Book Reviews

Flashbacks, Fascism and the New Prehistory. Review of Flashback, Eclipse: The Political Imaginary of Italian Art in the 1960s by Romy Golan and Against the Avant-garde: Pier Paolo Pasolini, Contemporary Art and Neocapitalism by Ara Merjian

Flashback, EclipseAgainst the Avant Garde

By Jacopo Galimberti

In English-speaking scholarship, the last few years have witnessed a growing interest in the relationship between the visual arts and Italian politics from the onset of the ‘miracolo economico’ (the ‘economic miracle’ starting around 1958) to the oil crisis of the mid-1970s, or, to put it slightly differently, from the publication of Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks to ‘the years of lead’ – a moniker that has demonised a decade also marked by resounding victories both in the factories and in the civil-rights sphere. Italian cinema masterpieces, from the films of Federico Fellini to those of Michelangelo Antonioni, were studied in Anglo-American universities early on, and Arte Povera artists have been exhibited in major venues outside Italy since the early 2000s, but what recent years have brought to the fore is a sustained engagement with the way in which art was shaped by the social conflicts that animated the growth and decline of Italian Taylorist ‘society’, and not only in terms of the ‘mode of production’. A new generation of art historians and visual-studies experts have embedded the narratives of postwar Italian art into an ebullient political landscape of great theoretical complexity, as demonstrated by the recent translation of classics of Italian leftist thought into English (e.g., Mario Tronti’sWorkers and Capital (1963), Alberto Asor Rosa’sThe Writer and the People (1965), and Franco Fortini’sA Test of Powers (1965)). Recent books such as Jaleh Mansoor’sMarshall Plan Modernism, Lindsay Caplan’sArte Programmata and Paola Bonifazio’sThe Photoromance must be given credit for their attempts to reconnect political jargons and violent social conflicts to artistic production, complementing the insights of an older generation of ‘Italianists’ including Robert Lumley, John Foot and David Forgacs, to name but a few. The parallel shift from male to female scholars is intentional here.

The Italian Left had a firm grip on large sections of the culture industry in these tumultuous decades; accordingly, any meaningful discussions of the arts and their environment cannot help but examine leftist culture and its contrasts or compromises with a classist, Catholic and sexist right-wing elite, as well as with the long shadow cast by the Fascist dictatorship well after World War II. Such is the framework within which two monographs from the 2020s operate: Romy Golan’s Flashback, Eclipse: The Political Imaginary of Italian Art in the 1960s and Ara Merjian’sAgainst the Avant-garde: Pier Paolo Pasolini, Contemporary Art and Neocapitalism. These two volumes share a similar timeframe and a pronounced interest in politics, as well as a keen attention (though particularly in the former) to temporality and its structures.

In fact, Golan’s title reads almost like a statement in favour of a history of art that defies a reassuring linear narrative while also avoiding the pitfalls of what François Hartog (a key interlocutor for Golan’s meditations) has dubbed ‘presentism’. If the word ‘flashback’ retains its conventional meaning in the book, and describes the sudden irruption of the past into the narrative flow, what ‘eclipse’ indicates, in temporal terms, is less clear, but the chapters suggest that it is something akin to a momentarily veiled event. It is tempting to understand ‘eclipse’ as part of the semantic field of ‘repression’, but Golan deliberately omits any references to psychoanalysis, opting instead for a terminology derived from photography and film studies. The interrelations between three key notions of the book, flashback, eclipse, and mise en abîme, are unpacked in the Introduction, ‘An eclipse, once it is recognised as such, can mask a flashback. And a flashback can include, nested in, either another flashback or an eclipse. When nested, they produce an effect of amise en abyme’.[1] Despite her commendable attempt to complicate mainstream art-historical approaches to the regimes of temporality – what François Hartog has achieved through notions such as chronos,kairos andkrisis – Golan’s evocative vocabulary might find objections in an audience persuaded that historical studies should adhere to the imperative of documentary evidence, and refrain from using a metaphorical language.[2] Yet Golan asserts the validity of her methodology, contending that a

number of connections I make between artists and events, especially in the longer flashbacks, might appear to be a stretch, the result of associative thinking, and indeed, many of the flashbacks and eclipses in this book are mine, but a degree of speculation is within the logic of the visual thinking on which this study is founded. […] The images know more than we do. The artworks and the images thereof generate both real and imagined narratives about the connection between the present and the past that historians cannot grasp with documents alone.[3]

This bold advocacy of a stronger authorial voice and the importance of ‘imagined narratives’ is not unusual for prominent art historians – think of T.J. Clark’s ‘experiments in art writing’, which pushed the limits of academic conventions further than Golan does.[4] I believe that these moves represent a refreshing intellectual risk; the structural problem is, rather, that fewer and fewer scholars are in a position to take it, as the temerity they imply is virtually only possible at an advanced stage of their careers, once the precarity of the academic job market seems definitively averted.

