Mario Sironi.

A short biography of Mario Sironi. 
by Elena Pontiggia (translated and edited by Leonardo Pavese). 
Posted by permission from the Associazione Mario Sironi 

“My greatest pleasure has always been to deal with matters of art; and I spent countless hours at my table when other people my age had fun. This passion was so strong in me, and art seemed such a great thing to me, sublime and unreachable, that I had always considered it an immense deity of which, unfortunately, to me mere mortal was only conceded to breathe the perfume.” This is what Mario Sironi, in 1903, at the age of eighteen, wrote to his cousin Torquato.
Sironi was born in 1885 in Sassari, on the island of Sardinia, where his father worked at the time, but he was brought up in Rome, not far from Villa Borghese.
“He considered himself a Roman, more than anything else; and of the Roman he also had the accent.” That is how Amedeo, Margherita Sarfatti's son, who spent much time with Sironi, remembered him.
In 1902 Sironi had enrolled in engineering school, but just the following year he was struck by an attack of depression, the first symptom of an existential malaise which would accompany him throughout his entire life.
Amedeo Sarfatti said: “He was an introverted man, full of complexes. Although, I believe, he was very well aware of his worth, and surely convinced of his artistic and aesthetic values, he was strangely disparaging, at least apparently, towards his work of which he never seemed satisfied.”

Mario Sironi  Self-portrait
Encouraged by the approval of the old sculptor Ximenes and by the divisionist painter Discovolo, Sironi quit college and dedicated himself fully to painting, and began to frequent the studio of the painter Giacomo Balla. In Balla’s studio he would eventually meet the painters Severini and Umberto Boccioni who, after a few initial misunderstandings, would become his dearest friend in his young age.
In 1905 Sironi began to make and publish illustrations, painting three covers for “L’Avanti della Domenica”, the Sunday issue of the (Socialist) newspaper L’Avanti.
His paintings, at the time (for example: Madre che cuce, Sewing Mother, of 1905-1906) were characterized by a filament-like brush stroke which was reminiscent of Divisionism, but already expressed Sironi’s plastic and architectonic vocation.

Umberto Boccioni's letters and journals tell us about Sironi’s recurrent depressive crises, which caused the painter to shut himself at home, avoiding everybody and concentrating obsessively on drawing. But they also reveal to us Sironi’s deep love for the classics, just at the time when the Futurist manifestos were inciting to the destruction of museums.
In August 1910, Boccioni complained that “Sironi keeps a house full of gypsum models, and copies a Greek head from every direction, 20 or 25 times!!! Obviously, he disapproves of us”.
It was not until 1913 that Sironi, inspired by Boccioni’s work, finally approached Futurism. He wrote to Boccioni: “After having matured on your art, and the art of you all, I fell in love with it, especially with yours.”
Nevertheless, Sironi would interpret Futurism from the point of view of his incessant research about volumes, and he would always paint Dynamic Volumes (quoting the title of one of his paintings), the movement of which never reaches the point of breaking down the structure of the figures.
Sironi’s activity within Boccioni’s artistic movement was very intense: in 1914 he was present at the “Libera Esposizione Futurista,” at the Sprovieri’s gallery in Rome; and he also participated in a recitation of freeform poetry.
The following year, Sironi moved to Milan for a short period, and there collaborated with his illustrations to the magazine “Gli Avvenimenti” (The Current Events), a publication which was close to Futurism, and he became part of the managing nucleus of that group.
“Sironi’s not only a very nice man, of a very generous and upright character, but he is also, and especially, a true Futurist, in the real meaning of the word, who now has joined deeply, and with great originality, the research into sculptural dynamism. He has taken Soffici’s place with an intellect that is at least one hundred times superior.” That was Tommaso Marinetti’s opinion of Mario Sironi.
In 1915, at the outbreak of First World War in Italy, Sironi joined the Battaglione Volontario Ciclisti (The Volunteer Bicycle-Mounted Battalion), to which all the other Futurists belonged: Boccioni, Marinetti, Sant’Elia (who was killed in the war), Funi, Russolo and others; and in 1916 he co-signed the Futurist manifesto: L’orgoglio Italiano (The Italian Pride).

