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Visual Arts And Propaganda: Black Canvases



Through the years many attempted to pinpoint a clear definition of what propaganda is and how it’s been spread throughout the years, taking into account the evolution of technology and society. According to the Britannica encyclopedia, propaganda is "the more or less systematic effort to manipulate other people’s beliefs, attitudes, or actions by means of symbols (words, gestures, banners, monuments, music, clothing, insignia, hairstyles, designs on coins and postage stamps, and so forth). Deliberateness and a relatively heavy emphasis on manipulation distinguish propaganda from casual conversation or the free and easy exchange of ideas”.


In Fascist Italy, this definition found its realization through the organization and mobilization of the people to obtain its consensus, basing the whole ideology on militarized totalitarianism and an idea of nationalism inspired by the Roman Empire. The use of symbols was extremely important to keep a strong image of power, such as the fasci (or fasces), an ancient Imperial Roman symbol of power. It was carried by lictors in front of magistrates and it featured a bundle of sticks with an ax, indicating the power over life and death. Under the government of Mussolini, many families and locales adopted a red chief charged with fasci to indicate allegiance to the National Fascist Party; this chief was called capo del littorio.


Italian Fascism also utilized black as the color of the movement, as it was usually associated with death. It also became the color of the uniforms of their paramilitaries, accordingly known as Blackshirts. Other symbols included the Aquila, the Capitoline Wolf, and the SPQR motto, all related to Ancient Rome


The regime knew how to use means of communications to establish a rapid circulation of its ideology. From the radio to the press, the fascist propaganda found its way into the Italian houses – a process that’s still partly active to this day as the rise of far-right ideology found proliferation through modern platforms, such as social media.



Fascist Italy: The Work of Mario Sironi


Visual arts have been used quite broadly for this specific purpose. The illustrations of Mario Sironi (1885 -1961) are a clear example of this during Fascist Italy. He was born in Sassari, Sardinia, and settled in Rome, where he studied and lived most of his life. He worked as a painter, sculptor, exhibition designer, and architect, and a lesser-known part of his production was dedicated to illustrations and political cartoons. This may be due to their frequent inaccessibility, but also to the strong imagery tied to propaganda for Mussolini’s regime: in fact, during the 1920s Sironi was mostly known as the illustrator of the “Fascist Revolution”.


It is important to mention Sironi’s ties to the Futurist movement in 1915, something that worked its way into his illustrations: although his allegiance was mostly out of political views rather than artistic ones, the Futurist cult of violence, populist sympathies, and intellectual attitudes led to his early support of Mussolini.


Sironi’s direct involvement with the Fascist press began with the newspaper Il Popolo d’Italia, Mussolini’s official propaganda organ, founded in 1914 following his break from the Italian Socialist Party. This collaboration lasted from 1921 to 1943, and it’s the most significant corpus of his illustrations.


Style and Subjects


His style portrayed the myths of the regime for its indoctrination purposes, contributed to visualize them, and to obtain popular consensus. Before taking power, Mussolini’s main strategy was the elimination of opposition through violence or denigration – the latter using the press (“propaganda of agitation”). In line with this plan of action, Sironi’s illustrations from 1922 to 1924 criticized the opposition, focusing on the parliamentary maneuvering of the Italian Communist, Socialist and Republican parties before shifting to accusing rival presses, as the Matteotti crisis developed in 1924.


A key feature of Sironi’s work was the use of black and white, expression of Mussolini's "yes or no" mentality: the cartoons are often composed of solid cubic masses, strong contrasts of light and shadows and dense masses of black ink, a direct reminder of the use of violence and discipline for a return to order. Following the visual analog of Fascist propaganda, the illustrator also started using collages drawn from typeset headlines, sometimes taking the actual titles of targeted opposition newspapers.


According to a contemporary statement, “the subjects were often suggested by Mussolini himself” (“I disegni politici di Mario Sironi”, Augustea, January 1933), although this may be a suggestion of the mythologizing of Sironi’s role in service of the Duce.


What becomes clear after a brief analysis of his work is the strident nationalism that runs through all his cartoons. Italy is often the protagonist, whether portrayed as being oppressed by the anti-Fascist press or bound by the bureaucratic process, with starkly different characteristics from the imagery of the Risorgimento period: this is the Italy of the new era, muscular, unbreakable, with Neo-Classical features. Sironi also portrayed Mussolini himself, emphasizing the physical force, youth, and symmetrical features, in line with the myth of the supreme leader.


As the cultural strategy after Mussolini’s consolidation of power changed from propaganda of agitation to propaganda of integration, Sironi adapted his style to the regime’s agenda, based on broadening its consensus through the systematic molding of popular consciousness, creating a bond between the people and the state: Fascism is now seen as a natural destiny of the Italian people, a manifestation of the will-power.