What are these flashbacks and eclipses that Golan acknowledges as partly ‘hers’? Most of them revolve around the interwar years, and to Fascism’s ‘imaginary’ legacy and persistent force of attraction, which according to Golan was partly obscured through a sort of ‘zero-hour discourse’ – she extends an argument set forth by German leftists in 1960s and 1970s to Italy. While Golan’s attempt to ‘revisit’ (and not to ‘revive’, as she rightly points out) the 1960s is inevitably interwoven with her biography and academic background (she has published important books on the interwar years), her book provides ample evidence of the necessity of this perspective for a better understanding of the artworks and events she analyses. The first chapter concentrates on Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Mirror Paintings, and it engages powerfully with the nuances of their reception. For example, the author draws illuminating parallels between Pistoletto’s enigmatic figures located in interior spaces and Antonioni’s contemporary acclaimed filmic trilogy on the discontent of modernity (L’Avventura,La Notte andL’Eclisse; the last, meaning ‘the eclipses’, was a powerful source of inspiration for the book). Yet Golan does not limit her research to a careful archive-based examination of exhibition reviews. She imaginatively excavates the suggestive links between Pistoletto’s pensive characters and Felice Casorati’s 1920s portraits of the bourgeoisie, which also often played with mirrors and, in Golan’s words, themise en abîme. Both Pistoletto and Casorati were based in Turin – the ‘factory-city’ where Fiat employed 50,000 blue-collar workers in the 1960s – and as Golan observes, for all the poise of the sitters, the ‘class tensions’ inherent to their lives are palpable, albeit ‘eclipsed’.

The second chapter concentrates on the ‘actions’ by forty artists that took place in Como within the framework of the event titled Campo Urbano (Urban Field) on 21 September 1969. In particular, Golan directs the reader’s attention to the black and white photographs taken by Ugo Mulas (contacts sheets, bird’s eye views, panoramic shots, etc.), which were published in the photobook of the event, designed by the doyen of Italian graphic artists Bruno Munari. Triggered by Mulas’s masterful work, Golan’s flashbacks reach back, via Aby Warburg, to the historical avant-gardes (Italian futurism, but also Surrealism and Dada) and dwell upon Giuseppe Terragni’sCasa del Fascio (the ‘house’ of the local branch of the Fascist Party), a masterpiece of 1930s Modern Architecture, which happened to be located only a few hundred metres away from the performances of Campo Urbano, acting as a sort of elephant in the room. Here and in the following chapter, which is devoted toVitalità del negativo, an avant-garde exhibition held in the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome in 1970 where the regime had organised theExhibition of the Fascist Revolution less than forty years earlier, Golan’s illuminating tour de force reveals the historical complexity of the urban loci, their condition as ‘palimpsests’, as well as the uncanny repression of the Fascist legacy, which images can occasionally lay bare – Golan’s comparison[5] between the 1968 and 1936 covers of Quadrante (laterQuadrante Lariano) is compelling in this regard. Much like in the first chapter, chapters two and three offer slightly arbitrary but always inspiring flashbacks, although the coeval plots of Fascists – including their botched coup of 1970[6] – would have deserved a more thorough treatment. This inclusion would have strengthened Golan’s arguments as opposed to a purely factual, document-based retelling of the history of art. Speaking of the oblique influx of 1960s fascist-minded conservatism on art, however, would have undermined not only the avant-garde credentials of the artists under Golan’s scrutiny, but also the core hypothesis of the book, namely the existence of an Italian ‘zero-hour discourse’; in other words, the idea that 1945 represented an absolute break with the Fascist past and a hopeful new beginning. This founding myth gained purchase in West Germany, but less so in Italy, where there was nothing comparable to the Nuremberg trials (or to the Eichmann trial for that matter), and where a large party, the MSI (the Social Italian Movement, wherein the current President of the Senate was active), and extra-parliamentary groupings with solid ties to the elites, remained unabashedly fascist well into the 1980s and beyond.