Sant'Elia, Boccioni and Marinetti

The first critical reviews of his work appeared in the same year. The first one was written by Boccioni, who described Sironi’s drawings as “an exceptionally powerful and original manifestation of the artistic illustration.” The second was by Margherita Sarfatti, who emphasized Sironi’s “art of extreme synthesis and simplification...the stylization, from real life, through the use of great and strong angular masses of light and shade, white and black, which sometime reach very powerful effects.”
Meanwhile, however, his work was beginning to be pervaded by metaphysical influences. In July 1919, after being discharged from the Army, he held his first personal show at the Casa d’Arte Bragaglia where he displayed, alongside some of his futurist paintings, examples of work with a clear metaphysical ascendancy.

It was not an accident that Mario Broglio (1891-1948),who was an Italian artist, art critic and publisher, while stigmatizing the persistence of the Futurist elements, could not help but notice in a few paintings “a materialization full of wonderment and enchantment; a sort of contemplative repose”, and spoke also of “images which tend to bring us outside time and space, where an archaic soul seems to have brought to life simple and severe bodies, like in a dream.”
In July of that year, Sironi wed Matilde Fabbrini, with whom he had been engaged since 1915. However, in September he left for Milan without his wife, because he couldn’t afford to bring her along. He wrote to Matilde: “Milan buzzes all about, like the engines of that airship we used to listen to. What can this wheeling and dealing town give to me besides a loathing for her and the need to defend myself against its very power? Nevertheless, it’s much better than Rome, which is nothing but a deplorable dream.”
It was during this period, probably because he was affected and influenced by the city’s environment, that he began to create his unmistakable urban landscapes.

Meanwhile, he had grown closer to the Fascist movement. Marinetti remembers that, already by October 1919, Sironi was among those who participated in the meetings of the Fascio of Milan. His adherence to the fascist movement, which Sironi later expressed in great works with an ideological but never propagandistic content, has vitiated the opinions of many about his art, much more so than in the case of other artists of that time.
As an example, the architect Giuseppe Terragni was not less of a fascist than Sironi, but the studies of his work have not centered in a preponderant way on his political convictions, as it happened instead with the literature about Sironi.
 Furthermore, the numerous studies about the subject don’t always make an effort to comprehend fully what Fascism meant to Mario Sironi, as Agnoldomenico Pica, for example, advised the art critics to do. Emily Braun wrote: “As a diehard supporter of Sironi, even after the war, Pica frankly admitted that Sironi had been a fascist, as he himself had been, and, he said, still was. “But,” Pica admonished her, “you should understand what our Fascism was.”

Terragni,  Direttorio: the Conference Room of the Casa del Fascio , Como.

To Sironi, as it can be deduced from his writings, Fascism meant essentially two things: the first was the dream of a renaissance of Italy, and therefore of Italian art; the second, as we will see better later, it was the desire of “moving towards the people,” to use Mussolini’s own expression, that is, in the field of visual expression, the dream of an art which wasn’t meant for the salons, or for rich collectors, but for the squares and the walls of public buildings, and therefore for everybody.
When, in 1944, the sculptor Arturo Martini (1889-1947) said that Sironi “ believed to be a Fascist, but his was the nearly abyssal soul of a Bolshevik,” he just meant to emphasize the sense of Sironi’s fascism, which was always a fascism “of the left” (to use a cliché which is not without ambiguity) or, in any case a fascism with a “social” vocation.
We can compare this statement by Martini to what Sironi’s wife Matilde said about her husband: “He should be called an anarchist! As far as I’m concerned, I’d call him a “communist,” although of a later time variety...But he was for Mussolini, that’s for sure.”
In January of 1920, together with Funi, Dudreville and Russolo Sironi signed The Futurist Manifesto. Against all the revivals in painting, which, notwithstanding the title, already contained many of the proposals of the future artistic movement “Novecento Italiano.”
In March of the same year he participated in a group exhibition, in the newly established Galleria Arte, where he exhibited his urban landscapes for the first time. The first of the three urban landscapes to be documented with certainty was: Paesaggio urbano con camion (Urban Landscape with Truck, painted in 1920).

