I brought my mom up to New York City for a visit in the middle of June and because it’d been so long since we took in a real art exhibit, we decided to go up to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue at 89th Street to catch Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe, running there from 21 February to 1 September 2014. Having bought our tickets on line the day before (advance tix are only available on line at least 24 hours before the visit), we went uptown on Monday, 23 June, where I got Mother a wheechair to negotiate the spiral ramp at the Goog, and we took the elevator to the 6th floor to work our way down. (I wasn’t about to push Mom up the ramp—I’m not all that spry my own self these days!) I hadn’t been to the Guggenheim for several years (the last time may have been for Aztec Empire in 2004), but I thought I recalled that the shows started at the top of the helix and ended at the ground level, but either I remember wrong, the museum’s changed its practice, or this show is arranged backwards, so we actually ended up seeing the display from back to front, that is, from the ’forties down to the ’teens. It was a little disorienting, trying to rearrange the development and history into ascending chronological order in my mind as we went along—adding new information to the start of every developmental step at each level rather than the normal process of accumulating new information sequentially. It was counterintuitive, and not a few times I had one of those “so that’s where that came from” or “that’s what that was referring to” revelations.
Italian Futurism reminded me a lot of Dada, the show I saw at the National Gallery in Washington and MoMA in New York in 2006 and ’07 (my report on which I posted on ROT on 20 February 2010), not only because the movements overlapped—Futurism, arguably one of the lesser known developments in the arts, lasted from 1909 till the end of World War II, as the exhibit’s title suggests; Dada went from 1916 to about 1924, essentially the post-World War I period—but like Dada, I knew little about Futurism and found I had to read most of the explanatory panels for each section of the show as well as for each work of art at which we paused. (Also like Dada, Italian Futurism turned out to be a delightful, enjoyable, and eye-opening art experience. But I’ll be getting to that shortly.)
Unlike most art and cultural movements, we can date the origin of Futurism with specificity (another parallel to Dadaism, by the way). On 5 February 1909, poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti published “Manifesto del futurismo” in a Bologna newspaper (and later, as “Manifeste du futurisme” on the front page of the Paris daily Le Figaro on 20 February 1909). It was an aggressive and even belligerent statement of principals—the Futurists apparently didn’t have the sense of humor that the Dadaists had, even though the Dada movement was a direct response to the horrors of mechanized global warfare as the artists experienced it during the Great War. The Futurists celebrated rather than decried modernism and the society-shaking developments of machines and electrification, speed (locomotives, automobiles, and eventually airplanes), long-distance communication (telegraph, telephone, and radio), and even space travel (which was still a fantasy in the 1920s and ’30s when it figured in Futurist art). Intensely patriotic and enamored of violence from their inception, the Futurists were largely supportive of, first, Italy’s entrance into World War l, and then Benito Mussolini and his National Fascist Party. (Mussolini, elected to head Italy’s government in 1922, is featured prominently in several Futurist art works on display in the Guggenheim exhibit, such as 1935’s Fascist Synthesis by Alessandro Bruschetti. The movement came to an end with the death of Marinetti in 1944, one year after the Fascists were ousted from Italy’s leadership in 1943.) The New York Times’s Roberta Smith called the movement “noisily contradictory,” noting that it was simultaneously “aesthetically revolutionary and politically reactionary.”
Among the movement’s stated principals were these declarations:
We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.
We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice.
Note not only the insurrectionary sentiment, but the strident language Marinetti used. Indeed, the poet (Futurism was originally a literary movement before taking in the visual and performing arts, as well as architecture, fashion, home decor, advertising, and politics), promised: “It is from Italy that we launch through the world this violently upsetting incendiary manifesto of ours.” The Futurists denied the past and meant to create an entirely new culture. They expected their movement to lead to an actual revolution intended to influence social thinking as well as the arts.
