Exorcising the atomic bomb through the arts. 2. The Italian nuclear art movement

The “Movimento Arte Nucleare” of Milan and the Eaismo of Livorno believed that a new “nuclear art” was a necessary response to the fear of the bomb.

by Massimo Introvigné

Article 2 of 2. Read article 1.

Enrico Baj, “Two children in the nuclear night”.

In the first article of this series, we discussed a controversy over who, if anyone, owned the copyright to the labels “nuclear art” and “nuclear paintings”, where some Italian artists took issue with Salvador Dali. A main figure in this controversy was the Milanese painter Enrico Baj (1924–2003).

In 1951, Baj exhibited his own “nuclear paintings” at the Galleria San Fedele in Milan. He claimed to have already at that time written a “Nuclear Painting Manifesto” and created with fellow painter Sergio Dangelo (1932-2022) a nuclear art movement, although they were launched in Brussels in 1952.

Dangelo painted explosions, clearly indebted to Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), who had indeed alluded to atomic explosions. Along with Baj and Dangelo, the third musketeer of the nuclear art movement was designer Cesare “Joe” Colombo (1930-1971), best known for his visionary “Atomic Age” furniture. The movement was a real success in the decade of the 1950s and attracted by its exhibitions organized throughout Europe luminaries such as Piero Manzoni (1933-1863) and Yves Klein (1928-1962).

The key figure, and crucial to creating a lasting culture of nuclear disarmament in Italy, was Baj. He produced dozens of paintings warning that the proliferation of nuclear weapons could only produce planetary annihilation. “Two Children in the Nuclear Night” (1956), for example, is one of Baj’s most terrifying paintings and a good example of his stance against nuclear weapons.

Several of Baj’s paintings depict mad generals. They’ve occasionally been on display with a soundtrack featuring German singer Nena’s 1983 hit song “99 Luftballons,” where a crazed general mistakes balloons for spaceships and orders what sounds like a nuclear attack. Indeed, Baj paintings were often exhibited in Germany and may have inspired the song’s lyricist, Carlo Karges (1951-2002).

But who coined the terms “nuclear painting” and “nuclear arts”? After suing Dalí, Baj obtained a preliminary ruling in his favor from the Milan Court of Justice in 1954, mainly because the Spanish artist did not want to appear.

A court in Paris refused to enforce the decision against Dalí, and in 1957 the court in Rome, where the case had been transferred, finally ruled in favor of the Spanish painter, although by that time he had already agreed to please Baj and no longer presents himself as “the inventor of nuclear paint”.

Both sides knew that the term “nuclear painting” had also been used in manifestos published in 1950 by Germaine Joumard (1898-1950) and the Italian futurist Fortunato Depero (1892-1960).

Nuclear art: Joumard already used the expression
Joumard already used the expression “nuclear paintings” in 1950. Click to enlarge.

Baj was also hearing from the lawyers of someone who had an even older priority, the Livorno painter Voltolino Fontani (1920-1876), the leader of an artistic movement called Eaismo (Era-Atomica-ismo, or Atomic-Era- ism). Artists (including Angelo Siro Pellegrini, 1908–1997, and Aldo Neri, 1911–2003) and poets (Marcello Landi, 1916–1993, and Guido Favati, 1920–1973) from Livorno and nearby Cecina founded it on September 3, 1948, and organized a first exhibition in Florence in May 1949.

If it should be remembered that Dalí began to paint “Uranium and Atomica” immediately after the bombing of Hiroshima, as a movement dedicated to an “atomic art”, Eaismo predates all the others. While Dalí was both terrorized by the atomic bomb and enthused by the mystical potential of nuclear physics, and Baj focused almost solely on terror, the Livorno artists fell somewhere in the middle. Fontani and his friends were even accused by critics in mostly left-wing Tuscany of being in favor of nuclear weapons, when in fact they were trying to exorcise them through the arts.

The founders of Eaismo at the Florence exhibition in 1949. Credits.

Fontani’s 1948 work “Grafodinamica (Dinamica di Assestamento o Frattura e Coesione)” [Graphodynamics (Dynamics of Settlement or Fracture and Cohesion)] was an Eaismo manifesto in itself, and a statement of his belief that the new science of the atom also demanded a new way of painting.

Fontani’s “Composizione” (1949) was painted a few months after the Eaist manifesto. According to Fontani’s leading scholar, Francesca Cagianelli, it depicts the angst and bewilderment of post-Hiroshima humanity while the colors and technique reflect the influence of Futurist artist Benedetta Cappa (1897-1977), the wife of the founder of Futurism Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944), whom Fontani had met.

As an organized movement, Eaismo continued until 1959, but even in his later “dream” production, Fontani continued to allude to atomic scenarios. Like Dalí, Fontani also turned to Catholic religious painting, notably in the Church of St. John of Gualberto in Valle Benedetta, Livorno.

Fontani, “Eaïsta” (1949).
Fontani, “Eaïsta” (1949).

As noted by American curator Michael R. Taylor, although they may have made the atomic art movements better known to the general public, the court cases ultimately served as a distraction and contributed to their demise. While until a recent rediscovery, Eaismo was primarily a local Tuscan phenomenon, Baj’s anti-nuclear weapons paintings have always been popular, not to mention Dalí’s Italian success. They may have played a role in making subsequent nuclear disarmament campaigns more immediately understandable. And, along with some of its exponents like Fontani and Dalí himself, “nuclear art” circles also spread the idea that thinking about atomic energy also had something to do with religion.

In his 2015 encyclical letter on ecology “Laudato Si'”, Pope Francis wrote that the cultural “frameworks” in which we are surrounded, of which art is certainly a part, “influence the way we think, feel and to act”. Both for “nuclear” artists and for contemporary anti-nuclear movements, art can contribute to changing the way we think, feel and act, the only way to realistic results in the difficult field of nuclear disarmament.

Norma D. Ross