The tragedy of the Holocaust in three works by Voltolino Fontani

In 1920 Voltolino Fontani, one of the leading artists of the Labronico Group, was born. On the centenary of his birth, his daughter Maria Grazia Fontani remembers him with three works, among the most touching of his production, dedicated to the tragedy of the Holocaust.

Voltolino Fontani was an eclectic expressionist painter who worked in Livorno in the twentieth century. He was born in 1920, and from 1936 to 1976, the year of his untimely death, he produced a large number of works with very diverse techniques, themes and styles, but possessing, despite the variety, a great consistency and expressive power. He was a politically unaligned person, not inclined to follow currents of any nature either political or artistic (as true artists often do), always remaining, so to speak, above the parties; a man not militant in the ranks of any party, pacifist and nonviolent in all its manifestations, always attentive to the plight of the humble and victims of abuse.

He had contacts with the great artists of his time and interacted with institutions and events of a national character (such as the 1955 and 1959 editions of the Quadriennale in Rome), but he always remained intimately tied to his hometown of Livorno, a source of endless inspiration for him. He was a member for many years of the Gruppo Labronico, where he brought a breath of fresh air. Many of his works are dreamy and reassuring, but there are dramatic ones, works that leave their mark because they have the courage to deal with touching and scabrous themes. His sunny, ironic and jovial character counterbalanced the seriousness of the recurring themes of his works, especially those from his youthful and post-war period. And it is precisely on some works painted a few years after World War II by Fontani that I want to draw attention.

Everyone is familiar with the name “Mauthausen”: one of the most infamous Nazi lagers, a camp where extermination took place through forced labor and consumption through malnutrition and hardship, but also through the gas chamber. The first painting I will try to give an interpretation of (obviously personal) is entitled Mathausen (with the wrong spelling) and was painted in 1950. Just two years earlier, in 1948, Fontani had been the founder of the artistic avant-garde ofEaism, whose manifesto, among its founding principles, read, “EAISM wants to bring art back to reattract its supreme values, that is, to express with essentiality and intimacy our presence in the world. It therefore proposes to liberate artistic expression from the cerebralisms in which it has become entangled over the last fifty years and to lead it back to the necessary naturalness intended to express with the greatest humanity of commitment and expressive coherence the problems that urge within us as men before as designers.”

The problems that urged inside in those years were obviously, for sensitive people, the horrors of war, the Holocaust, the suffering inflicted on millions of people in the death camps and the dramatic conclusion of the war with the nuclear explosions in Japan, but also the difficulty of having to live with the memories of the nightmare experienced.

And Voltolino Fontani sensitive he was, an artist sympathetic to human misfortunes, a pacifist and opposed to all forms of oppression and violence. Fontani was very clear about what Pietro Gori called “the social role of art,” and like him he was a person close to the humble, the dispossessed, a man ready to take on the sufferings of humanity and aware of the contingent risks.

Mathausen is the title of a very representative painting, an expressionist work that excites by its strength and the immediacy of the message it conveys. An important peculiarity of this work is that on the back of the panel is painted what may be its first draft, but also a version that was discarded because it was perhaps judged too strong by the artist himself, or that may have its own more complex reason for being but which I will discuss later.

Voltolino Fontani, Mathausen (1950; olio su tavola, 150 x 100 cm)
Voltolino Fontani, Mathausen (1950; oil on panel, 150 x 100 cm)

Before moving on to the analysis of these two paintings I make a small digression. I have always wondered why my father titled precisely Mathausen this very iconic painting, this open denunciation of the horrors of the Nazi death camps. Some names would have been more evocative in the collective imagination, but he chose Mathausen, mispronouncing the real name of the place, Mauthausen, and this has always made me think of an approximate pronunciation, of a name heard in people’s conversations more than read in newspapers or books.

I got confirmation of this assumption by reading a 1973 article, “Slang” Entries In A Military Glossary Of 1918, a collection of military locutions collected by Professor Michele A. Cortelazzo, professor of linguistics and literary studies at the University of Padua.

In this article we read verbatim, "ADVANCE TO MATHAUSEN (soldat.), ’to be taken prisoner .’“ The locution, with spelling identical to the title of Fontani’s painting, refers to the fact that the Mauthausen camp, called ”the cemetery of the living," was already infamous for being a prison camp in the Great War in which the living conditions of Italian simple soldiers were inhumane. A lot of news about this prison camp can be found in thearticle “Mauthausen 1918 a forgotten tragedy” by Gian Paolo Bertelli, in which one can also see photos taken by medical officer F.M. Daniele (testifying to unspeakable suffering and torture) that he fortunately managed to take with him after liberation from the camp and publish in 1932 in a diary entitled “War Calvary.”