The Futurists were also adamantly nationalist (note Fortunato Depero’s 1935 mural-sized sketch for the mosaic Proclamation and Triumph of the National Flag), unlike the Dadaists who were staunchly internationalistic. While Dadaism had many centers—Zurich, Paris, Berlin, Hanover, Cologne, New York—Futurism was almost exclusively an Italian movement. (There was a small echo of Futurism in Moscow, mostly a literary force, but like Constructivism, a contemporaneous modernist movement centered in Russia around the time of the Bolshevik Revolution, it was smothered in its infancy when Stalin took over the reins of the Soviet state after Lenin’s death.) As Mussolini and the Fascists drew a line directly connecting modern Italy with its Roman past (the fasces, the emblem and namesake of Mussolini’s party, was a Roman symbol of state authority), the Futurists celebrated technical advancements with which the country was prominently associated, particularly radio (pioneered by Guglielmo Marconi, 1874-1937) and aviation (long after Leonardo da Vinci’s fanciful flying machine designs , there were, among others, Enrico Forlanini, 1848-1930, who built an unmanned helicopter in 1877; Giuseppe Cei, 1889-1911, who flew around the Eiffel tower in 1911; Enea Bossi, Sr., 1888-1963, who was the first to cross the Andes Mountains in a balloon in 1916; Giuseppe Mario Bellanca, 1886-1960, designer of the first enclosed monoplane cabin in 1917; Gaetano Arturo Crocco, 1877-1968, an early flight pioneer, contemporaneous with the Wrights, who built the first liquid-propellant rocket motors in 1929).
Declaring that “we want no part of it, the past,” and celebrating change, originality, and innovation, Futurism focused on the emerging urban world and those who lived and worked in the city, including factories, eschewing the farmer, the peasant, the country folk who’d been a frequent subject of the 19th-century art of Romanticism, Realism, and Impressionism. Emphasizing the speed, energy, dynamism, and power of machines and the vitality, change, and restlessness of modern life, the Futurists discarded all that was old and traditional, and glorified technology, machines, industry, gadgets, noise, commotion, movement, violence, and youth. While the Dada artists were aghast at the brutality and mechanized death of World War I, the Futurists welcomed the war’s outbreak as a chance to destroy the old, to cleanse the static and decaying society of its outmoded ways, reactionary thinking, and old-fashioned art. (Many Futurists enlisted in the Italian military when the war broke out. Some of the movement’s leaders died in the conflict, including architect Antonio Sant’Elia, 1888-1916, whose drawings La Città Nuova [“New City”] and Station for Trains and Airplanes, both 1914, are in the exhibit, and Umberto Boccioni, 1882-1916, who was drafted into the cavalry and had been the principal author of “The Manifesto of the Futurist Painters,” 1910, and “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture,” 1912; Marinetti, a volunteer in the Lombard cyclists battalion, was seriously wounded in the Eighth Battle of the Isonzo River, Slovenia, in 1917 and decorated for bravery.)
Futurist art never differentiated between abstract and representational, combining a symbolic imagery with impressionistic but literal depictions of figures and objects. (Realism could even make significant appearances, such as the portraits of Il Duce and others that figure in some of the works.) The art is powerful, muscular, masculine (conspicuously misogynistic, Futurism had only a few female adherents, among them Benedetta Cappa, known simply as Benedetta, who married Marinetti in 1923, and also Valentine de Saint-Point, who composed the 1913 “Manifesto of Futurist Woman”), and extremely colorful, with bright blues, oranges, yellows, and reds featured liberally in the canvases. The most frequent motifs are machines, cars, and planes, but there are human and animal figures and other objects in the works, as well as geometric shapes and expressionistic swirls, washes, and splashes of color or black and gray. (It’s odd, and I can’t explain the technique the artists used to accomplish it, but despite the bright and vibrant colors in most of the paintings, many are still dark and shadowy, giving them an ominous or threatening aspect, as if dense clouds had just closed in on a previously sun-lit landscape or brightly lit room and the painter had caught the instant of lowering darkness. Morris Louis, an Abstract Expressionist and Colorist of the mid-20th century, painted canvases with rainbow-bright pigments which he then covered with black or brown, but that’s not what the Futurists have done. It will take another painter to explain how they did this, I imagine.)
