Museums

Italian Futurism, or the Lessons of Art and Politics

by Robert C. Morgan on March 14, 2014

Installation view, "Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe," Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, February 21–September 1, 2014 (photo by Kris McKay) (© SRGF)

Installation view, “Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe,” Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, February 21–September 1, 2014 (photo by Kris McKay) (© SRGF)

The exhibition Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe, presently on view at the Guggenheim, is the first important museum survey of work from this seminal utopian Modernist movement seen in New York since Futurism at the Museum of Modern Art in 1961. Vivien Greene, the instigator and curator of the current update, extends the parameters of the subject considerably further than the earlier exhibition, not only in terms of scale and diversity but also in relation to historical chronology. Whereas Joshua C. Taylor’s exhibition at MoMA was limited to the early period, from 1909 to 1915, Greene takes Futurism much further, into the ’20s, ’30s, and up through 1944, just prior to the end of World War II. In so doing, she attends to the troublesome Fascist politics that evolved more or less parallel to Futurism during the later period. While the connection between art and politics, by its very nature, remains ambiguous, the ambiguity is decidedly clarified rather than ignored or avoided here. Greene’s insight offers a necessary contribution to the Guggenheim exhibition, but not at the expense of delimiting the installation in its entirety.

Mino Somenzi, ed., with words-in-freedom image "Airplanes (Aeroplani) by Pino Masnata, "Futurismo 2," no. 32 (Apr. 16, 1933) Journal (Rome, 1933), 64 x 44 cm (Fonds Alberto Sartoris, Archives de la Construction Moderne–Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne [EPFL], Switzerland) (photo by Jean-Daniel Chavan) (click to enlarge)

Mino Somenzi, ed., with words-in-freedom image “Airplanes (Aeroplani) by Pino Masnata, “Futurismo 2,” no. 32 (Apr. 16, 1933) Journal (Rome, 1933), 64 x 44 cm (Fonds Alberto Sartoris, Archives de la Construction Moderne–Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne [EPFL], Switzerland) (photo by Jean-Daniel Chavan) (click to enlarge)

If you’re looking for a black-and-white resolution between Fascism and Futurism, forget it. The all-too-human intertwining disparities make it impossible, but nonetheless fascinating. Mussolini never liked art much, especially in relation to politics. While Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the aristocratic poet and leader of Futurism, was a part-time speech writer for Mussolini, largely due to the popularity of the Futurist Manifestos, it became clear by the 1930s that the Fascist dictator had no political interest in the artistic movement. Although the Fascists commissioned graphics from second-wave Futurists, like Ardengo Soffici, Fortunato Depero, and Enrico Prampolini, Mussolini refused to give these rabble-rousing artists a platform by which to unite art and life. Beyond exploiting their talents, there was little reciprocation from the Fascist government other than giving them an illusory association with power. A similar narrative occurred in France, specifically with Andre Breton, whose efforts to join the Communist Party in the late 1920s were rejected, presumably because of his Surrealist heritage. In both cases, the extreme ideologues of the right and left never embraced or even feigned an acceptance of the idealism of these artists, whether Futurist or Surrealist.

Instead of encountering a dense theoretical text that explains all this, viewers at the Guggenheim are given the opportunity to put the fading jet-stream ideology into a visual context by experiencing the works themselves. Here one may discover a catapulting diversity of paintings, sculpture, murals, objects, theatrical events (sintesi), light and sounds works, musical compositions (bruitism), architecture, recorded speeches, and numerous vitrines and wall displays of publications, letters, newspaper clips, photographs, and handbills. The complexity of Futurism is neither foreboding nor obtuse; rather, we enter into a somewhat operatic confluence. There is an interactive dimension to this exhibition consistent with the energy instilled in the often symbolic, nearly kitsch imagery that unfolds, perhaps most obviously in the early paintings of Luigi Russolo, before he mercifully turned his attention to music. One may also discover that edge of kitsch in Umberto Boccioni’s early portraits of his mother, where the struggle between sentiment and aggression suggests an Oedipal drama wrought with intensity. Yet Boccioni also emerges as one of the truly great talents of painting and sculpture, in many ways an equal to Picasso, in the early 20th century. One of the significant tragedies within the Futurist movement was the loss of two of its greatest practitioners, Boccioni and the visionary architect Antonio Sant’Elia, both from casualties suffered during the Great War.