This series of paintings represents one of the high points of the art of Sironi, nevertheless it’s also one of the themes which were least understood by the more recent critics.
In this regard, it is helpful to review the interpretation that Margherita Sarfatti gave of these paintings: an interpretation born from her daily conversations with Sironi, and with which the painter identified, in view of his on-going intellectual fellowship with the writer.
The basic elements, which Sarfatti isolates in Sironi’s urban landscapes, are two: the tragic element, and what she calls, with a Nietzchean and D’Annunzio-like expression, the “Glorification.” There’s no need to dwell on the first point: the tragic aspect of Sironi’s paintings is evident: the outskirts of the town he paints don’t know niceties, prettiness or embellishment. Only the implacable arrangement of volumes. They are a metaphor of existence: the neighborhoods are not tough, life is.
Nevertheless, Sironi infused strength and grandiosity in these tragic elements. The powerful structure of the buildings, which resemble secular cathedrals, expresses a constructive energy, which stands in contrast with the severity of the image; an energy which, on one hand, is evidence of the persistence of matter and on the other hand the sign of a rediscovered ability to construct the forms. It is actually, in the widest sense of the expression, the very symbol of construction, meant as a “categorical imperative,” or moral duty.
At that time though, Sironi was mainly known as an illustrator. During the 1920-21 period, especially on the magazine “Industrie Italiane Illustrate”, he published on average a drawing a week. It was a commitment with an overwhelming rhythm, about which Sironi complained to his wife: “I work and work; like I was drilling my brain”.

Furthermore, in August of 1921 Sironi began collaborating with the “Popolo d’Italia”, the daily newspaper founded by Benito Mussolini himself, a co-operation which will last uninterrupted until October of 1942.
During the early 1920’s, his drawings appeared on the newspaper very frequently, at times almost daily; and his illustrations constitute a dramatic and sarcastic commentary on the political events of the time.
As he himself remembered: “We worked with feverish fervor. Many times, the ideas and the subjects for the illustrations were given to me by Mussolini himself. I had to deliver the drawings by nine o’clock in the morning, and many times to finish them it took all night.”
During the same year (1921), Matilde was finally able to join him in Milan. They were frequent guests at the Sarfatti’s house at Cavallasca, on Lake Como, and their first daughter, Aglae, was born in 1921.

Margherita Sarfatti as portrayed by Sironi

In December of 1922, Sironi, with Bucci, Dudreville, Funi, Malerba, Marussig and Oppi founded “Novecento Italiano”, an artistic movement inspired by Margherita Sarfatti, which proposed the idea of a “Modern Classicism”, that is, a classic form of painting, devoid of the pictorial effects of the 19th century and sifted through a purist filter. The group exhibited for the first time at the Galleria Pesaro, in March of 1923.
In 1924 Sironi participated to the Venice Biennale with the “Novecento” group, who had rechristened themselves the “Six Painters of the Novecento,” due to the absence of Ubaldo Oppi.
At the Biennale Sironi, whose pictures unfortunately went almost un-noticed, showed four paintings centered on the human figure, among which L’architetto (The Architect) and L’allieva (The Student), which remain among his greatest works of art.


Still in 1924, he created the scenes and the costumes for Aristophanes’ The Knights, beginning his research work into theatre, which will continue into the following decades.

Sironi was, by far, the most representative artistic figure in the “Novecento” movement. He became a member of the Board of Directors as early as 1925 and he exhibited his work in the national and international group expositions; but his absence from the group exhibition of 1927 called: “Quindici artisti del Novecento” (Fifteen artists of the Novecento Movement) in Milan, at the Scopinich gallery, was the first hint of his dissatisfaction with the “system” of art, the galleries and the market circuit.
The desire to return to mural painting was growing in him: it was a wish that Sironi had been cherished for a long time, (and there’s evidence of that even in the articles by Sarfatti, since 1919). It was a desire that had been acquiring a deeper and deeper theoretical awareness.   
In the meanwhile (in fact since 1927), Sironi had also begun writing as an art critic for the “Popolo d’Italia”.

Mario Sironi

Around the year 1930 Sironi met Mimì Costa, to whom, through alternate vicissitudes, he will remain bound for the rest of his life.
In 1932 he separated from his wife Matilde, although the problematic family situation would not prevent him to prove himself a very tender and attentive father to his daughters Aglae and Rossana. (Rossana had been born to the Sironi’s in 1929); and 1930 was also the year in which the first monographic book about him, authored by Giovanni Scheiwiller, was published. It must be said, incidentally, that Sironi in this case revealed a total indifference for the dating of his paintings; the same attitude that he would always demonstrate towards the accuracy of his biographical data. “I was born in Sassari (Sardinia) in the past century…” is the laconic biography which Sironi used to pen about himself.
In 1931 Sironi was commissioned to build the stained-glass window entitled La Carta del Lavoro (The Charter of Workers) for the Ministry of Corporations in Rome, which he will complete in 1932; and two great canvases for the Palace of the Postal Service in the city of Bergamo entitled: Lavoro nei Campi or L’Agricoltura (The Work in the Fields or Agriculture) and Lavoro in Città or L’Architettura (Work in the City or Architecture).