The history of time and the way in which temporality can be navigated and captured by images are at the core of the work of Pier Paolo Pasolini, a celebrated intellectual, poet, film maker and much more; to use Merjian’s carefully calibrated sequence of dichotomies, ‘an atheist indebted to the rituals of Catholic sacrality; a revolutionary Communist inimical to the creed of 1968; a homosexual hostile to the politics of gay liberation; a libertine and moralist; an iconoclast and aesthete; a Marxist and mystic; a narcissist and humanitarian; a humanist and pessimist; a radical and reactionary’.[7] From the mid-1960s until his murder in 1975, Pasolini stood against the myth of Progress (what Hartog calls chronos), which he deemed a ‘new pre-history’ serving the interests of neocapitalism and its destruction of civilisations – both in Italy and in the Third World – that were impervious to the bourgeois ethos and its idea of prosperity. In the course of the 1960s, Pasolini thus consciously became an ‘apocalyptic’ intellectual, one that saw the industrialisation of the country and its embrace of consumer culture as an inescapable tragedy. Golan’s methodology of flashback would work well with Pasolini’s 1975 final film,Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, which could be viewed as a loose adaption of Marquis de Sade’s eponymous book, had the story not been set in the Republic of Salò (the Fascist puppet state established in Northern Italy in 1943), and filled with allusions to neocapitalism, which Pasolini understood as ultimately more deleterious than Fascism itself. Merjian’s volume discusses these vertiginous nexuses, but its chief focus is not so much on the imaginary return of Fascism in the art of the 1960s as on Pasolini’s relationship with the visual arts, and notably painting and, to a lesser degree, the performing arts. Indeed, not only was Pasolini an art critic in his twenties and a passionate student of the great art historian Roberto Longhi, he also drew heavily upon the history of painting, which is prominently or obliquely featured in virtually every film he made.

Merjian deals with ease with the immense and polyglot secondary literature on Pasolini, but he also has an enviable knowledge of his encyclopaedic production, which straddled virtually every genre, from journalism to theatre, from poetry to essays and from documentary film to the novel. In this diverse, dispersed, and magmatic material, Merjian manages to single out and elegantly contextualise Pasolini’s most important commentaries upon, and visual references to, the history of art. One of the challenges that Merjian must have faced in the early stage of his endeavour is quite obvious: how to organise such a multifarious oeuvre where cinema, literature and the visual arts invariably converge, and simultaneously provide sufficient historical background to make it intelligible to an audience who might be familiar only with some of Pasolini’s feature-length films? The author’s compelling strategy consists in identifying four thematic threads: Pasolini’s obdurate rejection of the ‘formalism’ of abstract art, his interpretation of pop art as a gloomy ‘mimesis of the future’, the performative use of Pasolini’s body before and after his violent death (his ‘investment in the body as a nexus of “action”’),[8] as well as the missed encounter between Pasolini and Arte Povera. Indeed, the writer/filmmaker never mentioned the critical category that Germano Celant coined in 1967, despite the affinities between Pasolini’s thought and the installations of Pino Pascali and Mario Merz among others, not to mention Celant’s critique of consumer culture. The conclusion of the book briefly maps a number of artworks made following Pasolini’s murder that were explicitly inspired by his charismatic persona and ‘heretic’ life, from Thomas Hirschhorn’s installation to Richard Serra’s steel sculpture.