The Futurists were vague about their unifying style and themes, declaring in the 1910 “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting” that their aim was a “universal dynamism” which they’d represent in their art. The brilliant colors the painters used were initially broken into dots and stripes instead of blended (a technique known as Divisionism), forcing the spectator to integrate them subconsciously. After 1911 (when Futurist artists Boccioni and Carlo Carrà visited Gino Severini, who lived in Paris), they encountered Cubism and adopted that movement’s methods, giving the Futurists a way to portray the dynamism they admired in the modern world in their paintings, drawings, and sculptures, characterized by vigorous motion and fractured forms. (Marcel Duchamp’s 1912 Nude Descending a Staircase is a perfect example of this kind of imagery. It’s not in the Goog exhibit, but ironically was rejected by the Cubists as too Futurist. Several works in Italian Futurism bear a superficial resemblance to Duchamp’s iconic painting.) In the 1920s, the Futurists introduced arte meccanica, works expressing the aesthetics of the machine; the 1930s brought aeropittura, with its abstract aerial imagery.
Perspectives are often from the ground looking up at vertiginous heights (Mario Chiattone’s Buildings for a Modern Metropolis, 1914) or, more innovatively still, from an aerial point of view, as if the painter were in a plane looking down—even at a parachutist in mid-drop (Tullio Crali’s Before the Parachute Opens, 1939). Along with the machines, automobiles, and trains (and later planes and even spaceships— depictions of moving vehicles), urban scenes, frequently showing construction and manual labor, typified Futurist art. They saw the world as in constant motion and their art aspired to express the “interior essence” of the objects depicted. (The “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture” lays out the principals of dynamism for the three-dimensional art that’s aimed at the realization of the relationship between an object and its environment.)
The exhibit at the Goog, organized by the museum’s Senior Curator of 19th- and Early 20th-Century Art, Vivien Greene, includes over 360 works by more than 80 artists, architects, designers, photographers, and writers. Among the paintings, drawings, sculptures, photos, and other art works are many of the Futurists’ manifestos. (They published dozens; as David Freedlander observes on the Daily Beast: “[P]erhaps no collection of artists could manifest quite like the Futurists.” These documents were usually distributed free on the streets or sometimes dropped from planes.) According to the Guggenheim, Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe is the first comprehensive retrospective of the movement to be shown in the United States. (Maika Pollack on Gallerist posits that “Futurism’s link with fascism may be why museums have shied away from the subject in the past.”) Some of the works on display have seldom been seen by the public and others have never traveled outside Italy. The works are arranged in essentially chronological order, generally separated into decades from the 1910s at the base of the ramp up through the ’20s, the ’30s, to the ’40s, taking up almost the entire museum (with the exception of a couple of side galleries devoted to non-Futurist exhibits). The displays mix paintings and drawings with architectural sketches, advertising posters and objects, sculptures, toys, furniture, clothes, ceramics, photographs, and printed matter.
Along some walls are also videos of Futuristic film works and one gallery contains items, including videos, related to Futurist theater and performance (programs, posters, set and costume designs, and so on). Marinetti had published “The Variety Theatre” in 1913 in which he’d claimed that traditional theater merely “vacillates stupidly between historical reconstruction (pastiche or plagiarism) and photographic reproduction of our daily life,” but the “Variety Theatre . . . proposes to distract and amuse the public with comic effects, erotic stimulation, or imaginative astonishment,” “seeking the audience’s collaboration” so that it “forcibly drags the slowest souls out of their torpor and forces them to run and jump.” Futurist painter and scenographer Enrico Prampolini published “Futurist Stage Design” (1915) in which he called for a break with the contemporary “static stage” that’s “a photographic enlargement of a rectangle of reality” to replace it with a “dynamic stage” in order to “live out the dramatic action” and “become an integral part of it.” Prampolini proposed banning painted scenery, replacing it with “a colorless electromechanical architectural structure, enlivened by chromatic waves from a source of light.”
