Back to the Futurism
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Just two blocks up from the Neue Galerie’s exploration of Nazi era “Degenerate Art,” a Guggenheim exhibit on Futurism takes a different look at the tangled question of art and fascism. Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe, billed as “the first comprehensive overview in the United States of one of Europe’s most important 20th-century avant-garde movements,” presents Futurist works by artists, architects, designers, photographers, writers and musicians in an exhaustive exhibition that is stylistically well suited to Frank Lloyd Wright’s space age spiral.
Ordered chronologically, the exhibition begins with a framed clipping of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s (1876-1944) founding Futurist manifesto in Le Figaro, published in 1909, and ends the year of Marinetti’s death. Curator Vivien Greene speculates that many of the artists who joined Marinetti’s movement are little known outside of Italy because of “Futurism’s sometime association with Fascism.”
Indeed, Marinetti’s original Futurist manifesto has not aged well. The document states an intention to “glorify war” and display “contempt for woman,” to exalt aggression, “the slap and the punch,” to “destroy museums, libraries and academies of every sort” and argues a racing car “is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace,” the Louvre’s ancient Greek winged marble masterpiece. Marinetti was also an early, active supporter of Mussolini and enlisted to fight against the Allied Powers in World War II.
Despite its unsettling rhetoric, this thorough account of Italian Futurism is interesting. An art movement devised in the shadows of Western art history’s greatest achievements, Futurists sought an appropriate form of creative expression for a rapidly changing world. Rather than withdraw from modernity, the Futurist painters and sculptors attempted to convey visual sensations unique to industrialization, like speeding trains, electric lamplight, scenes of newly constructed factories, and aviation. Vivien Greene states that “to be a Futurist in the Italy of the early twentieth century was to be modern, young, insurgent.” According to Greene, these artists wanted to “revitalize what they saw as a static, decaying culture and an impotent nation that looked to the past for its identity.”
Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916), an enthusiastic adherent to the Futurist cause, is perhaps the most famous artist in this exhibit and a number of his iconic works are here. Adept in both painting and sculpture, Boccioni also penned Futurist manifestos. And in keeping with Futurism’s professed militarism, the multi-talented artist enlisted for combat during World War I and died from an injury incurred during an army training exercise.
A room of Boccioni’s sculptures and preparatory drawings is a highpoint of this exhibition. “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space,” 1913, a cast-bronze figure striding forward, musculature modeled into flowing, wave-like forms to convey movement, feels remarkably inventive, despite the fact the piece is a century old. And “Development of a Bottle in Space,” 1912, Boccioni’s deconstructed still life of a wine bottle cut open and twisted into curving ramps, looks like a scale model by Frank Lloyd Wright, perhaps like a maquette for the Guggenheim itself.
A number of Boccioni’s paintings are here, including “The City Rises,” 1910–11, an ambitious, prismatic work that churns with movement. Made with dashed directional strokes, a Divisionist painting technique, there are no hard edges in this scene of an urban construction site, blurred forms flowing into one another.
Nearby, Giacomo Balla’s (1871-1958) “The Hand of the Violinist (The Rhythms of the Bow),” 1912, is also a Divisionist work. Balla was influenced by the motion-capturing photographic experiments of Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) and Étienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904) and in this work he combines a musician’s multiple hand movements into a single painting.
Gino Severini (1883-1966) was familiar with Cubism from a stint in Montmartre and “Armored Train in Action,” 1915, uses angular Cubist planes in a vertical composition aestheticizing riflemen and tank fire.
Mario Sironi (1885-1961) enlisted as a cyclist volunteer in World War I and after the war supported Mussolini. Distinguishing himself here from his full-spectrum, Futurist comrades, Sironi painted with a subtle, somber palette. “Il Ciclista,” 1916, features a bicyclist on a country road, a picture notable for its elegant use of black.
At the top of the Guggenheim ramp, a later phase of Futurist artworks incorporating aerial perspectives from planes complements the Guggenheim’s ascending architecture. Second generation Futurist Benedetta Cappa (1897–1977) was Marinetti’s wife and a practitioner of “Aeropittura,” capturing the sensation of flight in bright oil-on-canvas compositions.
The heavily historic approach of this exhibition provides welcome context for a complicated and contradictory art movement. Though many Futurists rejected the art of the past, calling for the destruction of the museum, time-honored materials like plaster and oil paint were not abandoned. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, Futurists tried to integrate modern experiences with the traditional formal concerns of painting and sculpture, attempting to wrest speed of motion from a static art form, expressing both rebellion toward and allegiance to artistic tradition.
Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe, on view through September 1, 2014, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY, 212-423-3587, www.guggenheim.org
More information about Xico Greenwald’s work can be found at xicogreenwald.com