Modernism on Speed

John Haber
in New York City

Italian Futurism: Reconstructing the Universe

Can a movement devoted to speed have stumbled so slowly to an ending? One can see Futurism as a sudden and all too transient burst of speed. In just three years, starting in 1910, Italian art found its way from Post-Impressionism to a new style—a tribute to motion itself and modernity. And then it was gone, or at least its great work was over.

The title of a 1922 work by perhaps its finest painter, Giacomo Balla, tells of its fate: The Spell Is Broken, but even that may sound like a belated confession. Futurism had already lost much of what Umberto Boccioni called in another title its Muscular Dynamism, a victim of war and of a movement's growing cold. Boccioni himself died in World War I, and the group's nominal leader, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, lay among the wounded. Their ideology and style alike had hardened as well, but then that happens to "isms." On the scale of the twentieth century, even Cubism passed in the blink of an eye. Umberto Boccioni's The City Rises (Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund, Museum of Modern Art, 1910–1911)

The Guggenheim has other ideas. It follows a loose circle from 1909, the year of the first Futurist Manifesto, to 1944. At every step, too, it proclaims Futurism's staying power and influence. It argues for a second birth in the mid-1920s, with new artists, new subjects, and media well beyond painting and sculpture. In commercial design, the movement anticipates the elevation of craft and popular culture alongside painting and sculpture today. The lengthy survey may end up only reducing Futurism's stature, but it recovers quite a history.

Taking the modern literally

With Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Cubism, Modernism went beyond the visual, to evoke every one of five senses. With Dada and Surrealism, it took art into the realm of ideas, found objects, and dark dreams. In inventing abstraction, it left representation behind altogether. For them all, anything was fair game—text or a musical score, the rhythms of color or of line, the texture of sand or the simulated texture of wallpaper. Futurism saw simply a representation of space and time more suited to modernity. Faced with ambiguity, it took Modernism literally.

Was it simple-minded—or simply truer to modern life? The Guggenheim's curator, Vivien Greene, sees an art of the machine, the industrial city, and speed, and she likes what she sees. She sees a movement aspiring to what Richard Wagner in German opera had called the total work of art. And she sees it as needing thirty-five years and a litany of unfamiliar names to achieve that totality. She also sees contradictions easily papered over in its early years, but contradictions that might almost save it from criticism as a tool of Fascism. And yet it grew further from invention and closer to collaboration with political oppression the longer it lived.

One can see the contradictions coming in a close look at that first manifesto. Marinetti, its author, called for "militarism" and "patriotism," but he first published the manifesto in Le Figaro in French. He rooted Futurism in a nation, but it aspired to the universal. It reached out in journals, poetry, theater, public readings, and manifesto after manifesto, often in translation. Balla and another artist, Fortunato Depero, even titled a 1915 manifesto, "Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe," as a boast of its breadth. With "Reconstructing the Universe" as its subtitle, the exhibition plainly agrees.

Marinetti demanded to abolish "the museums, the libraries," but he later sought to have the movement declared Italy's official art. He embraced Mussolini, but Il Duce did not exactly return the favor. He wrote that "there is no more beauty apart from struggle," but Futurism itself became a casualty of war—and of Marinetti's death during World War II. He wanted "to combat feminism," but at least four women joined the cause. True, one painted Marinetti's portrait, as almost a pagan idol, and one married him. Yet the latter, Benedetta Cappa (or simply Benedetta), also ends the show on a high point, with a mural that America may never see again.

Is an art of contradictions inherently modern? It also suits a movement obsessed with the very idea of contention. One can see the tensions in High Gallery, the tall opening gallery just off the ramp, with Boccioni's best-known sculpture and charcoal drawings. All from 1912 and 1913, they make an effective prelude. They include the volume of Development of a Bottle in Space, but also the luminous in Head + House + Light. They include Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, a heroic striding figure, but also Antigraceful, a gnarled male head.

One can see the contradictions, too, with the survey's earliest work. It includes Carlo Carrà's Theater at Night from 1910, suggesting that art and beauty may matter after all, but also Boccioni's Riot in the Galleria, suggesting that the working class might not agree. It includes a gritty realism, in Luigi Russolo's Suburb Work. But does Russolo show factories littering the afternoon sky, a burst of sunlight through the smoke, or a full moon piercing the darkness of night? All these subjects will carry through to the movement's end. Its artists will create actual theaters, but they will also film a theater going up in smoke.