Like Dada, Italian Futurism is a big show, with many works by many different artists. That can make it hard for me to sort out and develop any kind of unified experience from it aside from awe. While there were many Dadaists of whom I’d never heard, I knew a lot of the names and the work of a number of the artists in that exhibit before I went in, which helped me a little make a coherent experience out of it. But with the Futurists, there was only one whose name I’d encountered before (Fortunato Depero, and my connection to him was pretty tangential to this show—though I may get around to explaining it later if it comes up)—so the art and the artists, not to mention the philosophy and ideas they expressed, were all new to me. (I’d heard of Futurism in the vaguest sense, of course, and one of my NYU profs, Michael Kirby, was the author of Futurist Performance, so I had some general familiarity with what Futurism was about.) Mother and I decided to go up to the Guggenheim partly because Italian Futurism promised to be an interesting art experience, but also partly because we hadn’t been to anything in a long time and we just wanted to find an art show of almost any acceptable type. (We’d gone to movies from the same impetus, though not always with the same pleasant result. An alternative choice was a Mark Rothko show at one of New York‘s commercial galleries, but it was closed on both Sunday and Monday, so we committed to the Goog and Futurism.)
Even though we saw the exhibit from the end to the start, I’m going to try to describe it and assess my experience in the chronological order Italian Futurism was meant to be seen. The first gallery is a small selection of Futurist sculptures, notably Development of a Bottle in Space (1912) and Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913) by Boccioni. The latter is a striking and powerful evocation in gleaming bronze of a muscular human form, almost as if clad in armor, striding along, evoking flames, speed, strength, and energy. Also on display here is Boccioni’s grotesque Antigraceful (1913), characterized by Lance Esplund in the Wall Street Journal as “an overwrought, misunderstood version of Picasso's first sculpted Cubist head” which “breaks free from a surrounding frame, which slices through the head like a guillotine.” As its title implies, it’s the opposite of grace and beauty (it’s supposed to be the sculptor’s mother), a thumbed nose at the traditions of conventional art. As Ariella Budick asserts in the Financial Times, the artist “dismantled old pieties and rebuilt awkwardness into dynamic elegance.”
As a number of reviewers point out, the Guggenheim’s unique space, with its white walls and sloping, spiral walkway, sets off Italian Futurism extraordinarily. It was almost as if Frank Lloyd Wright had expressly designed his iconic museum for a display of the aggressively modernist, iconoclastic works of Futurism. (Marinetti explicitly eschewed museums for the art of his movement, but I wonder if they’d have made an exception for the Goog since it, too, broke the mold of art-exhibition space.) The Boccioni sculptures are an example: standing alone in the small High Gallery, surrounded by white walls, even the hideous Antigraceful creates a striking impression that drew me in from the walking path. (I parked Mother in her wheelchair momentarily so I could go up and see what this piece and the surrounding display were about.) Needless to add, the manner of the exhibition was a large part of what made this visit such a special experience—the opposite of, say, the old Barnes Collection in Merion, Pennsylvania (before it moved to new digs in Philadelphia), which was such a hodge-podge of paintings, crowded haphazardly on dark-paneled walls, that it became tiring to peer at them to find those of particular interest. In Italian Futurism, even works or items that might otherwise have raised little curiosity in me became objects of fascination.
Boccioni’s figures were part of the period known as “heroic” Futurism, which stretched from the initiation of the movement until the middle of the Great War, about 1916 (the year two of the movement’s leaders died on the battlefield). This was the period of fascination with industry, machinery, speed, and urban environments. It was more utopian and exploratory than the later period, the so-called Second Futurism that followed the war. (The following year, the United States declared war on Germany and the Bolshevik revolution toppled the Russian tsar and eventually replaced the Russian Empire with the Soviet Union. In 1919, fearing a similar upheaval in Italy, Marinetti and the major Futurists allied with Mussolini and his Fascist Party.) Boccioni’s Dynamism of a Cyclist (1913), for example, is an expression of pure, wild energy in vibrant yellow, blue, green, and red swirls of paint, overlapping and rearranging themselves into an abstraction of speed and vitality. Giacomo Balla’s The Hand of the Violinist (1912), initially influenced by photography, shows a moving violinist’s hand on the instrument’s neck in repeated sequence (like a multiple exposure photo), and Automobile in corsa (“Speed of the car,” 1913), a study of speed, are other examples.