From this moment on, Sironi will devote himself mainly to great decorative works, disregarding painting on the easel, which he had come to consider, in his own words: “a limited and insufficient art form.” For him, in fact, wall painting was not simply a technique, but a radically different way to think about art (ancient and classic at the same time, but also novel and authentically fascist, in the sense that, as he himself said: “it was the “social art” par excellence”).
But why should a mural painting be more valuable than a canvas? Sironi believed there were three basic reasons. To begin with, a large public wall decoration embodied an egalitarian utopia, because it couldn’t be privately owned, and it could be found in the streets, in the workplaces or at the post office. Furthermore, in this way the importance of the galleries and the market was reduced, because a wall couldn’t be bought or sold easily, nor could it be exhibited, unless in an ephemeral form, therefore stimulating the commissioning of works of art by the state. Lastly, mural painting would have inspired the artists to tackle solemn and grand themes (because it would have been impossible to paint, for example, an apple near a pear under, let’s say, the Arch of Titus) and to develop a new concept of space, to bypass the intimism and the idea of art centered around the psychology and the feelings of the artist.
Nevertheless, and this is the main point, wall painting should not fall in the trap of placing emphasis on content over form, or degenerate into propaganda. Sironi dreamt of an art that was in keeping with the spirit of the fascist revolution, but he was aware that that depended solely on style and not on the subject of the painting; contrary to what was happening, for instance, with (Soviet) socialist realism, as he himself pointed out: “Rather than through the subject (the communist idea), it is through the suggestions of the environment and through style that art will be able to shape anew the popular soul…”

Italy between the Arts and the Sciences

For the entire decade, Sironi (among the innumerable things at which he worked at an unbelievable rhythm) toiled after a long succession of monumental works, in which he chose a multi-centric composition, very often divided into quadrants and ruled by pre-Renaissance perspective and organization of space. Even in his few easel paintings of this period (which were often inspired by the ideas of labor, the family and the landscape, in the sense of primordial and timeless concepts), the figures assume titanic proportions, reminiscent of the statues of antiquity, which have the potential grandiosity of mural paintings.

It is impossible to list here all the works to which Sironi gave his contribution between 1932 and 1939, because they truly are innumerable, (for a complete listing, please refer to Sironi’s biography at the Associazione Mario Sironi's  website). During this period Sironi invited all the best Italian artists to execute monumental decorations. He himself sculpted the great mural Il Lavoro (Labor), besides several other sculptures. It was also in this occasion that the anti-Novecento controversy resumed. The polemic had started actually in 1931-32 and it was encouraged especially by Roberto Farinacci, from his paper “Il Regime Fascista.”
Sironi was the object of violent attacks and he defended with passionate articles the line of thinking of the “Novecento” movement. Contrary to what is often stated though, Sironi was not forced to resign from the daily “Il Popolo d’Italia” (and in fact he continued to contribute to the newspaper’s monthly supplement “Rivista Illustrata del Popolo d’Italia” (The Illustrated Magazine of the Popolo d’Italia); nor he ever lost Mussolini’s personal appreciation. The anecdote relayed by Ojetti, who said that the dictator, in 1933, criticized the “big hands” and the “big feet,” in Sironi’s drawings, finally blurting out: “Sironi’s an idiot” is dubiously trustworthy and, in any case, it should be put back into perspective.
Mussolini, as late as in the years of the Republic of Salò, wrote: “The art of Sironi was the background against which I built my revolution.” Even Sironi’s failure to participate in the 1934 Venice Biennale, which has been often attributed to his controversy with Farinacci, had different causes, as we will examine later.
In 1939 Sironi also planned the execution of the sculptures for the Danteum (an envisioned, but never built monument to Dante Alighieri), designed by the design group directed by Giuseppe Terragni; and between 1939 and 1942 he collaborated again with Giovanni Muzio to the completion of the Palace of the Popolo d’Italia, executing the decorations for the facade and for a few internal spaces, contributing also to the architectural design.
It was a commitment without respite, with unforgiving deadlines that compromised even his health but did not completely satisfy his creative tension, which was frustrated not only by the envy of his colleagues but also by the incomprehension of the critics.
About the 1937 bas-reliefs for Paris, for example, Sironi wrote:
“Mine is a modest effort; just a feeble germ of what my contribution could be if the aforementioned bullies were bumped off, as they deserve and they are not, instead of being alive.”

