Italian Futurism, 1909 – 1944: Reconstructing the Universe

The Guggenheim Museum | February 21 – September 1, 2014

Italian Futurism, 1909 – 1944: Reconstructing the Universe is a groundbreaking, mammoth exhibit of 360 works from 80 artists, poets, architects, and designers who had a dramatic impact on art across more than three decades. Taking up the Guggenheim’s entire rotunda (punctuated by additional curved walls), the show was produced by Vivien Greene, the museum’s senior curator of 19th- and early 20th-century European art, assisted by Susan Thompson, Natalia Lauricella, and dozens of consulting international scholars, resulting in a well-researched, multidisciplinary, multimedia “tour de force.”

Benedetta (Cappa Marinetti) “Synthesis of Aerial Communications (Sintesi delle comunicazioni aeree),” 1933 – 34. Tempera and encaustic on canvas, 324.5 × 199 cm. Il Palazzo delle Poste di Palermo, Sicily, Poste Italiane. By permission of Vittoria Marinetti and Luce Marinetti’s heirs. Photo: AGR/Riccardi/Paoloni.

It is the story of a brave new anarchistic dream that unfolds chronologically, beginning with the dawn of “visual language” in the paintings and sculptures of three visionaries: Giacomo Balla (1871 – 1958), represented by phantasmagorical abstractions such as “Mercury Passing Before the Sun” (1914); Gino Severini (1883 – 1966); and Umberto Boccioni (1882 – 1916).

Boccioni especially impresses with sculptures that evoke a 3D twist. He forces the viewer to read the movements of the human body as broken up, using strolling ectoplasm and plaster, or metal, as in “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space” (1913). His masterpiece, “Antigraceful” (1912), depicts an expressionistic cubist face crying and laughing simultaneously. Boccioni craved war and died young, thrown from a horse and trampled to death, but he left behind a lethal vertical momentum to art.

From the start Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876 – 1944) masterminded Futurism. He was a lyrical genius, a provocative poet with a sizable moustache, a fascist demagogue, and the first agent provocateur of the avant-garde all at once. Born in Egypt to Italian parents and educated in France, Marinetti was both a cosmopolitan and a zealous nationalist. His writings radically affected the entire avant-garde spectrum, as far afield as Russia, Romania, France, and Japan. Indeed, according to curator Greene, every one of the 80 artists presented here had met and/or corresponded with Marinetti.

Marinetti’s enemy was the past. He attacked history and memory, museums, and the altarpieces of Giovanni Bellini in Rome’s cathedrals and churches, even the Italians’s traditional love of pasta. He promoted a worship of machines and their Promethean power as the cure for all social ills. This Futurist vision would, in a few short years, become a central ethos for the Constructivist movement as well.

Futurism also bloomed as a “radical renewal” of language itself. As early as 1905 in the pages of Poesia, Marinetti had promoted the idea of verso libero (free verse), which was intended to break the uniformity of the syntax found in the literature of the past. Then, just after the launch of the Futurist movement, verso libero evolved into parole in libertà (words in freedom), the purpose and methodology of which were outlined in, “Destruction of Syntax/Imagination Without Strings/Words-in-Freedom” (1913). Here, Marinetti wrote:

Futurism is grounded in the complete renewal of human sensibility that has generated our pictorial dynamism, our antigraceful music, in its free, irregular rhythms, our noise-art and our words-in-freedom … By imagination without strings I mean the absolute freedom of images or analogies, expressed with unhampered words and with no connecting strings of syntax and with no punctuation.

And flowing from the above are typographic word-drawings; vintage audio performances recorded during evening soirées called Serate futurista; short neo-dada films; mechanical drawings suggesting a spinning motion; collages and cut-ups; underground-like zines and books, all part of a multimedia installation flowing up the museum’s ramp in a series of curved caseworks that invite an immersive experience bordering on overload.

One highlight is “Stormy Patriot Marinetti: Psychological Portrait” by Fortunato Depero (1892 – 1960). This is one of the most colorful paintings in the exhibit, depicting Marinetti sans moustache, likely during the “irredentist movement,” when Italy regained territory lost to Austria and Hungary. In its outsized silver frame, the piece conveys fiery colors bursting from the subject’s mouth, yellow and red thunderbolts, and a phalanx of bright arrows, all creating a vortex of volumetric movement.