Giacomo Balla, "Abstract Speed + Sound" (Velocità astratta + rumore), (1913–14), oil on millboard (unvarnished) in artist’s painted frame, 54.5 x 76.5 cm (The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice) (© 2013 Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York / SIAE, Rome) (photo courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York)

Giacomo Balla, “Abstract Speed + Sound” (Velocità astratta + rumore), (1913–14), oil on millboard (unvarnished) in artist’s painted frame, 54.5 x 76.5 cm (The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice) (© 2013 Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York / SIAE, Rome) (photo courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York)

Before settling on the term “Futurism,” Marinetti struggled with other possibilities, including “electricism” and “dynamicism” (most likely influenced by Giacomo Balla and Boccioni, respectively). He finally chose “Futurism” because he considered it the most universal gambit, and the most overarching, with a sudden, immediate, tersely mediated resonance, a delectable asterisk with its spires pointing in multiple directions. The ultimate Futurist Manifesto appeared soon after, on February 20, 1909, in the paper Le Figaro, inciting an uproar that could only happen in Italy, where the poetry of language was then (and maybe still is) capable of spurring historical change. This was followed by two symptomatic Futurist paintings, “The Street Light – Study of Light” (1909) by Balla and “The City Rises” (1910–11) by Boccioni.

Umberto Boccioni, "Unique Forms of Continuity in Space" (Forme uniche della continuità nello spazio) (1913, cast 1949), bronze, 121.3 x 88.9 x 40 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) (© The Metropolitan Museum of Art) (image via Art Resource, New York) (click to enlarge)

Umberto Boccioni, “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space” (Forme uniche della continuità nello spazio) (1913, cast 1949), bronze, 121.3 x 88.9 x 40 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) (© The Metropolitan Museum of Art) (image via Art Resource, New York) (click to enlarge)

In the great period of 1912­–13, Boccioni completed his Cyclist studies and his iconic, anti-Rodinesque sculpture, “Unique Continuity of Forms in Space.” This period would also include Balla’s “Dynamicism of a Dog on Leash” and Gino Severini’s “Blue Dancer” and “Dynamic Hieroglyphic of the Bal Tabarin,” probably the most elegant and accurate works ever painted in the Futurist tradition. Each of these works is, in one form or another, about speed, transition, force, and mobility, whether visible or on the molecular level. They’re concerned with moving status into kinesis, stillness into motion, and thus giving life to culture, bringing it back from the bucolic ornaments of the 19th century.

Most art historians with whom I have spoken do not favor Futurism. They seem to regard it with a kind of sonorous antipathy, a staunch aura of defensiveness. I see their pathos in an absurdist light. Futurism appears too machismo for some, too offensive in its rhetoric, yet the humor, irony, and parody are missed. The frivolity and gaiety are occluded, absent, torn from the aegis of acceptability. In contrast, I find some of the works in the Guggenheim show remarkable, even as others border on kitsch (as previously noted). The liberation from religious patrimony was plausible, as was the obverse fixation with matrimonial purity. As a result, there’s a good deal of psychology embedded in Futurist painting, in early Russolo, in Boccioni, in Carlo Carrà, that is rarely discussed. Instead, much is written about Futurism from many lofty persuasions that descend into an ambiguous purgatory as if to retrieve some kind of Bergsonian essence through the vital force of objects and people.

I am particularly taken by the paintings and murals of the wife of the movement’s founder, which I discovered for the first time in this exhibition. Although she used the single name Benedetta, she was, in fact, Benedetta Cappa Marinetti. Typical of many of the second-wave Futurists, she adhered to Mussolini’s ideals. She married Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in 1923, roughly between the first and second waves of Futurism; did her politics influence her husband, the author of Paroles en Liberte (Words in freedom), or was it the other way around? Given her alliances, what should one make of these majestic murals titled Synthesis of Communication, painted between 1933–34, in which she represents a veritable Futurist taxonomy on the walls of a post office,? Can one read Fascism into these paintings, or does the political rhetoric become an unnecessary intervention? In other words, is it possible to see these murals simply as art?