Once again, Sironi’s role was key in the visual iconography of the regime, as used a bold Futurist-Novecento style to evoke the virility of the Fascist age, depicting the human form as a sleek silhouette, highlighting the anonymity and standardization of mass man – figures that derived from his metaphysical period. The use of waves of chiaroscuro is now used in the incarnation of totalitarianism, reinforced by the presence of fasci or roman numerals of the Fascist calendar.


Another key element is the representation of surging masses. Sironi portrayed them as black or white dots, collages of waving flags or a waving whole, always in small scale if compared to the majestic icon of the Duce or Italia. Once again, these images were in line with the official propaganda as they depicted Mussolini as the supreme and omniscient leader of the Fascist cult – he was alternatively portrayed as a man of the people, although Sironi’s illustration frequently favored the former representation. The Duce is always at the apex of the compositions, in colossal scale.


By the end of the Twenties, Sironi’s iconography and style were firmly associated with the Fascist regime. This led to his position as artistic director of the most important national and external exhibitions of propaganda, including the Italian press pavilions at the Cologne and Barcelona international exhibitions of 1928 and 1929, whose illustrations were featured on La Rivista. By the mid-Thirties, however, his political illustrations started to be gradually replaced as press and the printed matter was quickly surpassed by the radio and cinema, tools that could easily reach an audience on a broader scale. Still, Sironi’s representations of the myth of the Duce and the fasci express a dogma set on the idea of timelessness with the illustration as its primary manifestation.


Nowadays: Social Media


The constant evolution of technology created new tools for everyday use, such as social media. As they started to gain more and more popularity and visibility, an analysis of their pros and inevitable cons is needed. Numerous studies show how a wide platform such as the Internet can grant easier access to a virtually endless audience, with the possibility of creating a large amount of content that can be quickly shared through the power of a few clicks. Social media platforms have thus become a haven not just for everyday users, but also for far-right propaganda.


Neo-Nazi groups, for instance, are using social media not only to spread their ideology but also to recruit people, usually younger teenagers. According to an Insider article by Joshua Zitser, visual media is often used as a tool of persuasion, and one example of it is quickly becoming a dangerous threat to audiences: memes. As a photo and video sharing platform, Instagram has quickly become fertile ground for extremists, and memes are used to lure younger users down a “rabbit hole”, as they’re funny and easy to consume and share. The humor is a key element, as it reduces the crude and more explicit expressions of hatred, something that’s less likely to attract people as more subtle references. Using popular characters or images eases the process as it is seen as less of a threat by those who are mindlessly scrolling through their Instagram homepage.


What enables this process is Instagram’s algorithm, as seen in a recent study conducted by the Center for Countering Digital Hate. The algorithm depends on the “Explore page”, a recommended section of content based on a user’s historical interactions. Once it’s triggered, the algorithm can quickly lead to a maze of extremist content – from Holocaust denial to racist and anti-feminist content.


The issue becomes bigger when it comes to Instagram Stories, which allows users to post pictures or even host videos with a 24 hours limit, after which the content gets automatically deleted. Locked accounts make this content available for fewer people, but at the same time, they make reporting or flagging content harder.


Instagram isn’t the only platform where visual arts can act as a blank canvas for the spreading of hate speech and far-right propaganda: according to a Motherboard software-based investigation, YouTube is filled with Neo-Nazi propaganda that stays online for months at a time, sometimes even for years. This goes against the platform’s policy for hate speech, which “refers to content that promotes violence against or has the primary purpose of inciting hatred against individuals or groups based on certain attributes” – including ethnic origin, religion, or sexual orientation.


Some of these videos express extremely violent rhetoric with actual calls for action for a “white revolution”, like the Atomwaffen Division, an American neo-Nazi group. As stated in an article by Joseph Cox, Motherboard has built a tool to monitor Youtube and limited the clips to propaganda for established neo-Nazi and far-right terrorist organizations. One key fact is that most of these videos have been found through a simple YouTube search, or even through the “recommended videos” feature.


As stated in the Insider article, YouTube’s terms of service may be fine on paper, but they need to be enforced to help to solve this huge issue. Tools have already been used for this purpose, such as the aforementioned Motherboard software or even the NEMESIS program, built by ex-NSA hacker Emily Crose and able to automatically identify hate symbols in social media posts, imagery, and videos. Recognizing particular imagery isn’t the hardest part, because the issue still lies in actually giving that a context to judge whether the image itself is being used for a white supremacist purpose or not.


Author: Elena Bettinsoli

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