The Italians have the same sort of problem over making art as we have over playing football. After ages of doing it far better than anyone else, they had to come to accept that quite a lot of foreigners were doing it better – with the difference that our football has been in that situation for about thirty-five years, Italian art for about three hundred and fifty. However, the time of its supremacy had been even longer, so that the accumulated riches, plus the legacies of the Romans and the Etruscans, plus its all being so ubiquitous and conspicuous, make life easy for tour operators but complicated for artists: ever-present glories of the past create inhibition and resentment but also constant temptation, like that of a well-stocked cellar.

In the Royal Academy’s exhibition of ‘Italian Art in the Twentieth Century’ the problem is especially evident in Gallery III. This room, the Academy’s traditional space for the stars, measures 82 feet long by 42 feet wide by 48 feet high, and the most obvious use to have made of it for this exhibition would have been to save it up for the Arte povera pieces, which (like Tiepolo beggars) are suited by palatial spaces. However, the organisers, Norman Rosenthal and Germano Celant, have done something more daring with the space: they have filled it with art, much of it unfashionable, dating from 1919 to 1934, the time of the rise of Fascism. They have put sculptures by Arturo Martini and paintings by Sironi, Carra, Casorati and Morandi in the space on the near side of a curved wall, and on the far side paintings by de Pisis, Savinio and de Chirico.

The room exposes the problem of the presence of the past because it covers the period of the rappel à l’ordre, the reaction against experiment in favour of a new Classicism. Whereas in Paris this meant a hard search, by Picasso, Léger et al, for styles with which to fulfil that aspiration, in Italy the artists who didn’t mind living off inherited wealth, the Sironis and Carras and Casoratis and Martinis, had paradigms to hand (mainly in Florentine art from Giotto to Pontormo). Today a Clemente or a Chia can draw upon the past with the same sort of ease, now touched with irony.

This could be why Cézanne has had so little influence in Italy – the most notable exception being Boccioni’s work of 1912-13. Painters in Paris (including Modigliani) have tended to use Cézanne’s remaking of tradition as a medium through which to come to terms with the past. Italian painters are able to have a more familiar relationship with the past, an easy-going relationship – like one with grandparents who will bail you out when you’re short of funds to draw on. It is the sort of relationship that keeps tensions at bay, tensions of the kind that generate creativity. The relaxed quality of a Sironi or a Martini, or, from 1920 on, a Carra, is what makes it pleasing and even impressive and soon makes it boring. Casorati, on the other hand, does sustain interest and surprise, through the ingenious way the pictures are put together and in a way associated with English artists – through the quirkishness of their poetic atmosphere.

There is any amount of quirkish poetry on the far side of that curved wall: de Pisis’s Sacred Bread, Savinio’s hair-raising, Grandville-like fairy stories, and nine mostly large de Chiricos – the sort of pictures which the Surrealists, who had formerly worshipped de Chirico, despised on account of their ‘muddy colours’ and wanted to ‘throw into the garbage-bins of oblivion’ along with the ‘sinister clown’ who had painted them (their mouthpiece here was Queneau). With the conservatism of revolutionary youth, they could not bear to lose de Chirico’s earlier hard, direct way of painting, in which the form was Signified, as in comics, by perfunctory hatching over the blocks of colour. He used this way of painting so potently that he makes a compelling poetic image of a 1912 picture at the Academy which contains no iconographic surprise but is simply a back view of a standing nude.

The ‘muddy colours’ were another of those outcomes of the presence of the past: the change in de Chirico’s handling of paint followed the ‘revelation of great painting’ which he received in 1919 while looking at Titian in the Galleria Borghese, and this was one encounter with tradition that was highly fruitful, rejuvenating a genius which had been showing signs of drying up. Certainly, it often led him to ludicrous rhetoric, but also to the use of feathery, atmospheric brushstrokes to lend an animation, an intensity, a mystery to the surfaces of his forms that can infuse a disquieting image with terror. In the Columns and Forest in a Room of 1928, that great writhing mass behind the columns gets under the skin and chills the spine as SF movie monsters are meant to do. Which leads to the fact that the title by which, rightly or wrongly, the work is known does not divulge the heart of the subject. The writhing mass is not all forest but is largely made up of human bodies – and not the adumbrations of bodies that may be found in a Forest by Ernst, but palpable flesh and muscle and bone and at the top right an agonised head thrown back. These straining, densely-muscled trunks and limbs locked in a Herculean struggle could well be an allusion, which I cannot yet identify, to some sculptural group, Mannerist or Baroque or Late Antique. The same sort of handling of paint is used in a closely-related work of the previous year, The Archaeologist, to achieve an elegiac lyricism. There is a totally different kind of virtuoso handling in the astonishing solid areas of black and white in The Prodigal Son of 1926, a work in a style brilliantly adapted from Picasso’s recent Neoclassicism. But, of course, all these pictures were painted in Paris. De Chirico was the great nomad of modern art, able to profit both from the stimulus of displacement and from its anxiety.

Morandi, too, worked at different times as a painterly and as a linear painter – the latter during the period 1918-19, when he followed de Chirico into Pittura metafisica. I cannot understand why his works of that phase are so admired. It seems to me that his attempt to turn himself into a linear painter, as against the painterly painter he was before and after, was voulu, an outer-directed moment in one of the most inner-directed of careers. All his instincts, surely, were those of a painterly painter given to bringing forms slowly into existence, discovering in the gradual course of painting the mysterious ins and outs of a mass of leaves or a gathering of vessels. In the metaphysical works he was constructing puppet-theatres for thought-out forms placed in relationships obviously planned to generate a sense of mystery. These artificial fabrications were a passing aberration irrelevant to what he did before and after: if you subtract them from his catalogue raisonné, you do not feel anything is missing. Pittura metafisica was something de Chirico produced from the inside; Morandi from the outside. Carra was a less déraciné exponent than Morandi, but his productions, The Drunken Gentleman apart, still seem contrived: he was an honourable artist, a trier, but his creative work was done in his Futurist period. Wyndham Lewis’s preposterous ‘Vorticism, in fact, was what I, personally, did, and said, at a certain period’ is the sort of claim de Chirico could have made validly about his movement.