Installation view, "Italian Futurism," showing Benedetta (Cappa Marinetti), "Synthesis of Aerial Communications" (Sintesi delle comunicazioni aeree) (1933–34), tempera and encaustic on canvas, 324.5 x 199 cm (Il Palazzo delle Poste di Palermo, Sicily, Poste Italiane) (photo by Kris McKay) (© SRGF)

Installation view, “Italian Futurism,” showing Benedetta (Cappa Marinetti), “Synthesis of Aerial Communications” (Sintesi delle comunicazioni aeree) (1933–34), tempera and encaustic on canvas, 324.5 x 199 cm (Il Palazzo delle Poste di Palermo, Sicily, Poste Italiane) (photo by Kris McKay) (© SRGF)

One may wonder as to the limits of Benedetta’s alliance with Mussolini as the expansion of the Second World War throughout Italy became inevitable. There’s no doubt that her husband found points of disagreement with the Fascists — he lectured adamantly against anti-Semitism and further disagreed over Mussolini’s restructuring of the Austrian border. This suggests that there were indeed limits as to how far the Futurists would go in complying with Fascist decrees. I sense that one of the perhaps understated intentions of this exhibition was to expose previously veiled aspects of Futurism, especially after 1920, and to make clear the ideological struggles among the artists and the sense of betrayal they ultimately felt from their Fascist government.

The question that seems to rise in the wake of this exposure is whether today we can see Futurism for what it is, in terms separate from the kinds of illusory power and rhetoric that once intervened. Wisely, the exhibition does not give a judgment as to the moral stature of the works included. However, if we look beyond the exhibition, and beyond Futurism, the problem begins to move into focus: ideology in art is still with us; it has simply taken a different turn. Some insist on using it to make art, often laced with social and political biases in one form or another. The intervention of ideology, it seems, is an issue much larger than just Futurism. It is a perspective on art that does not easily vanish and that may yet gain momentum, despite the seemingly objective informational systems of today, which seem to hold an authority of their own.

Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe continues at the Guggenheim Museum (1071 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through September 1.

  • Subscribe to the Hyperallergic newsletter!

Hyperallergic welcomes comments and a lively discussion, but comments are moderated after being posted. For more details please read our comment policy.
  • Peter Malone

    A good review of a complicated show, but for one small bit: your entire second paragraph implies no harm/no foul against Signori Marinetti, et.al, for sidling up to the Fascists, because it never paid off for them. Should they be judged so lightly? Can we really separate art from politics when artists actually collaborate with such regimes; when one of them actually helps fabricate the Fascist message as a speechwriter? Can Marinetti even earn the begrudging sympathy we throw to the memory of crazy Ezra Pound? It’s true, as you say that “…[Mussolini] offered little reciprocation other than an illusory association with power”. The spineless are known to sell out for far less than that. It strikes me that an illusion of power is just the right phrase to describe Benedetta’s murals. They look as empty of human feeling as her politics. Kitsch is too kind.

    • Shawn Chapman

      It would seem there has to be a separation between the artist’s political choices, and their art. If we defrocked all the communist artists of the last century for the Gulags, death squads, starvation, and tyranny of the communist states….well, who would be left? Are we really going to bash the art of an Emil Nolde, Rivera, Picasso, or Rothko because of their poor politics?

      • Peter Malone

        I would agree in some cases, but not in the ones you cite. Rivera’s work rails against tyranny, specifically the tyranny of unbridled capitalism, which remains an issue today. That communism has withered as a political model does not discredit Marx’s observations regarding the effects of unbridled capitalism on working people. Picasso’s sympathy for the French Communist party does not appear in his work. Nolde and Rothko seem more attuned to spiritual perspectives. Indeed Nolde was attacked by the Nazis as degenerate. Morgan makes a good point about kitsch. But the later Futurists who stood for Fascism made no attempt to separate their opinion—indeed their enthusiastic participation—in a political movement that offered little more than the idea of crushing the weak. I don’t feel it is about guilt by association. Its about facing the intent behind their machines and their supermen.