In the course of that decade, Sironi had radically cut down his participation to the art exhibits, although he held two important personal shows at the Galleria Milano in 1931 and 1934. A symptom of his disinterest was a little known episode: Sironi was invited to the 1934 Venice Biennale. He had pledged to show never-seen-before work, but he failed to send any painting, ignoring the ever-more-frantic telegrams from the curator of the exhibit, Maraini, who was urging him, halfway between begging and threatening him, and who, five days before the final coat of paint, declared himself “sorry to have to dispose differently of the space that had been reserved for you until now.”    
By that time, the war was raging. Notwithstanding the fact that Sironi had guessed early on how the war would end, (in November of 1942, he had written to Mussolini himself: “May God save You, and with You all of us.”) he gave his support to the Italian Social Republic, following the evolution of the events with increasing anguish.
On a sheet of paper, written in 1944-1945, that was found in his studio, we read: “Every day is an enormous effort to go on, to resist with this heart crushed by the enormous fatigue to exist...There is nobody here close to me; just more atrocious loneliness, as always...In some moments, I still delude myself. Then the horrid and gloomy wind starts blowing anew...Everything fell apart in the last few months, everything. There’s nothing left but rubbles and fear.”
And in a 1945 or 1946 letter he wrote: “But what came later was even more lugubrious...I saw things that even my bitter philosophy wouldn’t have allowed me to imagine. I saw the atrocity of life and the bestiality of human nature.”

To Sironi, who didn’t seek refuge (like many others did), in last hour changes of allegiance, the end of the regime was a devastating moment; and in fact it wasn’t just emotional suffering, because on the 25th of April (the day of the fall of Fascism) he also ran the risk to be executed.
Several versions of this dramatic episode have circulated. Some are clearly unbelievable, like the Marco Valsecchi’s account, who claimed Sironi went out in the street in Milan, amidst the shooting, and walked for hours, with his little she-dog, until he reached Lake Como, which is almost 50 kilometers away. (Valsecchi, 1913-1980, was an Italian art critic, professor and author.)
In reality, as witnessed by the writer Gianni Rodari, Sironi, with his dog on a leash, took indeed the road to Como, but he was stopped at a roadblock by a group of Resistance fighters. He would have been shot on the spot if Rodari, who belonged to the partisan brigade, hadn’t recognized him. “I don’t know if I should be proud of it,” Gianni Rodari said. “I signed his safe-conduct pass, in the name of Art.”
There’s no record that Sironi ever endured any political “purging” process, notwithstanding the violent climate of the period immediately following the war. However, on June 15, 1945, on the paper “Gli Insorti”, (the Rebels), one Albano Rossi published Sironi’s La Famiglia, demanding imperiously the elimination of all the artists of the “Novecento.” 

The Family

His desperate bitterness for the collapse of his civic and political hopes was compounded by the grief for the suicide of his daughter Rossana, who took her own life in 1949, at the age of nineteen. Nevertheless, he never stopped working; although very often, in his paintings, a fragmentation of shapes and a slackening of composition syntax replaced the powerful energy of the construction of his early works. It’s not by accident that one of his last pictorial series was dedicated to The Apocalypse.  
During the post-war years, he refused polemically to participate to the Venice Biennale, but he kept showing his work throughout Italy (at the 1951 Milan’s Triennale and at the 1955 Rome Quadriennale) and abroad, in an itinerant exhibit with Marino Marini in the U.S.A., in 1953.
The monographic book Mario Sironi Pittore, by his old friend Agnoldomenico Pica, which to this day remains the most important publication dedicated to Sironi, was published in 1955.

In 1956 Sironi was elected Member of the Academy of San Luca: an award which he received with scorn. “A farce,” he wrote to his brother.
In the meanwhile his health had been deteriorating, also for the manifestation of a form of progressive arthritis. In August of 1961, while his partner Mimì was abroad, Sironi was taken to a hospital in Milan with pneumonia. He died a few days later, on August 13.

Some time before that, he had written to Luigi Gobbi, his barber and one of his few confidants: “I can’t say anything about myself. In the vegetable garden, right in front, there’s a little pile of trash and it looks to me like my life, my heart, my hopes...Let’s hope that, after so many storms, so many tempests and so much bestial suffering...we’ll reach a harbor where we’ll find peace and silence for our miserable heart.”

Elena Pontiggia is an Italian art historian and author. She teaches at the Academy of Fine Arts of Brera, and writes about art for several newspapers and publications.
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