The exhibition presents both de Chirico and Morandi as if they did nothing worthwhile after reaching 40: their dates were 1888-1978 and 1890-1964, and both went on doing important work until the end. Its exclusion seems the most incomprehensible feature of the selection. The most provocative seems the size of the role given to Sironi, the official artist of Fascism – a much more civilised artist than his counterparts in Germany, but less entertaining. While giving its due to the art of the Fascists, the exhibition plays down the dominating presence of Communists in the arts since the war. Rather than all that Sironi, there might have been more of Guttuso. His attempt to create an epic art in a demotic language was one of the bravest enterprises in modern painting, and its failures are rarely uninteresting.

Guttoso’s pictures here all date from 1939-41; we could have done with something from around 1950 and with one of those impassioned nudes of the Eighties. The Rosenthal strategy for the thankless task of selecting a survey show is to choose, for most of the artists, their moment, and concentrate on that. It’s a defensible approach, but it doesn’t work with artists who metamorphose in mid-career, nor with a Morandi, who needs to be seen pursuing his course over several decades. It would have seemed to work with de Chirico so long as everyone agreed with the Surrealists, but no more.

Fontana is the other master to whom the show does less than justice. It does give coverage to his whole career, and intensive coverage, but the examples are mostly not first-rate. The worthy examples come near the beginning – notably the two ceramic pieces of 1938, which show Fontana as a true heir of Medardo Rosso, and the Seated Girl of 1934, which is a sort of Donatello touched by kitsch, and which suggests that, before becoming the initiator of a revolutionary art (and probably the seminal European artist of this half-century), he was the finest exponent of that neo-traditional tradition in sculpture which was initiated by Martini and continued by Marini and a hundred others.

The outstanding figure among those who have emerged since Fontana seems to me to be Manzoni: the drum in zinc and lead with its quasi-monumental inscription, the relief with 11 rows of ten whitened breadrolls, look at once insolent and ageless and have a mystery in their forms as inexplicable as charm. I think he is in a class of his own among post-Fontana Italians, with Kounellis, certainly, and perhaps Fabro as his nearest rivals. In this half-century Italy has been the most creative country in Europe – through its films, it composers, its architects, its interior design, its industrial design. Its new art – as against the late work of the survivors – has perhaps been less remarkable than its presentation of art, of all periods: for me, the most creative phenomenon in Italian art since Manzoni has been Count Panza’s inspired collecting and installations of American minimal art. Sad to say, his sort of passionate respect for objects is lacking in the design of the Academy exhibition by Mario Bellini and Giovanna Bonfanti: their catalogue sales desk is delightful, but inside the show their embellishments of the doorways seem fussy and intrusive and their choice of colours often distracting, especially in the two rooms housing the de Chiricos. Happily, they have been self-effacing in the two Futurist rooms.

These rooms are surely the organisers’ pride and joy. They have sustained a high level of quality by concentrating mainly on the movement’s two major artists, and have managed to procure the loans of masterpieces by them which reason would expect to find denied to an institution lacking the wherewithal to reciprocate. And they have clearly and economically illustrated the movement’s rootedness in both Impressionist and Symbolist tendencies by the simple expedient of beginning the exhibition with a roomful of Futurist pictures surrounding a showcase containing three Medardo Rosso sculptures.

Balla and Boccioni are a marvellously contrasting pair. Balla’s long career – he was born in 1871, died in 1958 – was neatly divided into parts. His first phase included such works as the exhibition’s Bankruptcy of 1902, a highly illusionistic – but not only that – painting of a pavement and a wall and a graffiti-covered door realised with astonishing technical command. As a Futurist, he proceeded to pursue with unrelenting rigour the idea of conveying a sense of movement in a totally non-retinal way – to construct abstract movement, to invent, so to speak, two-dimensional machines that appear to be generating movement. He went on to do the same sort of thing for light, and here again was amazingly inventive: he was producing Op Art by 1914. He was the very model of the single-minded Modernist. Then, in the late Twenties, he resumed painting figuratively and went on like that until his death.

Boccioni, on the other hand, in a life that ended at 33, was always doing several things at once. For one thing, he managed in his short time to become both a great painter and a great sculptor. As a painter, he worked with entire success in a wide variety of styles: thus, between 1910 and 1912, the Workshops at the Porta Romana is a Divisionist painting, the Suburb of Milan is close to Fauvism, the Modern Idol recalls Die Brucke, The Laugh is a proto-Marc, Matter comes out of analytical Cubism. But the same personality is vividly in all of them. The genius for unity in variety is especially manifest in the version shown here of the States of Mind triptych – the earlier and sketchier of the two versions, both the same size, both painted in 1911. Each canvas has a range of colour and a rhythm quite unlike those of the other two, but all of them have a common texture which unifies them like movements of a symphony. The ability to take over styles reaches back into the past, for all the Futurist railing against tradition. The archetypal Futurist sculpture, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, is a striding figure that seems to move forward as irresistibly as a machine, yet it unmistakably contains something of the form of the Victory of Samothrace. Perhaps it says that Boccioni was the Italian artist of this century who managed to take the past in his stride.

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