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Golden age?

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Scultura Lingua Morta: Sculpture from Fascist Italy At the Henry Moore Institute, 74 The Headrow, Leeds, until 31 August.

The Henry Moore Institute, a reworking of a former wool warehouse designed by Jeremy Dixon and Edward Jones, is an appropriate setting for this revelatory exhibition. The dramatic southern elevation of the building, faced in black granite, is an urban and scenographic gesture worthy of an Italian Rationalist. Indeed, Dixon and Jones, in common with many of the best designers who practised in Italy during the 20-year Era Fascista, are architects who have sought in their work to create an imaginative fusion of tradition and modernity.

As the institute's director (and curator of this show) Penelope Curtis freely admits, architecture itself is, inevitably, a largely missing presence in 'Scultura Lingua Morta'.

The Italian sculptors of the period, she writes in an introduction to the exhibition catalogue, were architectural artists by definition: 'They came to develop the concept of 'installation' 50 years before that category becomes understood as such.' The sculpture of the Fascist period was 'architectural in a manner which can be simultaneously academic and avant-garde, and combines the monument with Modernism'.

Much of this work, of course, remains in situ in towns and cities throughout Italy, where it is frequently undervalued to this day. Most of the pieces on display here - 45 works in dense formation, all but one from Italian collections and including maquettes for large-scale works, as well as gallery pieces - were in storage, and many have not been publicly shown since the Second World War.

There are, of course, good reasons for this. In Britain, Mussolini is often depicted as a ridiculous, and not especially threatening, buffoon who famously made the trains run on time. To many in Italy, he is remembered as a brutal thug who brought the country to disgrace and near-ruin. The fact remains, however, that, at least until the late 1930s (when Il Duce came increasingly under the baneful and tasteless influence of Hitler), Italian art and architecture flourished under Fascism.

While Gropius, Mendelsohn and (reluctantly) Mies were obliged to exit Nazi Germany, Modernist Italian architects like Albini, Terragni, Figini & Pollini, Ponti, Moretti, Libera and Michelucci - the list could be extended - happily worked on. The efforts of traditionalists like Muzio and Piacentini notwithstanding, they built on a large scale for a modernising, expansive regime, and most of them subsequently became pillars of the post-war Italian scene.

For sculptors, this must have seemed a golden age. The foundries of Pietrasanta (where Moore was later to cast works) and the marble workshops of Carrara were kept fully occupied as monuments to the dead of the First World War - in which Italy had played an heroic role - were followed by those marking the achievements and victories of Fascism. There was work to be done on post offices, stations, schools and law courts around the country, while Rome was reconstructed as the capital of a new empire, its ancient monuments ruthlessly unpicked from the accretions of later centuries.

The prerequisite for success was, of course, a commitment to the figurative. The years between the wars, however, saw a revival of figurative sculpture that embraced not only the totalitarian countries but equally the western democracies (Epstein and Gill in Britain, for instance).

As with the architects, the successful sculptors of Fascist Italy largely thrived after 1945, sometimes (as in the case of Marino Marini) seeking to rewrite their own histories. After the war, the figurative ideal was again cast aside. The sculptor Arturo Martini, in an essay of 1945 from which the title of this show is taken, rejected much of his own past work as the product of a 'dead language'.

Three works by Martini form the climax of the exhibition, the extraordinary Death of Sappho (1940), appearing to point a way forward from the figurative that is distinct from that of Moore and Hepworth. What is omnipresent throughout the show is the Classical inheritance, which in the hands of Martini, Libero Andreotti, Lucio Fontana and other major artists of the period was transfigured into work of great originality and real beauty. I know nothing of the female sculptor Lina Arpesani, but her tin figure of The Fascist Victory (1937) is absolutely riveting.

Two years ago, the HMI staged a controversial exhibition including sculpture made in Nazi Germany. Scultura Lingua Morta (which, incidentally, marks the 10th anniversary of the institute) is altogether a more substantial and more thought-provoking show. In Nazi Germany, creativity and the state were at odds from the start.

Unpalatable as it may seem, Mussolini's Italy did produce much architecture and art of outstanding quality, alongside a certain amount of bombastic kitsch, and provided a foundation, after the cathartic catastrophe of 1943-44, for the immense cultural achievements of the post-war years.

Kenneth Powell is an architectural journalist

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