The Theatre of the Twentieth Century

Contradiction and grotesque are centre stage in the work of Umberto Tirelli.

Umberto Tirelli, Caffè San Pietro, 1928, Modena, Private collection.

Forget “Spitting Image,” the British satirical programme first aired in 1984 and which after a long hiatus resumed production with the advent of US President Donald Trump.

During the first half of the 20th century, in Italy, in the area between Modena and Bologna, a group of artists, writers, editors, and actors recounted the most important events of the century with an ironic, sharp, and clever look, anticipating satire as we know it today.

Among these, Umberto Tirelli was one of the most captivating artists in the group. Often forgotten by the general public, Tirelli dealt with the reality of his time, giving an ironic insight into it through local satirical publishing, theatre, sculpture, and painting.

Considered to be one of the most original of the Modenese artistic-literary milieu in the years of the Belle Epoque, in 1900 he founded “Il Duca Borso,” the most prominent humorous newspaper in which his caricatures of the most famous city and international personalities triumphed.

Tirelli was a very prolific artist active in expressionist caricatures in the early 20th century, and his production was not limited to the printed page. Tirelli staged the theatre of life. And his protagonists were the most influential people of the time, from Benito Mussolini to Eleonora Duse, from King Vittorio Emanuele III to Gabriele D’Annunzio. The ‘victims’ of his pencil were numerous and included Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt, Hitler, along with film icons Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Charlie Chaplin, and Mickey Mouse.

A hundred-fifty years after his birth, an exhibition at the City Museum in Modena, in the recently restored San Paolo complex, retraces Tirelli’s biography and artistic oeuvre from his beginnings with a pen in his studio to his most articulate and complex undertakings.

Through his multifaceted production, Tirelli offered a unique view of the bourgeoisie and the local and national establishment, unmasking their social, political, and cultural aspects, over a period of time that begins at the end of the nineteenth-century Belle Époque and runs through the Great War, the fascist regime, and the Second World War, up to the international tensions that characterized the beginning of the Cold War and the dawn of the first economic boom.

Umberto Tirelli with the puppets of Eleonora Duse and Virgilio Talli, in 1923. Private collection.

In 1921, with his wife, Clara Amoretti, Tirelli created a large theatre of a hundred puppets made of papier-mâché called the “Teatro Nazionale delle Teste di Legno” (the National Theatre of Wooden Heads). 

Almost six metres high and complete with scenery, this extraordinary artefact and its cast of well-known characters is a unique experiment of theatre animated by large-scale caricature puppets. The traveling theatre was recently discovered in an attic and restored for the first time, exactly one century after its creation.

The venture, which unfortunately did not achieve the success its creators had hoped for, was a great novelty for Italy at the time and was born with the intention of going beyond the regional dimension the more common puppet theatre, imagining shows for an audience no longer composed of children, but of cultured and informed adults. Mostly written by Tirelli himself, the scripts focused on the issues of the time, which were defined by tensions and populism. “It was enough to make them laugh by laughing at them,” said Tirelli.

As early as the beginning of the 20th century, his work assumed great importance and provided a unique opportunity to grasp the debate fuelled by contemporary criticism, which was also disseminated by prestigious art and lifestyle magazines, and which developed in a climate of great cultural vivacity, of exchanges between artists and writers, and of debate between various intellectuals from northern Italy and beyond.

Always witty and never silly, Tirelli moved from the light-heartedness of the protagonists of sport and the cultural scene to the atrocities and absurdities of war, using his art as one of the few instruments for criticising the oppressors and vindicating the oppressed.

In Tirelli’s work, life is on stage, with all its contradictions and grotesque aspects: a world that changes at a dizzying pace and, in some ways, is always the same in its complexity.

More than two hundred works on display, including drawings, sculptures, paintings, masks, and puppets, recount the centrality of a figure who made caricature his sole and indispensable means of expression. “Today, in the midst of apologies and the most diverse tirades: among the speeches of propaganda and defeatism,” Tirelli wrote in 1918, “caricature has the mission of bringing things back to their rightful place and the meaning of events.”

“Umberto Tirelli. Caricature Per Un Teatro Della Vita” is on view at the Museo Civico in Modena, until 25 April. We recommend taking your time for a refreshing aperitivo at the Major Tom Cafè after the visit, in the banana tree courtyard of the museum.

Gianmaria Biancuzzi is executive editor of Milano Art Guide.