Visionary painter Carlo Carrà (1881 – 1966) advanced this new visual language with a spinning painting-collage on cardboard called “Interventionist Demonstration (Patriotic Holiday-Freeword Painting” (1914), a fusion of drawings and text in the form of declarations like “Long live the Army! Long live the King!” created in spirals and and bursts of radiating color.

More than a century ago Antonio Sant’Elia (1888 – 1916), a victim of army combat in World War I, created drawings of “Città Nuova” (New City). Sant’Elia was also a writer and in his Manifesto of Futurist Architecture (1914) he wrote: “We must invent and remake the Futurist city to be like a huge tumultuous shipyard, agile, mobile, dynamic in all its parts; and the Futurist house to be like a gigantic machine.”

Sant’Elia’s Futurist architecture is represented here by renditions of vertical tenements, utopian scenes of a completely industrialized and technologically advanced city in deco splendor that includes details such as exterior elevators, street cars lines on different levels, connected by escalators, street lights, and telegraph poles. It is a hyperactive vision in which nothing stagnates.  

Umberto Boccioni, “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (Forme uniche della continuità nello spazio),” 1913 (cast 1949). Bronze, 121.3 × 88.9 × 40 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Lydia Winston Malbin, 1989 © The Metropolitan Museum of Art Image Source: Art Resource, New York.

One of my favorite pieces is a small assemblage by Marinetti. “Sudan-Paris” (1920) is a composition saturated with different elements and textures, like a cheese grater, a floor brush, a large cork, sandpaper, feathers, silk, velvet, and fur. All of this creates a tactile surface known as tattilismo (tactilism) that presages postwar artists such as Alberto Burri, Piero Manzoni and, on the western side of the Atlantic, Robert Rauschenberg and Edward Kienholz.

One future trend proved thorny: Marinetti met and became enthusiastic about Benito Mussolini during an early irredentist movement, forging Futurism’s initial relationship with the emerging Fascist party. After an involvement with some early combative Fascist activities, the Futurists eventually broke with the party when it took a more conservative direction around 1920, making it clear that Futurism would not be chosen as the new national art movement.

Some of the Futurists were pilots and unsurprisingly the airplane featured in a number of pioneering works. Perhaps the most interesting deployment of the airplane was the “aerial painting” as practiced by Tato (Guglielmo Sansoni) and others. Tato’s pieces depict sprawling aerial landscapes, as they would appear from a plane, such as in his eye-catching oil paintings, “Flying over the Coliseum in Spiral” (1927 – 37) and “Spiraling” (1936).

According to Emily Braun’s essay “Shock and Awe: Futurist Aeropittura,” (one of the scholarly writing in the exhibition catalogue) by 1934 “aerial painting” was the centerpiece at the Venice Biennial. Unfortunately, Braun points out, their innovative art was used for war propaganda, emphasizing airpower superiority, surprise air attacks, or bombardment of civilians, as in “Aerial battle over the Gulf of Naples” (1942) by Gerardo Dottori.

Benedetta Cappa (1897 – 1977) was one of the few women in the movement. She became a member in 1917 while painting under the tutelage of Balla. In 1923 she married the group’s founder but kept her name. For this grand show Vivien Greene has managed a rare coup in securing the first loan of five major Futurist murals by Benedetta from the central post office in Palermo, Sicily, where they have hung since being commissioned in the 1930s. Her monumental “Synthesis of Sea, Radio, Air, Rail, and Telephone and Telegraph Communications” (1933 – 34) comprises five painted wall size panels. They were designed to evoke the frescoes of ancient Pompeii and were painted in tempera and encaustic, a wax process on canvas. Her aquamarine blue panoramas create an ambience of space and calm, a total environment that it is as relevant and contemporary as it was 80 years ago.

Italian Futurism is an awesome museum-going experience, filled with exhilarating, chaotic energy that cannot be easily absorbed. The show extols multiple means of communication and the art of technology that helped auger the change of face, body, and the soul of modern and contemporary art as we know it.

Contributor

Valery Oisteanu

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