        • Shawn Chapman

          While you consider the work of these artist to be separate from their politics,(and in Nolde’s case his politics turned against him because of his work), it still does not negate the fact that they supported actual tyranny while railing against the supposed tyranny of “unbridled capitalism.” But my point is: I see the work of art is an object that is (mostly) separate from the artist as individual, and while their personal lives and politics may be contextually interesting, it is ultimately insignificant to the actual work of art.. If that is not true, then I think you should apply the same judgment across the board instead of excusing the culprits. Thank you for your reply…have a great day.

          • Paul Werner

            Shawn, it’s a false equivalence. The Futurists, and Marinetti in particular, endorsed a fascist aesthetic: violence, good; dehumanization, good; superiority of the “Man of Destiny” (artist or leader), good; people being machine-gunned, beautiful. Apart from a couple of statues in the Moscow Subway, I can’t imagine a “Marxist aesthetic” that promulgates similar values; in fact, I can’t imagine even the most vicious Stalinist proposing the values that Marinetti flaunted, unless you consider pictures of happy factory workers a particular form of aesthetic sadism…

            Cordially,
            Wölfflin Jack
            Euro Desk
            WOID, a journal of visual language
            http://theorangepress.com/woid

          • Shawn Chapman

            I do consider “pictures of happy factory workers a particular form of aesthetic sadism.” A hundred million people murdered, hundreds of millions more living under tyranny, and artists propping it all up with their prettily painted lies. I enjoy the pretty paintings, but I hate the lies, and I hate what the lies cover up.

          • Peter Malone

            Diego Rivera did not paint for Stalin. He painted for wealthy democratic industrialists. Picasso painted an anti war mural, not a pro-communist mural. There is a difference. And why are we even talking about Rothko?? The painters who created those propaganda murals of happy workers for Mao (which were shown at the Asia Society several years ago) had little choice. And their considerable skill was on display, though forever tainted by the lies they depict. I appreciate Shawn’s idea that any artist, or any person who pays allegiance to a political agenda that ends in criminal behavior carries some blame. But if an artist has the freedom to paint what they like, and chooses to glorify a regime like Mussolini’s, then their work cannot be separated from their intentions. All artists must be treated the same, which means they are to be respected for what they choose to put into their work. Nolde was a Nazi at one point. So was Mies van der Rohe. They not only wised up, they never made Nazi art.

          • Shawn Chapman

            It probably would have been a little awkward to paint for Stalin while having Trotsky as your house guest. But Stalin opened the way for that commission in short order. What a nice little time it must have been before the assassins showed up; drinking tea, talking politics, painting pictures, no blood on these hands!

          • Peter Malone

            Mr. Chapman, do you realize your argument for separating art from its political inspiration, whether real or imagined, has completely turned upside down? I began by questioning Morgan’s to-easy acceptance of the Futurist’s and their fascist collaboration, to which you suggested I was too hard on him, and now your arguing the complete opposite.

          • Shawn Chapman

            Not at all. There are many artists whose work I love, while hating their politics and personal lives. I usually find that kind of separation a fairly easy juggling act. Where I may seem to be getting off track is by poking fun at you, by pointing out the ‘artigentsia’ that rails against fascism while embracing communism. I think it is your argument against Marinetti, while excusing the communist artist that is wobbly. I thank you for your thoughtful replies; I mostly disagree with you, but I thank you none the less. Have a good day.

          • Peter Malone

            I take art as it is presented to me by the artist. Most of us do, who spend our lives studying and making art, a widely disparate group you pidgeon-hole with the silly term “artigentsia”. Characterizing an entire group of people as a type is a technique often used by those interested in fostering tyranny. Us against them; the artigentsia vs. the :”real” appreciators of art. May I remind you that as you have been writing extensively in this art blog, you are now a member of the artigentsia.

            If Benedetta had painted flowers while actively participating and celebrating murder, I could comment on her work as separate, though with great difficulty. Alas, her work is perfectly tuned to the glorification of the fascist ideal. So I cannot separate the two. But I speak only for myself.