The chapters are rich in archival discoveries and little-known images – such as book covers, caricatures, and proofs of as yet unpublished portraits of Pasolini made during his trip to New York – that contribute to shape a highly original volume, one that combines both the ‘bigger picture’ of an intricate cultural milieu and precious insights into the everyday life of one if its protagonists. Despite the heterogeneity of his subject, Merjian succeeds in making a broader point that offers a much-needed contribution to the debates about the political valence of the neo-avantgardes. For all his desire to shock and provoke, Pasolini was, as the book title states, ‘against the avant-garde’, for he viewed it as an instantiation of the neo-capitalist hegemony, and specifically of its compulsive need for new goods. Pasolini’s perspective on the avant-garde was certainly not unique among communists in Italy, but Merjian cogently examines the specificities of Pasolini’s polemical interventions on this topic; what is more, he elucidates with impressive clarity the writer’s sparring partners, along with his elliptical ‘irrational Marxism’ – and this despite the frequent lack of obvious Anglo-American conceptual counterparts for some of his categories, such as Pasolini’s discourse on racism and class.[9] But Merjian’s book is not only a milestone in the history of 1960s and 1970s Italian culture. Similarly to Golan, Merjian draws speculative analogies between works distant both in time and style. Notably, he analyses instances where Pasolini’s film made overt allusions to art (such as Jackson Pollock, Giotto, Brueghel, Mantegna and Roy Lichtenstein), but he also draws the reader’s gaze to intriguing visual parallels that would have escaped the most attentive viewer of Pasolini’s movies. Merjian’s methodology diverges from Golan’s on this point. While the latter claims the legitimacy of delineating connections that are at times the fruit of the author’s associative mind, Merjian reconstructs the network of historical connections between the images he investigates, even where this remains tenuous from a strictly factual standpoint, as if to reduce the role of his authorial voice to a minimum.

But let us return to the considerations that framed the incipit of this review. The political undertones of Italian art/cinema of the 1960s and 1970s have attracted at least two if not three generations of scholars, and still represent the core topic for solid scholarship such as that of Golan and Merjian. Yet the majority of publications has thus far remained fairly reticent about a fundamental question: how did a country with the largest Communist Party in Western Europe, a resolutely extra-parliamentary scene, a sophisticated intellectual milieu and lively feminist debates come to embrace Silvio Berlusconi’s dubious promises in 1994?[10] Were the seeds of the 1980s ‘counterrevolution’, which has culminated in Italy’s current government – one of the most conservative of the entire EU – already lurking in the 1960s and 1970s?[11] What was the role of the Socialist Party (PSI) in this transition and notably its strategic investment in the 1970s–80s Venice Biennales (including the first Architecture Biennale) and in the thriving fashion and design industry of Milan? And how should we understand the reappraisal of the Fascist ‘modern’ visual communication that was staged by Gli annitrenta (the thirties), the 1982 blockbuster show curated by Renato Barilli, an influential art critic and member of the PSI? The late 1970s’ and early 1980s’ right-wing shifts do not tarnish, of course, the political culture inherent to Pistoletto’sMirror Paintings and Pasolini’s embittered invectives, but they suggest the need to pursue Golan’s and Merjian’s imaginative leaps, perhaps through ‘flashforwards’ capable of foreshadowing the outcomes of the cultural debates that informed Italian art from the economic boom to the oil crisis. The persistent weakness of the Italian left requires self-criticism, and arguably an exploration of the art and ‘imaginary’ of the Italian right, whoselongue durée purchase on working-class milieux cannot be further ignored or belittled.


Anderson, Perry 2009, The New Old World, London: Verso.

Clark, Timothy James 2006, The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing, Yale, CT: Yale University Press.

Golan, Romy 2021, Flashback, Eclipse: The Political Imaginary of Italian Art in the 1960s, New York, NY: Zone Books.

Hartog, François 2022, Chronos: The West Confronts Time, New York: Columbia University Press.

Merjian, Ara H. 2020a, Against the Avant-garde: Pier Paolo Pasolini, Contemporary Art and Neocapitalism, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Merjian, Ara H. 2020b, ‘Race, Class, and the Limits of the Analogical Imagination: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s African America’, SubStance, 49, 3: 77–99.

Ricciardi, Alessia 2012, After La Dolce Vita: A Cultural Prehistory of Berlusconi’s Italy, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Virno, Paolo 1996, ‘Do You Remember Counterrevolution?’, translated by Michael Hardt, in Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics, edited by Paolo Virno and Michael Hardt, pp. 241–59, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

[1] Golan 2021, p. 14.

[2] Hartog 2022.

[3] Golan 2021, p. 15.

[4] Clark 2006.

[5] Golan 2021, p. 160.

[6] Golan 2021, p. 179.

[7] Merjian 2020a, p. 4.

[8] Merjian 2020a, p. 173.

[9] On this point, see also Merjian 2020b.

[10] Partial exceptions are Ricciardi 2012 and Anderson 2009, pp. 278–351.

[11]Virno 1996.