Who was the man who wore this steel helmet, almost still in pristine condition undamaged by the battle shells, the bullets and the stains of war? He was a Sergeant, but why did he carry a well-used hammer, a worn leather pouch and white cloths with him the middle of a battlefield, in which the poppies and flowers are dead and desiccated? How do these memories define him? He must be dead as surely he would not have left his tools behind if he had returned home.
Who was this other man, whose helmet shows more wear and who kept his motorcycle goggles for safekeeping in his tin mug, but whose cigars are now dried out along with the plants and fruit?
Stacks of the picnic baskets used by soldiers are perhaps all that is left to remember many of the ordinary men who have died in war. These are their memorials, more meaningful than their names cut along with many others, on stone plaques in the towns and villages in which they grew up.
Through these and other reminders of war left behind after their owners have gone, such as a backpack, plates and mugs, unwashed coffee cups, military hats, radios, a pump and an airplane, in his series of work “Picnic o ll buon soldato” (Picnic or The Good Soldier, 1998) the Italian artist Fabio Mauri (born in 1926) draws attention to the many ordinary men who died in war and what few things they have left behind, apart from memories which will also die with time, like the poppies.
In complete contrast, the generals in their immaculate uniforms bristling with medal ribbons sit round a grand table in a splendid room decorated with busts and paintings. There are no tin mugs here, but glass jugs of water and a blotter at each place, but here there is a more sinister war, not of bullets and bombs, but of plotting and politics.
‘Oscuramento – Il Gran Consiglio’ (Darkening – The Grand Council, 1975) is a life size representation of the last session of the ‘Gran Consiglio del Fascismo’ (Grand Council of Fascism) held on 24 July 1943 after the Allied invasion of Italy and chaired by of Benito Mussolini who had converted Italy into a fascist dictatorship, now to find the Council authorising his arrest. Imprisonment followed, then rescue by the Germans who installed him as the leader of the Italian Social Republic until in April 1945 he was captured and executed by Italian partisans and his body hung upside down on meat hooks along with other executed fascists at an Esso service station in Milan.
‘Oscuramento – Il Gran Consiglio’ is the beginning of the end of Mussolini, once the most powerful figure in Italy. A few months before his death in 1945 Mussolini had described his situation to Madeleine Mollier: “Seven years ago, I was an interesting person. Now, I am little more than a corpse……Yes, madam, I am finished. My star has fallen. I have no fight left in me. I work and I try, yet know that all is but a farce… I await the end of the tragedy and – strangely detached from everything – I do not feel any more an actor. I feel I am the last of spectators”. (“The twilight of Italian fascism”).
In this work, Mauri illustrates the plotting, the power and the politics at the highest levels of fascism which influenced the fate of many ordinary Italian citizens during this period of war.
At the boundary between these two representations of war are 88 montage photographs of cuttings from English and German magazines ‘Linguaggio è guerra’ (Language is War, 1975) illustrating how newspapers and newsreels hide the true horrors of war with, for example, British soldiers stopping for a civilised drink of tea in china cups and saucers, in contrast to the tin mugs of the battlefield.
Through these works Mauri reflects on the impact of war for three groups of people – the leaders and the generals, the everyday soldiers and the people at a distance whose information is controlled and manipulated by the media, something which still occurs today.