            As to your kindergarden politics: communism, a system of government I never had any faith in whatsoever, failed and continues to fail because it naively assumes the inherent goodness of working people will protect it from tyrannical forces. It does not, as James Madison implicitly predicted a hundred years before the experiment even began. Socialism (the sin committed by the likes of Mark Rothko and a good part of the art world in New York in the 1930s) is a public policy position that works just fine within a strong representative democracy, as you will learn when you reach 65 and your Social Secuirty and Medicare kick in.

            Fascism has no real political theory behind it, other than the man with the gun is right. Power is to be used to crush the opposition. Marinetti’s artistic enrichment of the fascist position was the proposition that it was to be enjoyed as an aesthetic experience. Neither Leni Riefenstahl nor Albert Speer ever went that far.

            Throughout the last century democracies and communist states fought against fascism. Stalin’s motives are of course a dark joke, but the common Russian soldier helped defeat fascism. That communism inevitably drifts toward fascism is an inherent fault in its design. It is the reason why it fails. And if you studied artists who tried to work within communist states, like Bertolt Brecht, you might learn something about the plight of an artist trying to hold to an unrealistic ideal.

            As to your personal characterizations, no where in my comments have I embraced communism. I simply do not condemn others who may have embraced it at one time or another. I refuse to join a mob. If their art expresses a specific subject matter, I have no choice but to address that subject matter as it is presented. If Rivera or Orozco painted murals celebrating tyranny I would have to address it. From what I know of their work they illustrate a struggle between workers and owners. Their artistic freedom is at work when they choose to paint the communist ideal, not what communism degenerated into. I do not have to share their political opinions to appreciate their faulty idealism while respecting their art. And if you want to hear my opinion about their work you would have to give me the space to do so. Apparently, you seem to know already what my opinion is likely to be. That, my friend, is a fascist tendency.

            Finally—I hope, for your simple-minded smugness is beginning to bore me—if I seem wobbly to you it is because I believe each human being is different, each artist is different, each art work is different. It is precisely the dismissal of “wobbly” thinking that a good fascist looks for as a mark of character. Its why they prefer us all to wear uniforms, or armbands, or lapel pins.

          • Shawn Chapman

            I am sorry I upset you with my comment. I did not use “artigentsia” as a pejorative, only as a shorthand for; artists, art historians, scholars, critics, museum directors, gallery owners, collectors, and the general class of people who (really or otherwise) appreciate art to the point of having opinions about art, aesthetics, and art history. I see I was mistaken…it was not shorter by a long shot.
            I was, and am serious about that having a nice day comment. Have a nice day.

          • Antje Gamble

            I would say that the Facsists co-opted Futurists ideals, if we want to see these as relational. Mussolini renounced his Socialists leanings (he was a head editor of a leading Socialist newspaper before WWI but renounced it because he felt that war was necessary, just like the Futurists). I don’t think, however, the relationship was as direct as that but it was a general sentiment that the Futurists were picking up on when they were writing and they were very vocal supporters of Italian intervention in WWI, as Mussolini was (remember he doesn’t come to power until 1922).

          • Paul Werner

            In that case, since you like equivalences, I trust you’ll apply the same
            revulsion to capitalist pictures of happy housewives with their new
            refrigerators in their white-picket-fence suburban homes while millions
            are murdered in Vietnam, Indonesia, the Congo, etc. The two aesthetics are similar.

            Wölfflin Jack

          • Antje Gamble

            Well that isn’t really a similar comparison as the one I posed, nor a fair one. I was talking about a group of artists (the Futurists) living and working in Milan at the same time a soon-to-be dictator (Mussolini) was living and working in Milan. These aren’t disparate comparisons but instead a look at the political debates that occurred in one city at a specific historical moment that has been reasoned, by more than one scholar, to have influenced later Fascist political thought. (Also, see my comment below.)
            I don’t quite understand your aversion to calling the art of the Futurists political. It would be nice if you would elaborate on that.
            I’m not sure why we are not allowed to talk about artists as making works related or directly/indirectly referencing politics. This does not lessen the importance of Futurists art, nor does it, in my option, stop us from thinking it was good.

  • Antje Gamble

    First, really happy that you’re considering the really amazing works of the Futurists and didn’t just buy into the “they are too offensive” argument. The descriptions of the movement in general and the works in particular are great.
    Second I agree with Peter Malone to some extent. I think that your initial portrayal of Mussolini’s ideas about art and the Futurists is a bit inaccurate. Yes, the Futurists, and Marinetti in particular, went in and out of favor with Mussolini, but they also weren’t of no consequence to him. They were the only group who received special group exhibition spaces in the national exhibitions in Rome (a feat technically forbidden in the exhibition bylaws), for example. Also, art and politics were one of the ways Mussolini thought about Fascist ideology, as is reflected in his early speeches (Emilio Gentile talks about this).

    You’re great to point out the show doesn’t make judgements on political leanings (this is also a big reason second wave futurism isn’t considered much) but I think the real historical story is a bit more complicated than is presented in this article.

  • Jillian Steinhauer

    A note from the author, Robert C. Morgan:

    Naturally Mussolini needed to pose on the side of art to his Italian constituency; thus, he employed Futurism as a form of heroic illustration in the most literal sense. As earlier suggested, any public statement spoken by Mussolini about Futurism came not directly from Il Duce but through Marinetti. Even so, I would argue that Mussolini deliberately misread the Futurists for his own purposes, much as the Futurists naively projected their utopian agenda on to him. In reality, they never found a common ground, and. therefore, the presumed embrace of the two never stayed on an even path. They went up and down, finally ending in betrayal. The Futurist demise became evident by the 1920s and is precedented on their loss of imagination, irony and sense of the absurd, which largely contributed to their ascendancy at the outset.

    • Antje Gamble

      My comment was related to Mussolini’s discussion of art in general as regards politics since the article referred to such an idea. I’m not sure how much Mussolini spoke of the Futurists in particular in public speeches. His regime also didn’t just support the Futurists, but instead–and most importantly in comparison to Nazism–a wide and diverse group of visual artists (all who can be call to some extent or another Fascist artists). Yes, Mussolini probably appropriated portions of the Futurists ideals and with that there was inherently an abstraction of the so-called original (not a “misunderstanding”). And I don’t see anything naive about the Futurists support of Fascism. They knew what war brought–death (Boccioni, SantElia, both prominent pre-WWI members who died in the war). I’m not sure what final “betrayal” you are referring to. Would you elaborate?
      Overall, I think the greatest value in the Guggenheim exhibition is that it considers the long history of Futurism as important and not just looking at the works from the pre-WWI “glory days.”
      I think the main issue that is becoming clear in your response is that the ideal of Futurism that
      you are putting forth is working within the paradigm of the ideals of the
      so-called “historical avant-garde” via Peter Bürger. Anything after the initial, extreme moment of shock isn’t good anymore in that mode of understanding–”their loss of imagination, irony and sense of the absurd…”

  • Paul Werner

    Interesting, that the same people who wouldn’t hesitate to claim a role for art in society in situations where the imputed influence is considered “good,” back away from that claim when the influence is not-so-good. Whether the Futurists and Mussolini were in bed is less important than the fact that the Futurists consciously, deliberately set out to promote certain social values that we associate with fascism (and also, rightly so, with certain forms of revolutionary Marxism): love of violence, of the irrational, of the mechanical. The first point of reference is the Socialist-turned-fascist Georges Sorel, who found the theoretical rationale for the kind of rabble-rousing among the working class that Marinetti and others had been practicing years earlier. (Yes, the Futurists gave performances where they encouraged working-class people to express their imputed irrational rage.)

    The second point of reference is the intense discussions that developed among a number of Marxist thinkers (notably Brecht and Lukàcs) in the interwar years, as to whether German Expressionism was little more than a formative ethos of rising fascism, or whether there was something to be salvaged from it. The same question might have rationally (and productively) been asked of this show. Too bad.

    Paul Werner
    Editor, WOID, a journal of visual language
    http://theorangepress.com/woid

Previous post:

Next post: