Great Escapes

02.21.14

Rehabilitating Italian Futurism at the Guggenheim Museum

The Italian Futurists were prepared to overturn the world as they knew it to achieve their ideal world. A new exhibit looks at the intense rise and fall of the art movement.

The whole idea was to take the entire known world—its ideas, its institutions, its buildings—tear them apart, and rebuild another one in its place.

“We want to exalt movements of aggression, feverish sleeplessness, the double march, the perilous leap, the slap and the blow with the fist,” declared F.T. Marinetti in “The Futurist Manifesto,” which appeared 105 years ago this month on the front pages of Le Figaro.

There was more—museums and libraries were to be demolished, poetry to be a “violent assault on the forces of the unknown.” Machines and their corollary, speed, were not harbingers of a post-human age but to be exalted as humanity’s finest achievements.

The Guggenheim Museum in New York gives the movement’s output and ideas a proper airing in a new show, titled Italian Futurism 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe, open through September 1.

The wide-ranging exhibit draws on the long arc of Futurism from its earliest manifesto, through its second-generation experiments with Symbolism and Cubism, and ending, finally, when its more radical elements had met the hard shoals of reality at the end of the Second World War.

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Benedetta (Cappa Marinetti), Synthesis of Aerial Communications (Sintesi delle comunicazioni aeree), 1933–34. (AGR/Riccardi/Paoloni)

It includes not just the group’s many manifestos (and there are many—perhaps no collection of artists could manifest quite like the Futurists), poems, and paintings, but also assorted ephemera—advertising, Futurist tableware, film, and, perhaps most surprisingly, Futurist performance, including a proposed ballet by Ballet Russes which eliminated actual dancers and narrative in favor of lighting and set design (the work was only performed once before succumbing to a labor dispute between the theater and technicians).

The Guggenheim show represents the largest exhibit of Futurism’s output in the U.S. Such historical surveys have a tendency to drag by the time a visitor reaches the end, in this case nearly 400 objects later. But Italian Futurism does not, even up through the top floor display of the five canvases the make up Synthesis of Communications, a series of almost WPA-style canvases done by Benedetta, Marinetti’s wife, that hung in a Palermo Post Office and is being shown in the U.S. for the first time. Part of the reason is the nature of the Guggenheim’s own futuristic layout—its winding staircase leads viewers onward through history in a way that is good for looking at the progression of the past, even if it can be a lousy place to view art. And part of it is because the show continues to delight and surprise at practically every turn. Historical retrospectives, particularly when focused on something as based in the present moment as some of the performances here, have a tendency to sap the original energy of the moment; in this exhibit, reconstructions, mostly from the documentary filmmaker Jen Sachs, bring the without-a-net performance aspects of, say, a nonsense sound poetry reading alive.

“If there were going to be no libraries anyway, they wanted to provide the spark that lit the match that set the whole thing ablaze.”

Synthesis of Communications makes a fitting capstone. The vision here is a hopeful one, one of humanity sailing above an interconnected world, and the show itself rescues some of the optimism inherent in the project. The Futurists were standing on a technological promontory, one that dwarfed our own in the audacity of (to use the word of the moment) the disruption. But if the primary sound of our age is one of lament—look at these kids with their selfies and their MyFace or whatever—the Futurists plunged headlong into what lay ahead. If there were going to be no libraries anyway, they wanted to provide the spark that lit the match that set the whole thing ablaze.

It has been hard to look at much of this work for most of the last three-quarters of a century, since it presaged so much of what the worst of the 20th century would come to.  Among Marinetti’s tenets of the movement was “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.”

Marinetti was an enthusiastic cheerleader for World War 1. The rat-a-tat of the Tommy Gun, he thought, fit the sound of the age, the airplane the apogee of progess, and the damage incurred was merely collateral necessary for the world made new. In the process, he met Mussolini, who took the ideas of the Futurists more seriously than perhaps any of the practitioners imagined. In particular, there was the notion of opera d’arte totale (total work of art), in which the built environment was of, if not completely, a single mind, and at the least a single aesthetic, hence the title of 1915 manifesto (and title of the show) Futurist Reconstruction of The Universe. The drawings here look like something out of a Leni Riefenstahl film.

But the sins of the 20th century, as devastating as they were, cannot be lain entirely at the feet of its artists. If Reconstructing The Universe hopes to rehabilitate the Futurists’ reputation, it reveals that the movement’s best moments were not whirlwinds of sound and color, but actually of a quiet sublime, and it shows the complications of trying to make something truly new within very old forms. There is Gino Severini’s Blue Dancer, a breathtaking blue Cubist blur of color. There is Umberto Boccioni’s sculptures, which greet visitors upon entering the first gallery. And there is Giacomo Balla’s proto-Futurist Street Light, in which a light from the street burns against the background of the moon, a statement of what the future was to hold.