by Giuseppe Frangi
When Mario Sironi arrived in Milan in 1915, he was so poor he could not afford to bring his wife Matilde with him. The capital of Lombardy was the most modern and ambitious city in Italy at the time, and refused to give up its dreams of a visionary future despite the grim climate of a nation at war.
The young Sironi was captivated by the city – with its fast pace, lights, and incessant activity. Many artists of his generation could no longer imagine themselves outside those urban landscapes. But Sironi felt differently: while his Futurist friends considered the city an absolutely positive entity, the protagonist of an innovative modern mythology, Sironi wrote back to his wife, “Milan buzzes like the engines of the blimp we used to hear. What could this commercial city ever give me, if not a feeling of disgust and the need to defend myself from its power?”
While immediately fascinated by the modern metropolis, Sironi also quickly developed antibodies against it. Thus his outstanding “Urban Landscapes” from the early 1920s were born as the artist portrayed Milan in a very different light from the unrealistic, somewhat childish vision of the Futurists. Sironi’s work is imbued with urban ideology, but never promotes it. His “Landscapes” are synthetic visions that express the expanding city’s contrasting forces: one powerful, constructive, energetic; the other dark and lonely, as violent development proves overwhelming and bewildering.
Sironi’s “Urban Landscapes” indeed are almost always deserted places, dense with absences and silence. This density is their distinctive element: man in inexistent, yet everything is permeated with his body, his breath, and his outlook. Despite the visible desolation, it is hard to imagine a city that is more alive. And it is hard to imagine a more monumental city, although the subject of Sironi’s paintings never reveals its monuments – choosing to show instead its massive walls, streets, warehouses, or the bare bones of a gasometer. As a prominent art critic of the time, Margherita Sarfatti said, “Sironi was able to bring out […] a new beauty and grandeur […] from the mechanic squalor of today’s city.”
Little by little, the impetus for magnitude led Sironi to venture into vast mural and public paintings, in a generous attempt at cultural collateralism that would come to a clear and inevitable end by the early 1940s. At that point, Sironi returned to the issues he had abandoned in his “Urban Landscapes” almost twenty years earlier.
Only this time his cities became darker, almost as if a thick layer of tar had weighed down their wings. Sironi continued to paint with passion, but his brush seemed to drag between plumbean skies, walls seeping fatigue, speechless houses. Sometimes the cracked, scraped surface of his works reveals the laborious process the artist endured – so distant from the flashes of Futurist fervor that emerged in his first “Urban Landscapes”.
The wonderful “Urban Lanscape” he created in 1943 (part of the Jesi collection currently in the Brera art gallery) has a nocturnal vibe, as if Sironi had been poignantly looking at his city enveloped in a dark cloak; the skies of his “Gasometer” (1943, Giovanardi collection, currently at Rovereto’s Mart) are milky white but have no light, and are mostly inked with the gloomiest of clouds.
Yet Sironi was never a catastrophist, and even in front of such barren views was always able to convey a deeply tender message, confessing an invincible affection for his (and our) urban landscapes.
Some have said that his works exalt the city: it may seem like a paradox, but the fact is that Sironi believed that the glory of a city was not in representing what Leopardi called “the princely progress of the human race”, but in the density of human experiences that built and gave it life. He believed that was a city’s real “cement”, and through his art he strived to bring out this urban soul, praising it without ever succumbing to rhetoric – because he was aware of every struggle and anxiety that can intertwine with urban life in all of its facets.
His paintings, in a way, are cut from the same cloth as cities themselves.