Friday, April 4, 2014

Italian Futurism at the Guggenheim

By Charles Kessler

Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe (until September1st) is a major exhibition by any standard: 79 artists, 360 works (many brought over from Italy), and 50 different lenders. It's the first comprehensive overview of Italian Futurism in the United States, and Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum, with its swooping curves and vertiginous, disorienting views, is an ideal venue for this show. 

For the most part, Futurism is rehashed and refashioned pointillism and cubism. Roberta Smith, referring to how dated Futurist painting and sculpture looks, wrote: "They almost seem like satires of Modernism, or maybe Modernism for beginners."
Detail: Umberto Boccioni, The City Rises (La citt√† che sale), 1910–11, oil on canvas (The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund, 1951, digital image © The Museum of Modern Art, licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, New York).
Giacomo  Balla, Paths of Movement + Dynamic Sequences (Linee andamentali + successioni dinamiche), 1913, tempera on paper laid on canvas, 49 x 68 cm. (Gianni Mattioli Collection, long-term loan to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, © Giacomo Balla, by SIAE 2008). 
And their self-conscious attempt at modern subject matter – motorcycles, steam locomotives, propeller airplanes, etc. – looks quaint today.
Tato (Guglielmo Sansoni), Flying over the Coliseum in a Spiral  (Sorvolando in spirale il Colosseo), 1930, oil on canvas, 80 x 80 cm. (Ventura Collection, Rome. Photo Corrado De Grazia).
Futurist art is tame in spite of the boastful, bombastic, and bellicose manifestos Futurist artists frequently published. Here are some excerpts from the first MANIFESTO OF FUTURISM, published in 1909:
  • We want to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness.
  • We want to glorify war — the only cure for the world — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.
  • We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.
  • We will sing of the great crowds agitated by work, pleasure and revolt; the multi-colored and polyphonic surf of revolutions in modern capitals: the nocturnal vibration of the arsenals and the workshops beneath their violent electric moons: the gluttonous railway stations devouring smoking serpents; factories suspended from the clouds by the thread of their smoke; bridges with the leap of gymnasts flung across the diabolic cutlery of sunny rivers: adventurous steamers sniffing the horizon; great-breasted locomotives, puffing on the rails like enormous steel horses with long tubes for bridle, and the gliding flight of aeroplanes whose propeller sounds like the flapping of a flag and the applause of enthusiastic crowds.
I used to read the Futurist Manifesto to my Art History undergraduates. They were horrified by the glorification of war and violence, of course. But eventually I got them to see an even more horrifying thing about it: the manifesto is thrilling. One needs to understand this to understand the terrifying (and dangerous) appeal of fascism. 

It's not surprising that many of the Futurists were super-patriots and promoted Italy's entry into World War I in the hope that war, "the only cure for the world," would rejuvenate Italy's static and decadent culture and bring it into the modern world of speed, machinery, youth and violence.

Apparently not learning anything from the brutality of World War I, many Futurist, most prominently the leader of the movement, the poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, became ardent supporters of Benito Mussolini and Italian Fascism. This lasted until the 1930s when Italian Fascists embraced the German Nazi's view of "degenerate art" and condemned Futurism. (And speaking of "degenerate art," the lines  are long for Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937 (until June 30th) at the Neue Museum. Get there early.)

The most interesting, albeit not original, thing about the Futurist movement is their belief in the integration of all the arts and crafts, and of "high" and "low" art. One of the glories of this exhibition is the clothing, ceramics, publications, architecture, film, furniture, and even Futurist toys, that are on display.
Fortunato Depero, Futurist Waistcoat (Panciotto futurista), 1923. pieced wool on cotton backing, approximately 52 × 45 cm. (private collection © 2014, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome. Photo: Vittorio Calore).
Installation view, Gerardo Dottori, Cimino home dining room set, early 1930s 
And of course there is a lot of thrilling painting to see too, like Ivo Pannaggi's, Speeding Train, hurtling toward the viewer at a diagonal; you can feel the power, noise and speed of the train.
Ivo Pannaggi, Speeding Train (Treno in corsa), 1922, oil on canvas, 39 x 47 inches (Fondazione Carima–Museo Palazzo Ricci, Macerata, Italy).
Pannaggi's painting, and Futurist art in general, would be more convincing if it were large. Almost all Futurist painting is easel-size and loses power because of it. Some of the exceptions are the late murals painted by Benedetta (the wife of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the stridently anti-feminist leader of Futurism). It's the only Futurist art on view that has the necessary scale to truly evoke Futurism's "modernist" vision.
Left: original site of Benedetta (Cappa Marinetti) murals from a conference room in a Palermo post office, 1933-34, tempera and encaustic on canvas, each about  7 x 10 feet; right: installation view, top floor of the Guggenheim.
That the Guggenheim was able to borrow these murals was a real coup, and it's indicative of the lengths they went to in order to make such an extensive and comprehensive exhibition. 

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