Meet the artists: Max Fletcher

An interview with Max Fletcher, Sainsbury Scholar in Painting & Sculpture, in which he speaks about the works he has produced during his residency at the BSR from September–December 2020.

What led you to the correspondence between Antonio Gramsci and Piero Sraffa? Was your new body of work inspired by those letters?

Piero Sraffa was an Italian economist. He studied in Turin with Antonio Gramsci and when Gramsci was imprisoned, Sraffa opened an unlimited account with a Milanese bookstore in the name of Gramsci. Any bill was to be settled by Sraffa. He also provided Gramsci with the physical materials, the pens and paper, with which he would write the prison notebooks. Not only had Sraffa studied with Gramsci, but also while at the London School of Economics in 1921-22, he twice met John Maynard Keynes in Cambridge. In 1926, Gramsci was arrested by the fascist government. The following year, Keynes, having realised the risk that Sraffa faced in Italy, invited him to Cambridge where he received a lectureship.

Once in Cambridge, Sraffa sought to bring wider attention to Gramsci’s plight, publishing a letter in the Guardian and launching with Gramsci’s sister-in-law, Tatiana Schucht, an international campaign for his release. Throughout the early and mid-twenties, Gramsci and Sraffa were in regular contact, and their relationship intensified with Gramsci in prison. Gramsci’s last direct letter to Sraffa was written in January 1927, after which the correspondence between the two was mediated through Schucht, to whom half of some 500 prison letters, providing cultural and political analysis while also detailing his health conditions and day-to-day prison life, were addressed. Sraffa visited Gramsci eight times in person between January 1935 and March 1937 after Gramsci had been transferred from Turi to Formia and later Rome. He died days after his release from prison in April 1937. Both Sraffa and Schucht were instrumental in the posthumous publication of the Prison Notebooks.

Grave of Antonio Gramsci in the Non-Catholic Cemetery, Rome. Photo by the artist.

My interest in Sraffa comes initially from his friendship with Gramsci, and from his proximity to Keynes. These days, Sraffa is a barely known twentieth century economist from Turin. Yet he was someone that both Keynes and Gramsci trusted and worked with. Even before Sraffa was at Cambridge, Keynes had sought to collaborate. In the thirties, when Keynesian economics were in competition with Friedrick Hayek’s more conservative world-view, Keynes asked Sraffa to write a rebuttal of Hayekian economics. Sraffa obliged. Keynesian thinking would, of course, provide the prevailing economic world-view for much of the Western world during the Great Depression, up until Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan revived Hayek’s ideas, giving new momentum to neo-liberal policy. Interestingly, it was around this time that Sraffa’s thought seems to have had a particular resonance on the left; a 1978 edition of the New Left Review produced a ‘special dossier’ on ‘the unknown Sraffa’. One article, Keynes, Sraffa and Capitalist Crisis, details how both Sraffa and Keynes realised that the capitalist system was on its knees during the 1920s. Equally, it seemed likely that ‘organised’ or ‘regulated’ capitalism had plenty of capacity for survival. Yet, while Keynes would not reject the politics of Liberalism, Sraffa, like Gramsci, believed that social transformation would never be possible under the liberal ruling class which, exerted hegemonic control over the rest of the population. As such, for Sraffa, economic struggle had to be allied with political struggle.

I came across Sraffa through his friendship with Gramsci. In many ways, Sraffa seems to have provided a possibility for the future that was never taken up: new economics in contrast to both those of Keynes and Hayek. On the other hand, Gramsci’s ideas seem to be alive and well in contemporary thought. The inability to speak of hegemony without contemplating Gramsci is the most obvious example, yet it is just one facet of Gramscian thought. My recent work does not directly reference the letters between Gramsci and Sraffa, but it does focus on Gramsci’s prison journey to Turi. In this sense they are hovering in the background of the work. Essentially for me, Sraffa provides a bridge between Keynesian economics which now appear to be something of the past, and Gramsci, whose ideas are still capable of providing an analysis to the problems of the present.

A Pasolini poem behind smashed glass. Lungotevere, Rome. Photo by the artist.

Your work in the last year has been characterized by collaboration with other artists. Why? Can you tell us more about the works you have made at the BSR recently, which include contribution from your friends?

Last year at the BSR I collaborated with the artist Andrea Celeste La Forgia on several pieces. This was in some ways a consequence of being in Rome and started with the desire to translate a nineteenth century Milanese play, Carlo Bertolazzi’s El Nost Milan, from Italian to English. As the play had been written in dialect, this wasn’t a straightforward task and Andrea asked a friend (Andrea Bertuzzi) to translate some passages from Milanese dialect into Italian, thereafter Andrea translated them into English. These translated play scripts formed the basis for a series of paintings, one of which was shown in the March Mostra. I have also worked with Andrea on several other projects over the past year. Collaboration has been a means of problem solving, finding a solution to something that I cannot address on my own.

Some of my recent work has similarly involved collaboration. Being in Rome with Covid restrictions has provided several challenges, not least the closure of museums and archives for the past month. As a result, I have asked friends to provide me with short texts of no more than 250 words referring in some way to Gramsci’s prison journey from Rome to Turi. These texts are then translated into paintings as part of an ongoing series that I am currently working on. They provide a number of iterations, with the writing taking different forms and offering different accounts of the same event.

The artist in his studio at the BSR. Photo by Antonio Palmieri.

Interview by Marta Pellerini (BSR Fine Arts Adviser).