Interior — night — demons pour from a fireplace. Exterior — day — a Priest, tied to a rope, dangles from a steeple to save a cat. These two images of darkness and light seem pale by comparison to the others on display. A ship splits a whale in two; an African mother attempts to save her child from a crocodile; sharks attack an elephant; a plane crashes into a train; cars crash into crowds; children fall from rooftops; women from windows and balconies; men from the sky. Endless falling, crashing… over and over…

Catch your breath.

These are only paintings… right?

Where the American artist, Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) was best known for chocolate box sentiment — his work a huge part in defining popular culture during the first half of the 20th century — the prolific Italian artist, Walter Molino (1915-1997) seemed to revel in chaos and disaster. In terms of artistic style, Molino and Rockwell are an obvious comparison but their choice of subjects (perhaps even their personalities) were in stark contrast. Looking more closely at other, less sentimental work than Rockwell, Molino’s ‘eye’ can be directly linked to the American realists with clearer echoes of George Bellows’ work; his ‘man as meat’ aesthetic; the blood, the sweat and the impact of his visceral works. Molino’s art presented news events in all their violent cacophony of steel and flesh colliding; somewhat reminiscent of J. G Ballard’s symphorophilia; aroused by the staging of tragedy. The nihilism on display is cinematic — dire circumstances ramped up to 11 — true incidences (apparently) that resemble something closer to an iconic action scene.

Molino began his professional career working commercially as an illustrator in 1935, spending most of these early years working for the newspaper Il Popolo d’Italia and children’s magazines Il Monello and L’intrepedo before becoming a caricaturist for the satirical magazine Bertoldo in 1936. Working alongside writer, Federico Pedrocchi he debuted as a comic artist with the series Virus, il mago della Foresta Morta in 1938; the Molino/Pedrocchi partnership shaping the Italian comic series Capitan l’Audace for the magazine L’Audace. The same magazine was responsible for introducing the Italian audience to translations of Tarzan and Superman; Molino embracing the same romanticised high adventure of the period that still formed a strong undercurrent in his work later on.

By 1941, Molino had become the official cover-illustrator of La Domenica del Corriere (The Sunday Courier) that would define the rest of his career. In terms of who Molino was, remains a mystery; all we are left with is his art that, on closer inspection — of time and place — perhaps provides us with some further clues. If not, you’ll have to forgive the exaggeration, of which Molino was certainly guilty of.

Painting as clear a picture as possible, Molino’s formative years — as with most Italian youth — would have been influenced by Mussolini’s dictatorship. The fascist propaganda machine had reached its peak by the mid-’30s and it is, therefore, no wonder that an artist could develop an apparent obsession with the ‘interpretation’ of history and events. Of course, irrespective of his own politics, Molino’s art was commissioned. Every week — for the second half of his career — his covers for La Domenica del Corriere were created (mostly) in a different political climate under the First Republic that led Italy towards a financial boom (dubbed the ‘Economic Miracle’) and also saw the country become a founding member of the NATO alliance in 1949. Yet, despite political changes, the extremity in Molino’s illustrations remained prevalent with next to nothing toned down.

Based on stories from the preceding week’s news, the majority of Molino’s covers for La Domenica del Corriere presented perilous moments of life and death situations. The dynamic compositions seem to revel in the tragic events; a single, nihilistic frame of mayhem, briefly heartfelt but often overwhelmed by the sheer amount of sadism on display. Looking at the art we cannot help but feel like an unreliable spectator caught up in the events.

In further context, Molino’s art is more than reminiscent of the two-page pulp art and overly exaggerated covers of US Men’s magazines — Male, Man’s Story, Man’s Action, All Man, Man to Man; you get the picture — all of which began to hit a new stride during the early ’60s. The original covers of the ’30s pulps looked tame by comparison — the classic artwork of Weird Tales having become somewhat camp and kitsch by comparison — as the women desperately cling to their male heroes while nature (including natives) close in around them.

These were obviously tales that played to the fantasies of the war generation, perhaps even those who never saw action placing themselves front and centre. Presented as ‘true’ stories, the objectified pinup girls had become women in distress, menaced or tortured by Nazis or Communists such as “The Berlin Wall’s Red Rapist Guards” and other Red Scare headlines. The lurid imagery of scantily clad females — even the villainesses shaped as the dominatrix — became the stereotype playing to the masculinity, misogyny and (rather disturbingly) the xenophobia of politically incorrect material that embraced the violence and the horror of the time. Everyone outside of America, or any right-wing mindset for that matter, was a threat that fuelled this perversity.