Obviously, the camp was “readapted” by the Nazis to be more functional, it was equipped with gas chambers and crematoria, but even in its first version it constituted a real hell where hundreds of Italian prisoners, abandoned completely by the state because they were considered traitors, guilty of having surrendered to the enemy, found death by torture, hardship, forced labor and disease. Both Cadorna and Diaz thought that the prisoner surrendered by choice, to “ambush” and thus escape from the war fought. For this reason, no food and comfort supplies were ever sent by the Italian state (as were, for example, France, Belgium, England) but this was left to the families. With the confiscation of the parcels in reality a death sentence was decreed for many prisoners who tried to survive by feeding even on rats.

Significant is the letter a father sends to his imprisoned son, quoted in Bertelli’s article, “You ask me for food, but to a coward like you I send nothing: if they don’t shoot you those scoundrels of Austrians will shoot you in Italy. You are a scoundrel, a traitor; you should kill yourself. Long live Italy always, death to Austria and all the German scoundrels: scoundrels. Don’t write anymore you do us a favor. Death to the scoundrels.” And in reply the letter to his father: “I do not deign to call you dear father having received your letter, where I read that I dishonored you and the whole family: therefore from now on I shall be your great enemy and no longer your Dominic.”

All of this entitles us to speculate that the name Mauthausen was associated with a place of death and despair as early as the 1920s, and perhaps recalled, by slightly mispronouncing the name, by veterans who had had direct or hearsay experience with it. Hence the saying, “It is going toward Mathausen” to mean that all is now lost.

Voltolino Fontani alla sua antologica del 1963 a Livorno
Voltolino Fontani at his 1963 anthological exhibition in Livorno.

Let us now come to analyze the work, a medium-sized panel that was highly regarded by the painter himself who wanted it exhibited at the Anthological Exhibition, which he himself curated, held in 1963 at the Casa della Cultura (now Cisternino di Città) in Livorno. The subject is a skeletonized body standing in an unnatural twisted position, it is not known whether still alive or already a corpse, imprisoned by a barbed wire that wraps it in its coils. The work has a medium figurative density, as the subject, though depicted in minimal strokes, is perfectly perceptible. There are very few colors, white for the body, red for the barbed wire, and black for the background. The reality evoked is that of death by torture or hardship.

Although the painting represents death, and thus something static, it actually has its own intrinsic sense of movement as if the body continues to writhe before us, or as if it had done so until a moment before, in a fictitious three-dimensionality. Since we know for a fact that an entire side of the wall of the Mauthausen prison camp was never built and was replaced by a barbed-wire fence traversed by electric current, where many prisoners of the First World War chose to commit suicide, I cannot rule out that this is the fact depicted, but the subject has become a symbolic image, a manifesto of an absurd slaughter. The sensation communicated is absolutely tragic: no unnecessary details and no indulgence in realism weigh down the figurative discourse and distract the viewer’s attention; the message is sparse and immediate, there is no ambiguity of interpretation: condemnation for the atrocity of the events and pity for the people involved are firm and unequivocal. It is not an easy or reassuring image, far from it; the viewer of the painting experiences a moment of suspension, stunned to realize the absurdity and futility of human behavior that is the cause of a massacre on such a scale.

This work has been exhibited many times and always on this side at the author’s behest; a still from an amateur film shows him describing it at the 1963 Anthological Exhibition. The back of this painting is, if possible, even more evocative, and about its subject we can only speculate, since it has never had a title, or at least no trace of one has yet been found.

Voltolino Fontani, Retro di Mathausen (1950; olio su tavola, 150 x 100 cm)
Voltolino Fontani, Back of Mathausen (1950; oil on panel, 150 x 100 cm)

There can be recognized at the bottom the silhouette of a ghostly body in the futile effort to get out of a pit, with huge black arms contrasting the vividness of the colors used to depict the body and the pit itself. The lines have contrasting tendencies: while in the lower part those describing the edges of the pit, the arms and the hand are straight, in the central part of the painting coils form circumvolutions, almost a thin smoke, reaching up to the very black sky, where the silhouettes of two skulls can be made out, as if dead people were witnessing the scene from another world.

The chromaticism is completely unnatural: the spectre protagonist of the work seems to be formed of air rather than flesh because it has a pale green body in contrast to the large black arms. The sky is also completely black while the warm color of the central part of the painting is reminiscent of fire; in fact, the edge that detaches it from the sky is likely the outline of a flame. Again, the image is not static but suggests upward movement of both the figure and the flames. The figurative intensity is not very high but some assumptions can be made about the reality, if not depicted, at least evoked by this work.

The Birkenau extermination camp (also called Auschwitz II) was initially conceived as a prison camp. From 1941 it became a labor and extermination camp, and was equipped with four large crematoria , but also with pyres, i.e., burning pits continuously day and night, used until 1943 (the year the gas chambers were built) to burn prisoners unfit for work after summary execution with non-deadly bullets and later to destroy (if it was impossible to do so with the crematoria) the bodies of the victims of the gas chambers. All of this is described by witnesses in Philippe Aziz’s book The Doctors of the Lagers- Joseph Mengele the Incarnation of Evil, Ferni Editions, Geneva 1975. So the subject of this painting would be nothing more than the “soul” of a prisoner whose body is burning who is preparing to face the journey to the beyond, under the gaze of the dead who await him in the world of the dead. Not indulging in details, the message is simple: a flame burns a corpse and its soul struggles to free itself from the body.

