Amplifying the utopian zeal of the 20th-century avant-garde, Italian futurism marched its way into modern art with a revolutionary project and the brazen machismo to back it. The launch of this incendiary crusade against the bourgeois past and the flight toward the technological future led to a radical and chaotic period of production, presented for the first time in full force at the Guggenheim Museum’s monumental exhibition, “Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe.”
Organized by Vivien Greene, the museum’s senior curator of 19th- and early 20th-century art, this landmark show takes an unprecedented sweep of the history of futurism. It brings together, for the first time, a comprehensive assemblage of almost 400 pieces, including paintings, films, furniture, and architectural sketches by nearly 80 artists. Almost half of these objects have left Italy for the first time for this exhibit.
The show breaks new ground with its exploration of the relatively overlooked post-World War I phase of futurism and its proliferation into further media and subject matter. Frank Lloyd Wright’s curved ramp and rotunda are powerfully enlisted, glorifying the futurist motif of the spiral and situating the viewer at the nucleus of the work in futurist fashion. This is one example of the exhibit’s sensitive and comprehensive reading of such a difficult movement, which is fraught with internal paradoxes and uncomfortably bears the cross of its highly fascist and misogynistic beginning.
Framing the exhibition is an audio display of “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism,” penned by the movement’s founder and chief firebrand, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. The booming notes of the manifesto, recited with gusto, are an effective usher into the future conceived by Marinetti. With his combative, crowd-rallying register, we are effectively confronted with futurism’s ideological thrusts: the exaltation of speed, machines, and warfare, “contempt for women,” and an unmitigated scorn towards the cultural institutions that would frame the works in years to come.
Early manifestations of this ideological project show the futurists’ attempts to inscribe speed, simultaneity, and temporality upon a static art object. Anton Giulio Bragaglia’s photographs with blurred movement are shown alongside the cubist and pointilist paintings of Giacomo Balla, Umberto Boccioni, and Carlo Carrà. The predominance of paintings in the show embodies the paradox of this movement that sought to annihilate the past but failed to challenge the medium of painting. In Balla’s “The Hand of the Violinist,” the serial repetition of the violin is both a pastiche of cubism and a highly literal depiction of movement through chronophotography. The vast, divisionist whirlwind of Boccioni’s “The City Rises” and its evocation of the mythical grandeur of factories and workers is particularly gripping. Carrà’s “The Funeral of the Anarchist Galli” is another highlight, amplifying chaos in movement with a throng of fighting bodies under a red mist that rivals the light of the sun.
The early “heroic” phase of futurism also drew its strength from Marinetti’s pioneering of “parole in libertà” (words in freedom), a brand of visual poetry culminating in the typographically eccentric collection “Zang Tumb Tumb.” Documentary filmmaker Jen Sachs’ animation of the printed poems, coupled to a new recording, uses animation to convey the spontaneous energy of the poems.
While most narratives end in this phase, the breadth of the show importantly affords us a view of the subsequent mellowing of Italian futurism in the next decade. Fortunato Depero and Balla coined the futurist “opera d’arte totale” (total work of art), and the futurist aesthetic proliferated past painting into new forms of theater, film, art-deco style furniture, and even toys. The refreshing playfulness of works in this phase is striking, departing from the severity of the opening notes of the manifesto. In particular, a collection of visual sketches for Deporo’s “Balli Plastici,” a futurist ballet of machine-like puppets, stood out to me for its distinct combination of vorticist angularity and uncharacteristic fairy tale whimsy.
The later phases of futurism in the 1920s and 1930s, however, saw a return to its direct glorification of the machine with the themes of locomotion and flight, which the exhibition formidably displays. Ivo Pannaggi’s “Speeding Train” at once captures the monolithic mass of the locomotive and its dynamic lightness as it tears through space. More impressive are Benedetta Cappa Marinetti’s and Tullio Crali’s works of aeropittura (aeropainting), restless with the movement of flight and appropriately exhibited on the highest ramp. The final paradox of futurism—its apparent misogyny—is brought to the fore by emphasizing Benedetta’s distinct presence in this phase, a clear crowning achievement of the show. A room is devoted to her dynamic canvases of rippling waves and warped space, echoing the velocity of Crali’s piece and vigorously destabilizing the manifesto.
“Italian Futurism” is certainly an uneven ride, but one that truly captures the contradictions and complexities of futurism.
“Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe” is on view at the Guggenheim from Feb. 21 to Sept. 1. Entry to the Guggenheim costs $18 for students.