In complete contrast to the modern artists during this post-war period — whose work had started to become more recognisable in America during the late ’50s — Molino’s commercial work was more accessible. The likes of Lucio Fontana slashing blank canvases or Alberto Burri and Piero Manzoni sourcing more unconventional materials — recycled industrial canvasses or, literally, their own shit; Merda d’Artista (1961) — were deeply personal rather than commercial. Drawing from personal trauma and the uncanny, their work was a unique expression of a radical transformation of national identity that would continue to question the meaning of art. By the very nature of the subject matter (everyday events), Molino’s paintings, although exaggerated, displayed something the masses accepted. It sold them the news.

To be more specific, Molino’s art falls within the commercial field of illustration. It is the job of an illustrator to present a heightened snapshot. Where the camera doesn’t lie, the illustrator bends the truth with every mark they make. Not always a realistic image and not necessarily an abstract one; in Molino’s case, works of art delivered with a dangerous authenticity. Tragic stories made all the more tragic by a keen, artistic eye.

Taking his technical proficiency into further consideration, Molino’s expertise as an artist perfectly distils the story through effortless compositions that employ structural and atmospheric perspective along with flawless use of anatomy. Dramatic shots that blur the line between fact and fiction. There is an anticipation of the mayhem and madness we have come to expect when pouring over his work that presents an extreme mise-en-scène of violence, desperation and destruction. Where most artists rely on the rule of thirds, Molino throws the rules out the window. Instead, centred compositions heighten his use of foreshortening and trademark dynamics as everything explodes from the centre, immediately pulling us in.

Selecting specific examples of Molino’s artwork is almost an impossible task. While also presenting some alternatives to his more stereotypical works, those chosen here are to be analysed in more detail to define both his style and approach to a given story. In this first instance, despite most of the traumatising events covered in La Domenica del Corriere, there were some happy endings, albeit, still a heart-stopping one. The headline “Pericolossa avventura” (“Dangerous adventure”) from the 24th May 1959 tells the story of a two and a half-year-old girl who, unbeknownst to her father is still sitting on the bumper of his car. He pulls off, travelling at 70 miles per hour over five kilometres before he notices the screams of the passers-by beckoning him to pull over. When he finally stops the car, he finds his daughter, trembling, curled up against the radiator and almost passes out from the shock.

Although, as discussed, Milano’s compositions work primarily from the centre — often cramming the details of the news story into a single, striking shot — the ‘Golden Section’; the sweet spot that draws the viewer’s eye towards that major focal point is more than apparent. Because the format that Molino works on is outside of the Fibonacci sequence; naturally, the centre point of the artwork is the face of the child. She is positioned on the diagonal that reaches towards the top-left corner. Here she hangs precariously; leading to the headlight which, in turn, leads to a screaming passer-by and another individual looking on from a window. The dust, the speed lines and her ribbon blowing against the car also effortlessly convey the drama that unfolds.

There are many car-related cover stories from Molino but, unfortunately, not many of the outcomes were as lucky as Giovani’s and his daughter, Iside. Although far from one of his best paintings, “La tragica fine di famosa scrittrice” (“The tragic end of a famous writer”) — La Domenica del Corriere, 28th August 1949 — depicts Margaret Mitchell, the author of the novel Gone with the Wind (1936), struck by a speeding car in Atlanta as she crossed the road with her husband, dying five days later in hospital on the 16th August. Molina’s painting makes for some odd choices and, despite its tragic subject matter, is perhaps one of his most downplayed images. Mitchell is seen as though she has fainted in front of the car, rather than struck by the vehicle. Her husband recoils and the driver (who was drunk at the time) is shown as a man of intent as he ploughs his car into her. Unless the image was influenced by specific notes from the journalist (note: over two weeks after the event), it seems Molino’s dynamics and energy are missing as we half expect Mitchell’s body to either flip up over the car or at least feel the impact.

Which brings us to one of Molino’s most disturbing crashes, displayed in La Domenica del Corriere on the 15th November 1959. The copy alone for “Presso Torino un’auto falcia cinque bambini” (“Near Turin a car cuts down five children”) is enough to instil fear into anyone and Molino doesn’t hold back on the calamity. The dynamics are as much about the perspective as the street points towards a lone cyclist witnessing the event. This time, the car’s impact is shown in detail as it buckles against a wrought iron gate; the children crushed between. There is no blood but Molino, rather disturbingly, seems to revel in the chaos of the wreckage. This is a painting that makes you question how any other artist or photographer (often in the aftermath) would have handled the material. News is often sensationalised to sell a story, but an illustrator — unless heavily influenced by the editor or in simply fitting with the paper’s voice and demographic — may take a step back and think about how such an accident can be presented in good taste and with sensitivity. Nowadays, for such a story, no image is needed at all because capturing it when it happens exploits the tragedy.

Not all of Molino’s images are easy to pin down to specific issues and their news stories, especially when they were never cover stories. “Lezione a un teppista” (“Lesson to a hooligan”) is a volatile image that presents what appears to be a woman gaining the upper hand over a man. It’s a powerful and dramatic composition with the female grappling the man and can be read as domestic violence or an individual being accosted outside her apartment. Either way, the artwork remains just as powerful as she flips her assailant over as he begins to fall down the flight of stairs.

