‘Italian Futurism, 1909-1944,’ at the Guggenheim

Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe” runs through Sept. 1 at the Guggenheim Museum.

In Thrall to Machines, War and a More Manly Future.

Was any avowedly modern art movement as obnoxious and noisily contradictory as Italian Futurism? By turn aesthetically revolutionary and politically reactionary, farsighted and visually challenged, not to mention officially misogynist, it is both a stain on the Modernist brand and a point of pride. It needs all the help it can get and it receives a large dose from “Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe,” an epic exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum.

From the first of its many manifestoes, which its founder Filippo Tommaso Marinetti published in 1909, Futurism exalted not only the fast, powerful machines of modernity but virility, patriotism and war — “the world’s only hygiene” — while it encouraged “scorn for women” and for feminism, and promised the destruction of “museums, libraries, academies of every kind.” The Futurists embraced the advent of World War I in hopes that it would rid Italian society of its decadence and catapult it, purified, into the fast-changing present. After the war, Marinetti became an early and ardent Fascist and a confidant of Mussolini and campaigned for Futurism to be declared the official national style. But Il Duce was relatively tolerant of artistic diversity (compared with Hitler); it didn’t happen. Marinetti, never one for consistency, would eventually become an academician.

But at the same time, Futurism cannot be denied. It had a liberating effect on many mediums, laying the groundwork for much of what we view as advanced poetry, music, performance art and graphic design, while also spreading into popular culture. To begin with, the painter-composer Luigi Russolo’s pursuit of noise music applied the concept of Duchamp’s ready-made to existing sound, setting the stage for John Cage. Similarly, it is hard to imagine Dada without Futurism’s declamatory poetry and the riotous performances of the same, in which Marinetti specialized. Painting? Not so much. With a few remarkable exceptions, mostly by Giacomo Balla, Futurist painting was generally little more than a souped-up, Cubified realism, although it remained its central concern.

This singular show contains around 360 works, by nearly 80 artists, architects, designers, photographers and writers, that have come from some 50 lenders. Nearly half are from Italian museums and archives that have lent artworks and printed matter that is rarely, if ever, seen outside the country. This includes five enormous murals celebrating modern communication painted for the Palermo post office in the early ’30s by Benedetta Cappa, one of the few female Futurists. She is better known as Benedetta and was Marinetti’s wife, an advocate for women and one of the better painters of Futurism’s second wave.

The show is accompanied by a thick catalog with essays by about 30 scholars and curators. And it is enhanced by a brilliant design by Jarrod Beck and Kelly Cullinan, two of the exhibition designers. Their plan interrupts the rotunda’s smooth, organic spiral with intimations of machines and moving parts in the form of additional curved walls that often harbor streamlined vitrines for rafts of books, magazines and manifestoes the Futurists produced.

Most important, unlike most previous Futurist exhibitions, this one is not limited to the movement’s “heroic phase,” which often concludes at the onset of World War I, well before the rise of Fascism. Organized by Vivien Greene, the museum’s senior curator of 19th- and early-20th-century European art, it contains much from the movement’s next phase, called Second Futurism, finishing close to 1944, the year Marinetti died. In Second Futurism, new believers become dominant — including the multitalented painter Fortunato Depero — and the art itself turned more benign, consistent and decorative. Seeing Futurism morph and take on new mediums and ideas — such as its infatuation with the airplane — enriches its story, contradictions and all, as does the experience of feeling the show relax and lighten as it moves up the ramp. This exhibition contains multitudes, including an ample examination of its publications and graphic design, and mini-retrospectives of Balla and Depero, whose work repeatedly attracts the eye.

The displays devoted to Futurism’s first decades are dominated by painting, sculpture and, most spectacularly, the amazing word drawings whereby Marinetti, whose métier was writing, liberated poetry on the page. He called them “words in liberty” — although noises in liberty sometimes seems more accurate — and there are several groups of them throughout the show, both originals and printed versions on book and magazine covers or pages that beguile and challenge. Two short films give a visceral idea of the verbal acrobatics with which words in liberty poems were performed, and the audience’s often raucous response, along with snippets of Russolo’s music.

