The affection, if not outright idolatry, the Futurists held for machines and speed initially focused on automobiles and locomotives, but in the early 1930s artists like Tullio Crali, Gerardo Dottori, Tato (Guglielmo Sansoni), and Giacomo Balla turned their attentions skyward to produce glorifying images of planes. Several of these paintings have been grouped under the title “Aeropittura” at the Guggenheim’s current show Italian Futurism: 1909-1944 Reconstructing the Universe, and they depict, for instance, planes soaring over Rome or in aerial combat over the Gulf of Naples.
There is a difference, of course, between the thing and the experience it offers. The image of a body in motion isn’t the same as the sensation of motion, yet these artists sought to integrate the two. Umberto Boccioni’s famous sculpture “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space” (1913) attempts to visualize a walking human figure as the essence of its stride. The bronze figure exhibits blade-like flares that angle back from the chest and legs, as if the air pouring around the walker has been flash-frozen. Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2” (1912) is a close cousin to this piece, while Cubism informs Gino Severini’s essay at capturing the mercurial nature of balletic movement in “Blue Dancer.” Other Futurist artists sought to represent qualities otherwise invisible: Giacomo Balla’s painting “Abstract Speed + Sound” (1913-14) employs bright slashes and sweeping arcs to suggest the sensory effects sparked by those properties.
The earnestness of the ideology advancing this near-impossible aim—to frame the exhilarating dynamism of speed on a few square feet of canvas—lends a quaintness to many of the works in the show. The Futurist faith in the power of representation appears almost as naïve as its belief in the transcendent consequence of mechanization. And that naïveté, of course, extended to the movement’s political inclinations which were in many cases overtly Fascist. The heroizing impulse that enlivens Dottori’s “Aerial Battle over the Gulf of Naples” (1942), as well as the allusion to imperial greatness in Tato’s “Flying over the Coliseum in a Spiral (Spiraling)” (1930) remind viewers that the machine was not only an instrument of speed.
But one painting in this “Aeropittura” group stands out for coming close to the goal of conjuring motion in an immobile medium. In “Upside Down Loop (Death Loop)” (1938) Tullio Crali chose not to paint the airplane, but rather to show the view a pilot or passenger might have in an open cockpit during this aerobatic maneuver. We are situated at the bottom of what appears to be an “outside” loop, one in which the plane travels upside down. The moment Crali isolates is bracing: our head hangs down over the vast scene below, and we must trust that the g-forces generated by the plane’s high speed will keep us from falling.
The cityscape — presumably Rome’s — bends toward us in a softly arcing parabola whose peak presents the most clearly delineated buildings. Head thrown back, our entire body pressed and pressing for dear life into the seat, our hair could be brushing across the several domes and church spires that rise up ominously as the plane dives to the nadir of its loop. Crali focuses on what looms ahead, riveting our attention, while the part of the city that has just whizzed past (at the top of the painting) already recedes into vagueness. The artist’s insight about actual speed is a telling one: the experience is so overwhelming we need to dispense with what’s just happened so we can cope with the future that’s hurtling toward us.
Other paintings in the show merely serve up sleek aerodynamic machines, while Crali’s image proves out the abstractions (sound, light, speed, force) that follow from motorized power by ignoring the vehicle and presenting instead a realistic, first-person account of the rider. For all the bombast the Futurists unleashed in their manifestos, they rarely achieved its visual equivalent. Yet Crali evidences some clue as to how it might be done — by painting with bodily sensation foremost in mind. (Another painting of his on display — “Before the Parachute Opens” (1939) — provides a you-are-there view from just above the jumper’s head. Stepping out into the clouds, the parachutist seems hover as if pausing to contemplate his descent, his outstretched arms welcoming the void below.)
Perhaps it was the Guggenheim’s sloping floor, or maybe my own memory of vertiginous trips in tiny planes (no death loops, though), but as I stood in front of “Upside Down,” the world tilted ever so slightly and some decidedly unmechanical butterflies took flight in my stomach.
Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe continues at the Guggenheim Museum (1071 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through September 1.