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Concealing African Art: Ardengo Soffici and Carlo Carrà’s Ambivalent Primitivism


Post-colonial scholarship on Italy is an important field, but has not adequately examined the reception of ‘primitive’ art before and during Fascism.  For instance, Italian primitivism before World War I has been studied, but its implications with respect to colonialism, racism, and the transnational rise of a formalist approach to modernism have yet to be fully explored.  Unfortunately, Italian artists’ disavowal or modification of their primitivism has contributed to this. In order to remedy this, my paper traces how Ardengo Soffici and Carlo Carrà’s appropriation of African sculpture was replaced by a preference for folk or naïve art in writings and works of art.  I also consider futurist primitivism between the wars, since artists such as Fortunato Depero and Enrico Prampolini also shifted their approach; after the invasion of Ethiopia, their celebration of African-American’s modernity was expelled in order to configure a colonial iconography during late Fascism.  Eventually, racist critics and publications such as La Difesa della razza simultaneously rejected and relied on primitivist avant-gardism, adding yet another layer to this complex dependence.  In general, Italian artists absorbed and later dismissed exotic primitivism, which had been mostly used as a critique of the West, to renew Italian culture according to nationalist conceptions.  The range and number of works that referenced Africa and its culture demonstrates the complex nature of this reliance/disavowal, revealing Italy’s fraught relationship to the exotic. Moreover, a similar approach that minimized the role of African art within modernism was employed in the United States, which also obscured certain aspects of Italy’s primitivism.

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