What’s striking is how dated heroic Futurist painting and sculpture can look. They almost seem like satires of Modernism, or maybe Modernism for beginners. In the show’s earliest paintings by Russolo, Balla, Umberto Boccioni and Gino Severini, the style emerges from a pastiche of Expressionism, Pointillism and its offspring Divisionism, jolted by Cubism. The Futurist classics on hand include Carra’s roiling “Funeral of the Anarchist Galli,” from 1910, and Boccioni’s “The City Rises,” from 1910-11 and “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space,” from 1913 (a life-size bronze of a seemingly armored striding man). It’s great to see these works with more of their kind — especially the Boccioni sculptures and drawings, which have the High Gallery to themselves. Still, they pinpoint a prevalent problem: Too much Futurist painting and sculpture results from blurring forms, not really altering or penetrating them. The giveaway may be a group of photographs of people’s delicately blurred heads from 1911 by Anton Giulio Bragaglia that achieve much the same effect.

One exception is Severini, whose “Blue Dancer” of 1911 formulates a Pointillist-Cubo-Futurist hybrid infused with joy (somewhat rare in heroic Futurism). Another is Balla, the Futurist who seems to have felt most at home with abstraction, as indicated by the Guggenheim’s “Abstract Speed + Sound” of 1913-14, a small painting whose bounding curves of red, green, white and silver feel contemporary in part because of careful touches that evoke spray painting and stencils.

In the years after the war, Futurist painting largely abandoned cars and trains to fall wackily in love with realistic vertiginous views from airplanes that suggest a jazzed-up Socialist Realism. By now, the show’s mediums have expanded to include ceramics by several artists, theater costume and set design by Enrico Prampolini, toys, animation, a group of stunning men’s vests and a Futurist-Art Deco dining room ensemble by Gerardo Dottori.

The high points include Depero’s Campari ads, his beautifully stylized drawings and a 1918 series of colorful preparatory works on paper and sculptures, and one charming painting for the “The Plastic Ballet,” a kind of commedia dell’arte puppet show. Set off in their own small gallery, they can evoke “The Wizard of Oz” as if done by Walt Disney. And you can’t miss Depero’s exuberant “Stormy Patriot Marinetti: Psychological Portrait” and its outsize silver frame or his large model of a cement-coated kiosk designed for a publishing house’s promotion at a book fair. Made almost entirely of big, blocky letters, it was constructed at one-third actual size for this exhibition.

From Balla, there are three colorful studies for Hockney-like stage sets for Igor Stravinsky’s “Fireworks” (an early composition for orchestra that presaged his epochal ballet “Firebird”), along with 34 detailed pencil studies for an abstract animated film to be set to the music. It was not made until 2010, when a group of entertainment technology students at Carnegie Mellon University produced a delightful facsimile. And Balla’s “Numbers in Love” from 1920-23, a startlingly prescient painting whose extruded numerals and planes recall the Futurist love of speed, also suggests a 1960s artist trying to reconcile Pop Art and hard-edge abstraction.

The final surprise is Marinetti’s 1920 “Sudan-Paris,” a small assemblage whose combination of sandpaper, small brushes, a grater, silk, velvet and feathers conjures postwar artists from Piero Manzoni, Robert Rauschenberg and Edward Kienholz forward. It exemplifies Tactilism, which Marinetti and Benedetta formulated as textured art made in part to be touched and which occasioned the obligatory manifesto.

“Sudan-Paris” and a similar, more sophisticated work by Prampolini creates the impression that even with this phenomenal show of shows, Futurism still has its secrets.


“Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe” runs through Sept. 1 at the Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, at 88th Street, (212) 423-3500.