From 1935—when Italy invaded Ethiopia—until World War II, the Italian government sent across the Atlantic a series of exhibitions of contemporary art serving a diplomatic mission in offsetting Fascist Italy’s belligerent image in American public opinion. The article addresses the group show of twenty-nine young painters that in 1935 set the guidelines of subsequent Italian art policy in the United States. The first section is a brief general introduction to the aims of the promotion of contemporary Italian art as a form of “public relations” for the Italian government. These included the communication of a distinctly national, and yet creatively alive, Italian school—as opposed to the Parisian cosmopolitan school—and countering the partial and negative portrayal of Italian art provided by American antifascist intellectuals such as Horace M. Kallen and George Seldes. The second section sheds light to the critical discourse behind the peculiar, archaic and “magical realist”, look of the Italian pictures, reflecting the mythic thinking so important as a cohesive factor of the totalitarian state. The bulk of the article (third section) follows the itinerary of the exhibition in some of its twelve venues across the Country between January 1935 and May 1936, and assesses its multifaceted reception in a fluctuating inter-cultural terrain in which the imperatives implicitly assigned to the Italian pictures—with their economic and ideological underpinnings—negotiated meaning with the American public’s expectations, critical paradigms, political preconceptions, fascination or hostility for Mussolini, and local community values. Ultimately, Italian propagandistic ambitions remained largely frustrated. Painting itself—its aesthetic quality—remained invisible, obscured by the catchwords of both Italian and American critical discourses. Local critics proved uncomfortable at handling the work of artists little known in the U.S. Alternatively, the reception of Italian art was conditioned by the burgeoning paradigm of American regionalism. Indeed, the Italian shows, engineered to disseminate the “Italianness” of contemporary Italian painting across the U.S., may be taken as indicators of the state of the art of American criticism of the time, especially beyond the East Coast, and illuminate how the cultural Other was acknowledged in a period of increasing nationalist self-retrenchment in both art and politics. A detailed scrutiny is given to the unconventional showing of the Italian pictures at the Minnesota State Fair. The encounter between the Italian paintings—allegedly embodying their “Mediterranean” and “Latin” cultural values—with rural and Scandinavian American Midwest is a fascinating case study to asses the mismatch between Italian efforts and American reception.
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