermo.
Autoritratto, a self-portrait, presents the artist with a strong, lined face and swept back grey hair. Below the head, a disembodied hand holds a paint brush. Above, another hand holds a lighted cigarette pointing accusingly at the head. It was an eerie portent of the future and of the lung cancer that would claim the artist’s life.
Guttuso’s later work included Caffé Greco, a favourite haunt of artists in Rome, and an autobiographical piece, entitled Spes contra spem (Hope against hope), in which the artist appears to be saying goodbye to elements of his life while putting his hope in the future.
In 1974, Guttuso bought an apartment in Palermo, in Via Ruggero Settimo near the Teatro Massimo, where he set up another studio. Here he liked to spend New Year and Easter, renewing old acquaintances. In the summer and for Christmas, he preferred his property at Velate, in Lombardy.
His loyalty and generous donations to the Italian Communist Party were rewarded in 1976 by being made a candidate for the Senate, the Italian parliament’s upper house, to which he was duly elected. As a senator, he mixed with the political elite. Visitors to his studio now included not only senior figures from the Communist Party but also Giulio Andreotti, the Christian Democrat grandee, who served as prime minister.
Mimise, whose health had begun to fail in the 1970s, died in 1986. By this time, Renato had been diagnosed with lung cancer. During his few last months, he ended his relationship with Marta and received visits from many old friends, art historians and politicians. At Christmas 1986, Mass was celebrated in his apartment attended by over 50 guests, with Guttuso taking Holy Communion. He died on 18 January 1987. The estate was inherited by his adopted son, Fabio Carapezza.
To view some of Guttuso’s work, click on the link below: