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.
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.
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.
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?
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.