Following World War I, Futurism expanded rapidly into other areas of art and culture, including performance. Marinetti had included serate, Futurist performance evenings (which some historians consider the origin of performance art), in his original concept for the movement. In a side gallery, Fortunato Depero’s designs and marionettes for his Balli Plastici (1918) and Balla’s detailed diagrams for the lighting design of Igor Stravinsky’s Fireworks (1916; staged in 1917) are on exhibit. Depero and Balla coined the Futurist phrase opera d’arte totale (“total work of art”), clearly a take on the concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk Richard Wagner wrote about in 1900. The idea was that the spectator would be enveloped in an entirely Futurist environment, designed to be of one single aesthetic. (This notion, carried to its logical extreme, was also the foundation for Depero and Balla’s 1915 manifesto, “Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe,” which gives the Goog’s exhibit its title.)
Depero’s Balli Plastici (“plastic ballets” or “plastic dances”) was a Futurist performance conceived for machine-inspired puppets which would replace human actors and dancers, set to compositions by various Futurist and experimental musical artists. Designed in 1917, the dances, casting technology in the lead role with the mechanical meeting the fantastical, were presented at the Teatro dei Piccoli (Children’s Theater) in Rome the next year. (Depero was one of the rare Futurists who had a sense of humor, or at least whimsy. He also designed Futurist toys, a set of colorful fabric-collage men’s vests, and advertisements for Campari and Vanity Fair, examples of all of which are on display at the Goog.) On exhibit in Italian Futurism are some of his whimsical marionettes and scenic sketches, as well as posters for performances. (Balli Plastici was performed eleven times; considered novel, its reception was unenthusiastic—though Marinetti reportedly loved the work.) Balla conceived of his Fireworks, produced by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes at the Teatro Costanzi, Rome Teatro Costanzi, Rome Teatro Costanzi, RomeTeatro Costanzi in Rome (only in a single dress rehearsal—the full production was scuttled by labor disputes), as an evocation of “the moods of fireworks” set to Stravinsky’s music rather than a recreation of pyrotechnical images. With a fascination for artificial light, the artist designed a set of solid geometric wood pyramids and prisms covered in colored fabric and paper, inside which he placed electric lights which pulsed rhythmically and created startling movement and other effects. (It wasn’t really a ballet in the conventional sense—there were no dancers—but a light show which is recreated at the Guggenheim.)
(I alluded to my brief contact with Depero above, and this is where it fits. In my research into Tennessee Williams’s concept of “plastic theater,” I came across an essay called “Gilberto Clavel: Depero’s Plastic Theater,” about the artist’s “Plastic Dances,” which appeared to define plasticity in the same terms that Williams did, but the original essay was published in Italian in a Milan newspaper in 1919 and wasn’t published in English until 1968, so I decided it would have been unlikely that Williams had read it and wrote the similarity off as an amazing coincidence. In 1919, Williams was only 8 and by 1968, he’d already formulated and published his ideas about plastic theater 23 years earlier. I published an article about this concept, “‘The Sculptural Drama’: Tennessee Williams’s Plastic Theater,” on ROT on 9 May 2012.)
For most of the 1920s and ’30s, the Futurists tried to reconcile their drive for newness with their nationalism and militarism (these are the decades of their fervent alliance with Fascism), to marry their program of perpetual upheaval to the increasingly conservative tastes of Il Duce’s regime. The Times’s Smith contends that “the art itself turned more benign, consistent and decorative” in the Second Futurism, and Speeding Train (Treno in corsa, 1922) by Ivo Pannaggi, constitutes a symbol of modernity and speed, the founding themes of Futurism, and depicts the sensory perception of a powerful locomotive rushing toward the viewer on a diagonal, illustrating the great speed in the blur of the cars and evoking the screech of the wheels, the scream of the whistle, and the roar of the engine. Pannaggi’s painting is a prime example of the Futurist post-war sub-genre arte meccanica (“machine aesthetics”), articulated in Pannaggi and Vinicio Paladini’s 1922 “Manifesto of Futurist Mechanical Art.” The next stage of Futurist art, prevalent in the years leading up to and into World War II, was aeropittura (“airplane painting”), works inspired by flight, and the automobile and locomotive, the symbols of speed, strength, and modernity that dominated Futurist art between World War I and the ’30s, were replaced by images of planes (and later spacecraft) and the bird’s-eye perspectives of views from flying machines (Virgilio Marchi’s Building Seen from a Veering Airplane, 1919-20, and Fantastic City, ca. 1919, are early prototypes). Flying over the Coliseum in a Spiral (Spiraling) (1930) by Tato (Guglielmo Sansoni) presents an airplane soaring over the iconic Roman ruin, the circular path of the plane echoing the Coliseum’s shape.
Giovanni Acquaviva’s 1939 design for a ceramic dinner service, The Life of Marinetti, however, makes the marriage of the two philosophies, one artistic, the other political, perfectly clear. The dinner plate, Fascismo/Futurismo, has a multicolored abstract and geometric design surrounding a large letter F in the center with an ax blade extending from it, creating a stylized fasces. Around the perimeter of the design, are the words FASCISMO at the top and FUTURISMO at the bottom, unambiguously expressing the painter’s leanings. In Bruschetti’s Fascist Synthesis, a triptych painted in oil on plywood depicting movement and speed through repeated patterns of soldiers holding flags, soldiers with upraised swords, and the word DUX inscribed on an obelisk at the center of the left-hand panel, the artist included a host of Fascist symbols, from the obelisk to daggers to sheaves of wheat, and so on, placing a double portrait of Il Duce prominently in the center of the middle panel, all in a style that implies movement and dynamism, the central themes of Futurism. (Dux is Latin for leader, commander, or ruler—the source of the Italian word duce, which Mussolini took as his sobriquet—and was the term in classical Rome for a high-ranking army commander.)
Italian Futurism ends at the top of the helix with a gallery devoted to five monumental canvases (each about 10 by 6½ feet) by Benedetta. Syntheses of Communications (1933-34), in tempera and encaustic (they were intended to evoke the ancient frescoes of Pompeii), depicts various means of communication, including air, radio, sea, land, and telegraph and telephone. Though Marinetti (Benedetta’s husband) had wanted Mussolini to name Futurism the official art of his regime, Syntheses, from the conference room of the Palermo, Sicily, post office, was among the very few public commissions awarded to a Futurist during the Fascist period; this exhibit marks the first time the paintings have been shown outside of their original location.
The Guggenheim’s Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe is a beautiful show, both in terms of the art on exhibit and the aesthetic experience it yields—not to mention the curiosity it engenders about a little-known (at least to me) period in Western art. It’s impossible to get around the Futurists’ reprehensible politics in the Fascist era, as well as their boosterism during World War I. In fact, much of the movement’s philosophical basis is anathema to us today (and, I would hope, to most people even in the ’teens, ’20s, and ’30s). But ironically, the art that came out of this movement, however justified and explained by the creators and apologists, is unquestionably stunning. Can you separate artists and their work from the rationale used to conceive it? I don’t know—maybe not. But it’s also hard to dismiss both the beauty of the Futurist art—as blogger Molly Hashimoto put it bluntly, “Some of it, 100 years old, still looks very new”—or the influence the art had on those who followed even decades later, irrespective of its political and philosophical underpinnings. I hope we can look at an exhibit like Italian Futurism, experience the work on display, and appreciate what is good and moving while also acknowledging what is awful and shameful—and I’m not trying to invoke the old bromide about Mussolini making the trains run on time—and not throw the artistic baby out with the political bathwater. (On the other hand, maybe I feel that way because I was born after World War II and my only sense of the consequences of Italian Fascism is that my late father was a World War II vet. I wonder if I’d feel the same way about Nazi art if any of it were good. Maybe it’s too easy for me to shrug it off; maybe the beautiful and startling art work is Dorian Gray and the Fascism behind it is his portrait in the closet.)