This interpretation of mine, very plausible though conjectural since it is not endorsed by the author, gives full meaning to the whole composition. It seems to me that there is no justification for the fact that this side of the painting did not have the same popularization as the other: perhaps the author considered it less incisive? Or on the contrary did he consider it too strong? Or perhaps less readable? Allow me to make a more advanced hypothesis. In other circumstances Fontani reused an already painted panel, either by doing a new drafting over an earlier one, or by somehow erasing the one on the back. In this case, on the other hand, no second thought, no erasure, which might suggest that the two sides of the painting should have been read in succession, almost like a page of a book to be leafed through, a sad book recounting the misfortunes of humanity. It may also be that the Mathausen side refers to the horrors of the past, those of the prison camp of the Great War, and that the side we shall call "Birkenau" (which I repeat has no title) refers to the more recent ones, those of World War II, in a kind of illustrated chronological description of human folly.

There is another seminal work that recounts the Holocaust, but from a very unusual point of view for the time of its making, and it is entitled Wreckage. The painting, from 1948, reproduces, according to the canons of the Eaist manifesto, the horror of the extermination of the Gypsies that took place in 1944 by the Nazis. The work was exhibited at the first Eaist exhibition, held in Florence(Casa di Dante) in 1949.

Voltolino Fontani, Relitti (1948; olio su tavola, 80 x 110 cm)
Voltolino Fontani, Relicts (1948; oil on panel, 80 x 110 cm)

The theme of the painting is clearly that of the massacre of the Roma and Sinti populations who, according to the Nazi ethnic cleansing project, were to, like the Jews, disappear completely from Germany. Direct witnesses report that in a single night between August 2 and 3, 1944 at Camp E in Birkenau 2897 Roma and Sinti prisoners, mostly sick, elderly, women and children were exterminated in the gas chambers.

The certain reference of the painting is the typical carriage used by the gypsies as a dwelling, with which they, absolutely unaware of their fate, were locked up in the camps, leaving their families reunited and their lives apparently unaffected, unlike the other prisoners. It is said that the first evenings they were heard playing their songs. A 1986 novel by Alexander Ramati , from which a film was made in 1995, dealing with the deportation of the Gypsies to Poland in 1942, is precisely titled And the Violins Stopped Playing.

As Piero Terracina, a direct witness, recalled in an interview on the occasion of the 2018 Memorial Day ceremony at the Quirinale: “Near us was the camp of the Sinti Roma: they still had their children, their hair, their clothes. We thought they would be saved and return free to the world as they had always been. One night the SS swooped in and we were afraid they would kill us all. Instead they went to them.... In the morning beyond the barbed wire there was only a chilling silence. The black smoke from the crematoria told us the rest. In one night they had exterminated them all.”

Returning to the description of the work Wreckage, the horror of the tragedy is clearly visible in the cold, somber colors of the sky, in the figure, probably male, skeletal and contorted in an unnatural pose in the foreground on what looks like a mountain of ashes, and in the evanescent woman figure in the background, already almost a spirit, representing the heartbreak of the entire gypsy families gassed and burned in the death camps.

Consistent with what is set forth in the Eaist manifesto, the artist in this work does not want to narrate only the tragedy, but rather the suffering that this tragedy generated, not indulging in unnecessary details but limiting his description to evocative symbols, eschewing all rhetoric and trying to reduce the message to its essentials. The result is a touching work, full of pathos, but which in its essentiality is by no means “impenetrable” but on the contrary turns out to carry a clear message of compassion and condemnation. In the painting, however, there is no sign of hope or redemption, only resignation, grief and despondency.

The consideration that can be made of this extraordinary painting is the incredible sensitivity with which Fontani recounts this particular aspect of the war, about which not much was said in the postwar period. But he in the immediacy of the events wanted to dwell on this particular genocide, showing that he had the ability to obtain information (using the tools at his disposal, or having some direct testimony) and the willingness to divulge it in all its horror. Once again he has shown himself to be “ahead” in his artistic choices, once again he has demonstrated in this work his ability to enter into the facts while being shocked by them and to be able to tell the tragedy that they leave in the soul of the artist who divulges them with the power of painting that he knows how to produce to leave an indelible mark on the viewer.

I hope to have, with this passionate and moved analysis of these paintings, provided the reader with the tools to decipher not so much works that are already clear and evocative enough in themselves, but rather the’soul of their author, a painter who never hesitated to represent reality, in its most beautiful manifestations (landscapes, natures, portraits) but also in its most hideous forms, the result of man’s dastardly intervention. And to have remembered this great artist, who was a loving and protective father to me.