The shot is specific. It isn’t a push or a clumsy scuffle but presented as a woman who has taught herself some moves. She is, uncharacteristically of these times, a heroine and not saved by the man. With less information on the story itself, we are filling in the blanks as much as Molino may have. Is Molino turned on by this female figure as much as the falling women his men have always saved in other compositions? Is there any significance to the colours she wears; the obvious symbolism of the scarlet attire that may raise questions about her innocence? ‘Real events’ that develop a life of their own through further inspection.

In relation to Molina’s depiction and interpretation of real events, there is an interesting parallel to the current obsession with defining and challenging particular news stories. Information is often hidden, manipulated and distorted when presented today and has been taken to another level after the advent of algorithms and AI. We are more aware of the manipulation at play; simultaneous with it becoming so seamless that we often fail to find it comment-worthy.

Artists, photographers and filmmakers are a conduit of information about what was described second, even third hand. Molino’s paintings were not a direct witness but a distortion of events for dramatic effect and in this instance they remain purely cinematic, therefore taking full creative licence with the tragedy and drama. This approach has always given an interesting dimension to the issue of defining and recognising ‘reality’, even before we get into the philosophical issues of whether such a thing exists in today’s world.

However, there is some irony in that even Molino’s work has, in itself, become a victim of ‘fake news’, when an example of his cover art from a December 1962 issue of La Domenica del Corriere went viral. Circulated via social media, there was some buzz around the illustration predicting the current pandemic. On closer inspection, it turned out that the original article was about modern traffic problems of the time with no reference to a pandemic at all. Captioned “In città gireremo così?” (“Will we go around town like this?”), Molino’s illustration shows his futuristic solution of congestion in major cities with ‘La Singoletta’ (‘The Singlet’), Segway-like vehicles that are closer to tiny cars. This was also supported by an accompanying image, “L’incub degli ingorghi” (“The Nightmare of Traffic Jams”) that, once again, in true Molino style, shows a man dramatically running across the roofs of cars in New York. Many commented that the ‘personal transport’ was something suggested by the artist, once again becoming disinformation.

There is an ambiguity to the artwork that is only exemplified by knowing even less about the artist himself. Molino’s paintings were never subdued; making the most out of deafening compositions that delivered an unforgettable sucker punch. They are classic images in and of themselves, sometimes domestic (and seemingly mundane) but often made all the more dramatic through his use of framing and focal points.

Molino used emphasis to convey facts and personalities: but you can sense that for him it was [a defence] against the competition of full-colour photographs, which were becoming increasingly common on magazine covers, and pushed him to be different in order to find his own space. In Molino, there is a system of careful allusions, some of which are secretly ironic, and a search for amplified details, for deformations that do not look like such; in his work, you can often see a precise will to manipulate real data.” (Italian Ways, 2016)

Where the American realist painter, Edward Hopper inspired the voyeuristic undertones of Hitchcock, Molino, no doubt, inspired the next generation of Italian filmmakers exposed to his weekly covers during those crucial post-war years. Although certainly cinematic, Molino’s art was a stark contrast to ’50s Italian auteur cinema that had begun to move from neorealism towards lighter satire that was providing strong social and political commentary. With its gratuitous violence and extreme visual storytelling, his art was closer in tone to the revisionist era — Giallo films and exploitation cinema that Italian filmmakers would also embrace throughout the ’60s and ’70s — explicit in the visual dynamics of Sergio Leone and masochism of Dario Argento. These pulp origins are deeply rooted in Molino’s work — even his science fiction and fantasy illustrations; a legacy embraced by the likes of Frank Frazetta — while also sewing the seeds for the action movie; from Alistair MacLean to John McClane.

With all but nothing about the man himself outside of is art, it’s not hard to imagine Molino as a tormented soul. Maybe he was a man locked up in his Italian apartment screaming at his own reflection à la Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler (2014), craving the next news fix to exploit. The only difference; he doesn’t so much arrive at the scene of the accident but waits for it to fall into his lap. To paraphrase Dan Gilroy’s film, “You drew them dying?” queries a reporter at the scene of the accident, to which Walter replies, “That’s my job, that’s what I do. I’d like to think if you saw me, then you’ve had the worst day of your life.”

When the paint had dried, maybe Walter Molino celebrated death and disaster, every single time. Who knows? If not the artist himself, then maybe his editor, “More, Molino. Magnifico!”

Reference

Faeti, A. (2011). Guardare le figure. Translated by Italian Ways [online]. Rome: Donzelli Editore. viewed 14 December 2020, <https://www.italianways.com/walter-molino-for-la-domenica-del-corriere-happy-endings-week-after-week/>.