Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 13, 2022
Romy Golan Flashback, Eclipse: The Political Imaginary of Italian Art in the 1960s Brooklyn: Zone Books, 2021. 312 pp.; 8 color ills.; 136 b/w ills. Cloth $35.00 (9781942130505)

Romy Golan’s book, Flashback, Eclipse: The Political Imaginary of Italian Art in the 1960s, proposes a new methodological approach to thinking about art made during that volatile decade. Rather than a chronological account of the period, Golan puts forth the theoretical and temporal models of the flashback, eclipse, and mise en abyme as a means to draw out the ambiguities and ellipses that characterized its art. Such a strategy reveals, she suggests, suppressed memories of Italian fascism as well as “various liberatory moments of political and cultural resistance,” or what the author terms the “political imaginary” of artists, curators, and critics during the 1960s (11).

Golan’s approach offers a valuable model by which to consider contemporary Italian artists’ complicated relationship to their cultural inheritance. Italy offers a unique case study because its historical avant-garde espoused right- rather than left-wing utopian aspirations, becoming active first in nationalist and later in fascist activities. As a result, in postwar Italy there emerged the myth of the “zero hour,” which advocated for societal amnesia and cultural palingenesis. Yet this position ultimately proved untenable, particularly as the optimism of the economic miracle began to fade and social tensions reached a fever pitch. Golan’s study demonstrates the ways in which Italy’s contested past lingered and reemerged in its art, a phenomenon that has often remained unacknowledged in contemporary criticism and scholarship.

The flashback, eclipse, and mise en abyme become useful tools by which to explore the complicated nature of remembrance and heritage in Italian culture precisely because they collapse the divide between past and present, historic and subjective. The flashback might be the most familiar to readers: it introduces a past that has been forgotten or omitted from the narrative (13). The eclipse is an opposite but complementary phenomenon: a metaphorical concept that “reveals by omission,” similar to that astronomical moment when the moon blocks the sun but the warm glow remains visible (13). Both strategies relate directly to photography and film, media that become central to Golan’s interpretive analysis. According to the author, the mise en abyme more closely resembles a mirror, creating flashbacks within a flashback or a reduplication of an image (15). All three models complicate the “presentist” approach of traditional scholarship, which privileges the contemporary events of the 1960s, and help draw out the historical dissonances embedded within Italian art, criticism, and curatorial strategies of the 1960s.

The first chapter focuses on the early Quadri specchianti (Mirror Paintings) by Michelangelo Pistoletto. The works are characterized by their use of polished steel upon which the artist adhered painted tissue and, later, silkscreened figures. He began making the series in 1962, the same year la congiutura (the conjuncture) began, the period during which Italian citizens began to lose confidence in reconstruction and economic progress. Pistoletto’s images of disaffection and political disengagement resemble scenes from Michelangelo Antonioni’s film L’Eclisse (Eclipse) (1962). Golan suggests that Antonioni’s use of the freeze-frame mirrors that of Pistoletto’s candid photos, both of which produce an effect of a narrative fresco, particularly when frames flash in quick succession or, in Pistoletto’s case, paintings are installed or photographed side-by-side. This format flashes back to Italy’s fascist past, when the mural had been a medium heavily subsidized by the government for public commissions. It is not simply the narrative fresco that these works evoke, but also the work of fellow Turinese painter Felice Casorati, a magic realist who depicted solitary, detached, and silent figures through the 1920s and thirties, not unlike the protagonists of Pistoletto’s and Antonioni’s images. The author argues that the mirror is central to magic realism as it “extends our vision . . . lets us see ourselves as others see us” (97). It also enacts the mise en abyme, where painting becomes like a magical act that lets us see obfuscated histories that perhaps explicate the root cause of alienation and disenchantment in Italian society of the 1960s.

