Over the course of two years, I corresponded with Italian caricaturist, illustrator and designer Paolo Garretto, amassing dozens of autobiographical letters chronicling his professional life. The more I see of Garretto’s work, the more I believe he was an important transitional modern artist, who was born at the right time in the wrong country – Italy at the time of Fascism. I have collected considerable printed magazine covers, book covers, posters and assorted ephemera signed with his two tier signature. During the 20s and 30s he worked for many American, French and English companies, when the war broke out he was deported to Italy as an enemy alien. He did apolitical and political work. Here is a lighthearted cover for, Scene Illustrata (1939) one of Italy’s popular journals and a startling modernistic cover a Fascist militiaman for La Rivista (1930), an avowed arm of Mussolini’s regime. Also a poster for Mussolini’s brutal Black Shirts (1933) (generously loaned from the significant collection of Futurist and Italian design of the Fondazione Cirulli). He notes in his letters that he avoided doing propaganda but clearly a few pieces were produced. I am planning on editing these letters into the fascinating “pen pal” biography that we shared. For now, here is a short excerpt from a much longer typescript to whet your appetite.
I remember that when I arrived in the USA at the age of 10 (in 1913), I explained myself at school, knowing only a few words of English, with drawings on the blackboard . . . !
We were there with my father and mother because father was charged by the most important publisher (then) to write a history of the United States as there was none in Italian. The publisher was Ulrico Hoepli in Milano, and my father was picked out of a bunch of young graduate[s] from the University of Pisa, on advice by his professor Pasquale Villari, the most important historian in those years .
In 1917 we came back to Italy because my father had to serve in the Italian army. At the end of the war he became professor literature and history (and Latin, Greek, etc.) in Milano and there I started going to the Fine Art School of Brera.
But I always had trouble with my professors inasmuch I liked futurism and cubism and the did not like the way I saw our models. . . ! In fact I did some sketches of the professors and they did not like them.
In 1920/21 my father chose to go to a Roman university, instead, so I went to the Fine Art Institute in Rome. There I started to do little humorous drawings for some humorous papers like “Il Travaso . . . and started to like newspaper work. I did everything, from then on, also writing little pieces that I illustrated and doing also work for the movies (posters, decoration, articles). In fact I thought I would be able to work in the movies (worked as a decorated interpreter (of English) with Fred Niblo when he came to make his “Ben Hur.” My professor of decoration at the Fine Art Institute (Fuilio Cabellotti) was in charge of scenery and brought us with him to work there, in the studios. When Fred Niblo heard that I spoke English he hired me as his interpreter because the ones he had were Italo-American who knew very little Italian. I hoped to go on in the movies but I soon found out it was “not for me” as a discipline. I have always been quite independent – too much for my dear parents also.
So I went on with magazines and papers and suddenly in 1926 I made for caricatures in color that were very much admired by Marinetti, Depero and the other futurists but they also said that in Italy there was no magazine who printed in colors.
So I went to Paris, where a couple of friends of mine were already working, in advertising and textile drawings . Through one of them I went to see their boss, of the Dorland Advertising (in Paris), a Mr. Moss, who advised me to go to London where The Great Eight [magazines] published in color and so I did, leaving with them my four caricatures – then went to Paris and back to Rome. I said that to myself it was a useless trip. . . well, not at all: one day in Rome, the year after, a friend of mine called me. . . and asked me “how did I get to be published in England with my drawings.” A ran to the nearest book and magazine shop and there in The Graphic (Feb 28, 1927) were my four caricatures, in color. They thought I was French inasmuch I had come to them from Paris, and then everything happened. They were looking for me in Paris, I was told by my friends at Dorland, so I ran to London and good a very nice contract for pages with color caricatures of politicans, artists, famous people, etc; two pages of caricatures twice a week.
So I married the daughter of Lucien Muratore, the famous tenor, and went to live in Paris right away – commuting to London regularly as my wife did not like London . . . !
This is how it all started. From Paris I started to be asked in USA by Fortune first (for covers) and from the Philadelphia Public Ledger, who reproduced my caricatures first, then from the New York World and many other magazines.
[Garretto continued to work for other American publications, notably Vanity Fair, and was on a Vistors Visa. As soon as Italy entered the war . . .] I was arrested as all the other five Italian newspapermen, and brought to the (I think this is the name) the Tombs, NY’s prison. From where we changed to better quarters, the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs to join the Italian, German and Japanese ambassadors, consuls, etc., who were already there. After six months we embarked on The Gottingholm, a Swedish boat as old as Noah’s ark, and we had to cross the ocean on it, to Lisbon where wagon-lit trains were waiting to bring us to our countries.
In Rome I was asked to do propaganda for the war, but inasmuch I had promised the FBI “signing a declaration” that would do nothing against the USA as propaganda work, I had to find a way to go somewhere else – but I found the way quickly.
Before leaving Paris for Turin and my newspaper in Italy, I had patented an idea of mine: to teach language s through the movies. One would see a cartoon, a short (with live actors) and through the sound, the image and written captions could follow a serial of lessons in order to learn a language.
I showed my idea to the minster of propaganda (in Rome) informing him that a friend of mine in Paris had developed and concretized my idea (with my authorization, naturally) and had found some Swiss capitals to carry on the idea and had decided to start the “studios” in Hungary. . . As soon as he had known from the papers that I was in Rome he called me to Budapest and it was then quite simple to convince the propaganda minister that through these language lessons of a new kind we could, after the war, teach Italian the to conquered populations . . . !
When the Italy “gave up” the Italians in Hungary had to split: some for Mussolini and some for themselves and the future. My associate chose to become [a] “New Fascist,” I didn’t and [my wife and I] were arrested by the Germans when they invaded Hungary . . . We had 9 months of internment in various camps until (the Russian were advancing) the Germans put us in a train, the 26th of December 1944, and started to look for a place, in Austria and Germany, and after the impossibility to find a place for 360 men, women and children they brought us to Italy where (in Trento) on the 4th of January 1945 our train was destroyed by an American air raid and we were saved because a few moments before the bombing the Germans agreed to have us brought to a big air raid shelter.
After the raid I had the chance to get in touch with one of my dearest friends (Filippo Anfuso) who was the minister of foreign affairs and in Venice . . .! He had the two of us freed and I chose to go to Milano where I knew that I could count on some good friends – and it was a good idea: We arrived there on the 8th of January 1945 and found help even though we were considered “suspect citizens” by the only paper we had to identify ourselves. All our friends of captivity were sent to a concentration camp in Northern Italy, but were well treated and freed the day of liberation in the 25th of April 1945, when the Americans arrived. And with the Americans a good friend of mine, from New York’s Procter & Gamble (I had worked for them in advertising), a colonel Jim Gray, who “gave” us a beautiful apartment that they did not need.