The building that houses the Museum of International Propaganda in downtown San Rafael used to be a children’s store where I would get shoes when I was a little kid. Now it’s eye catching entryway no longer displays the latest in children’s footwear, but rather a modernist banner announcing the museum’s name as well as startling artifacts like a bust of Stalin and a t-shirt of Barak Obama depicted as a Maoist. How times change.
This museum, opened in 2016, is run by Tom and Lilka Areton, who have traveled the world collecting an amazing and diverse assortment of propaganda art, which is now organized and displayed thematically in this small but incredibly compelling space. Tom grew up in communist Czechoslovakia and his wife spent time in the Soviet Union, so they know a thing or two about totalitarian regimes and their use of propaganda.
I had been trying to visit The Museum of International Propaganda since it opened, but because of its irregular hours, it wasn’t until recently that I was successful in actually getting inside. The occasion was a Thursday night lecture on 1970’s Italian leftist poster art, featuring film maker Lou Dematteis and Italian journalist Enrico Deaglio. The event was very well attended by a group of about 40 people, so things were quite crowded, but more than worth the price of admission, which only consists of a suggested donation.
Before the lecture, my friend and I wandered around the museum for a bit, looking at the truly jaw-dropping examples of propaganda art that are part of the permanent collection. In addition to the sorts of things you’d expect to find – like Maoist posters, Nazi statuary, and Soviet art – there are some unexpected and eye-opening artifacts – like a 9/11 themed Islamic prayer rug, a series of posters extolling the superiority of American culture, and politically themed Russian nesting dolls. In the back room, next to a poster depicting a post-revolutionary Chinese utopia, there is a wall-sized reproduction of Pablo Picasso’s anti-war masterpiece Guernica, painted by the museum’s curator. The collection contains a good mixture of old and new propaganda from both the West and the East, reinforcing the message that propaganda is everywhere, and that we in the US are just as subject to its effects as people from other times and places.
The evening’s lecture began at around 7:30 with remarks from Tom, the owner, a really charismatic and funny guy, who shared some of his own memories of hitch-hiking in Italy during the 1970’s. He recalled when he and his wife were picked up by some friendly Italians, and in order to pass the time and entertain their driver, the two of them sang the Italian communist propaganda song Bandiera Rossa (The Scarlet Banner). The driver thanked them and reciprocated by treating them to his own rendition of another song, which Tom and Lilka did not recognize. When they asked him what the song was, the driver laughingly replied that it was an Italian fascist propaganda song! I guess hitchhiking really does bring different kinds of people together.
After Tom’s remarks, the curator of the exhibition (whose name I unfortunately cannot remember) talked about his own experience as a college student in 1970’s Italy. He described a 15 day long communist festival where thousands of people were treated to free food and drink, as well as art, music and dancing. As he put it, it was, “Pasta, music and girls.” All of this was related to an upsurge in the popularity of the Italian communist party, which that year had garnered 37% of the vote in national elections. His vivid description of the festivities was eye opening, as I don’t normally associate communists with fun. I would expect anarchists to be behind something like this.
Lou Dematteis and Enrico Deaglio were up next, describing the radical political change that Italy has undergone in the years since the 1970’s. While the communist party and various socialist groups had tremendous support in the 1970’s, currently it is the far-right, neo-fascists who have risen to power. Much like in the US, authoritarianism is on the upswing, with the government tacitly lending its support to groups promoting xenophobia, nationalism and racism.
It was interesting to hear that Italy has been, until recently, a country with little immigration, but a lot of emigration. It used to be a place people wanted to leave rather than settle in. Most of the “immigration” issues in the past had to do with southern Italians migrating to the north, where they were treated as an unwanted presence. This kind of internal immigration has recently been overtaken by immigration from Africa, and consequently a racist element has developed which sees Africans as criminals and dangerous drug dealers (sound familiar?) Deaglio told of a recent incident in Rome in which a young woman’s body was found dismembered, and it was rumored that she had been murdered by African drug dealers. In retaliation, a flag-draped Italian fascist drove into the town square where her body was found and shot 8 dark skinned people, as well as firing his pistol into black owned businesses. Afterward, the government forbade any protests or anti-fascist demonstrations.
All of this, Deaglio pointed out, currently promotes an atmosphere directly contrary to that which prevailed in Italy during the 1970’s. Referring to the various examples of socialist and communist political posters on display behind him, he talked about an atmosphere of optimism that now seems to have disappeared from Italian politics. In the 1970’s, he claims, it felt as if Italy was moving in the direction of embracing the values of the left, with class consciousness, feminism and anti-racist sentiments being the norm. The posters on display gave illustration to this feeling, with images of women waving hammer and sickle flags, and groups of friendly looking young people embracing one another and smiling. These are not the sorts of posters that I normally associate with communist propaganda. There were no guns, no soldiers, no supreme leaders in sight. Deaglio said that this was, of course, all part of the calculation. There was a concerted attempt to put a friendly face on socialism and communism during the 1970’s, making Italians feel as if they had nothing to fear from it, and that it represented a progressive, young person’s movement. This all changed when in 1978 The Red Brigade kidnapped and then murdered Aldo Moro, Italy’s former Prime Minister and President of the Christian Democratic Party. There was no way to put a friendly face on that.
It was really fascinating to hear these first-hand accounts of a time gone by. I kept feeling, however, that what I was listening to was not mere history, but the description of a political cycle, a changing of the guard, giving insight into what we in the US are currently experiencing.
Propaganda is all around us, and after visiting the Museum of International Propaganda you will become more aware of the methods and techniques that continue to be used in order to manipulate people in the service of all sorts of political ends, both right and left.