In chapter 2 Golan moves from the gallery to the street, focusing on the one-day public art festival Campo urbano: Interventi estetici nella dimensione collettiva urbana (Urban Field: Aesthetic Interventions in the Collective Urban Dimension). The event took place in Como in September 1969 and included forty artists who staged performances and interventions throughout the city. A photobook produced by Bruno Munari with images by Ugo Mulas sets Campo urbano apart from similar outdoor art exhibits. Golan lays out how the mediation of Mulas’s photos and Munari’s book reveals flashbacks and eclipses that complicate and deepen the event’s narrative. A key image for Golan is a photo taken by Mulas of an individual running through an installation wearing a hooded cape, which triggers multiple interlinked flashbacks. In particular, the figure recalls Ettore Ferrari’s nineteenth-century bronze monument in the Campo de’ Fiori in Rome to Giordano Bruno, a sixteenth-century martyr to the resistance of papal authority.

Significantly, Bruno was known for his teachings on the use of “artificial memory,” in which a person links parts of a speech to architectural spaces (152). Golan suggests the organizers of the festival sought to resist excavating memories of Italy’s recent past by skirting certain urban spaces. In one of the most interesting sections of her chapter, she notes the histories eclipsed in both the photobook and the festival, namely, Como’s former reputation as a “fascist city.” Home to one of the most important examples of rationalist fascist architecture, the Casa del Fascio (1936), organizers and artists in Campo urbano avoided the site. For Golan, this eclipse reveals by omission: the event sought to flashback to moments of historical liberation yet avoided the histories evoked by architectural memory. As Golan ominously notes, “By the time Munari embarked on his photo book [in 1970], Italy had plunged into a decade of turmoil. The ghosts of the ventennio [1922–43] had returned” (175). 

The third and final chapter examines the ways in which curators and artists addressed the return of revolutionary violence at the end of the decade. It focuses on Vitalità del negativo dell’arte Italiana 1960/70 (Vitality of the Negative in Italian Art 1960/70), an exhibition curated by Achille Bonito Oliva in Rome’s Palazzo delle Esposizioni in 1970–71. Unlike Campo urbano, Oliva and his exhibition designer, the architect Piero Sartogo, engaged with the ideologically fraught history of the space, which had been a major site for fascist exhibitions staged during the ventennio. Many critics felt that aspects of Vitalità echoed design elements from the thirties, particularly Sartogo’s installation of an X design in the rotunda. Golan suggests that the installation operated as an eclipse, covering over yet also unveiling the palazzo’s history. The image became a particularly complex sign, one that recalled the large Roman numeral X that marked the tenth anniversary of Mussolini’s March on Rome. Yet the X could also be seen to stand as a cancellation, a “no” to fascism and its revolutionary ideals (216).

Golan further argues that the mise-en-scène of the exhibition evoked the same aestheticism found in Bernardo Bertolucci’s film Il conformista (The Conformist) (1970). Both used plunging perspectives and dramatic shadows to create ominous, somber, and violent psychological effects. Golan suggests that Bonito Oliva and Bertolucci enacted “mimetic subversion” in order to engage “the enemy on its own ground, but obliquely” (231–36). In light of the increasing acts of terrorism committed by both neo-fascist and leftist militant activists during the anni di piombo, or the “years of lead” of the 1970s, both curator and director sought to remind their audiences of the historical irresolution of the past and its negative pull in the present.

Golan weaves a complex and significant narrative about the ways in which Italy’s past affected the art of the 1960s. Her book offers an important model by which other scholars might begin to look more critically at the ambiguities of the afterlives of fascism in Italy. Her study ends at the third chapter, and a conclusion that not only tied together her three episodes but also suggested how this approach might be expanded in future scholarship would have been worthwhile. The book complements other efforts to reappraise the postwar canon. It calls to mind Hannah Feldman’s From a Nation Torn: Decolonizing Art and Representation in France, 1945–1962, in which the author contested the appellation “postwar” to draw attention to the problematic historical and ideological continuities that persisted in France after World War II. Golan’s model of interpretation similarly offers a new means by which to examine art produced in Italy, specifically, and Europe, more broadly, after 1945 and as such represents an important contribution to the field of modern art history.

Katie M. J. Larson
Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Art History, Baylor University, 2021–22 Scholar-in-Residence, Magazzino Italian Art.