Shifting into gear

The show runs more or less chronologically, not unreasonably for a movement about motion. The first ramp has the first Futurist Manifesto in Le Figaro, with excerpts on the wall in English. (To test one's language skills further, a voice recites the entirety in Italian.) Sure enough, the origins of Italy's signature art lay Paris. Another early champion, Gino Severini, had his studio there, and others came to see him. They soon headed back to Italy, though, and things shift into gear.

They shift hesitantly at first. The earliest work takes a tentative approach to Modernism, a caution that will haunt Futurism forever. Balla's Streetlight of around 1911 still clings to the Divisionism of Georges Seurat and Paul Signac from more than twenty years before—with short streaks of pure color emanating from the light. Then, too, if the artists soon turn to a kind of stop-action painting, Marcel Duchamp provided an impetus, with Nude Descending a Staircase in 1912. And where New York saw a scandal, at the 1913 Armory Show, Futurism saw only the descent.

Still, things get better fast, in that devotion to struggle and to speed. Carrà in 1911 pays tribute to an anarchist's funeral, in a torrent of dark bodies almost blocking a bright sky. Not incidentally, at least one founding figure was thus on the left. The year also brings to completion Boccioni's The City Rises, with a clash of working men in front of buildings under construction. Boccioni turns out to be Futurism's most consistent painter, too, with a stronger color, a greater clarity, and a greater density than any. Naturally he introduced them in a work devoted to Simultaneous Visions.

Stop-action motion appears more directly in Balla's violinist and speeding car, as well as Severini's blue dancer. The theme appears in photographs as well, by Anton Giulio Bragaglia—influenced by Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey in the previous century. The prewar years also introduce a welcome turn from mass to what Severini calls Spherical Expansion of Light. Russolo's and Balla's blue circles radiate outward in the atmosphere as they move swiftly across the canvas. Things will not get any better than this, and the show is not even half over. The Guggenheim displays well over three hundred objects, including documents and a diversity of media.

The survey calls its third ramp the "heroic years," but already the heroism is all but over (and, I think, was deserving of more space at the Guggenheim). The contradictions have not vanished either. The steel framework of Boccioni's buildings was advanced architecture, but he places a bull and a horse at the painting's center. This may be urban realism, but it still measures modernity in horsepower. It also treats the future as a macho fantasy. Its themes and impulses are now in place, and so are its limits.

Those limits become more and more obvious. The longer Futurism stretches out, the more its simplification of Modernism takes over. Already in 1916, such lesser artists as Mario Sironi settle for a blockier Cubism and pale reminders of Wassily Kandinsky. The second Futurism of the 1920s makes its realism plainer still. It also brings yet another contradiction. That history includes a narrowing surrender to Fascism, but also a greater diversity of achievement in search of that total work of art.

Beyond the heroics

The prewar years already step beyond painting and sculpture. Mario Chiattone turns from depicting the modern metropolis to designing it, The crisp surfaces of his apartments and industrial towers have a parallel in Precisionism in America, while their looming curves have a parallel in Frank Lloyd Wright and with Wright in the city, as unpacked in Wright's archives. Bragalio and his brother Arturo were to try their hand at film soon after, with Thais in 1916. In the course of just four minutes, a woman gropes tentatively with a stage set as it collapses about her. Well before the Bauhaus, Futurists are also moving into design and theater, but they must first come up against a war.

Naturally they embraced it, even while becoming casualties. Marinetti called it "the only hygiene in the world." Severini painted Red Cross trains, armored trains, and canons in action. Balla's Patriotic Demonstration approaches abstraction, in swirling black and silver against deep green planes and flickers of red and blue. And unlike the war poets in England, Dada in France, and so much else of Europe, they show not a trace of disillusionment. The remaining paintings still have plenty of speeding trains and motorboats. They also take to the air, like Roger de La Fresnaye and Robert Delaunay in France, although later in the game.

Virgilio Marchi sketches his fantastic city as seen from the air around 1919, and Guglielmo Sansoni (going by the name Tato) spirals over the Coliseum in 1930. The Coliseum served as an emblem of a prouder Rome as well, and flag-waving only increases after the fascist revolution. Tullio Crali does not allude to Fascism directly, with Before the Parachute Opens in 1939, but others will depict air combat in World War II. Marinetti had met in Mussolini during World War I, but the latter had no interest in taking up the cause of the German Expressionism that Hitler considered "Degenerate Art." More important, Fascism atrophied an already literal form of art.

All that rescue the show's last half from patriotic kitsch are other media—and the contradictions. Already in 1913 Balla is designing men's suits, and in 1917 he designs a set for Igor Stravinsky's Fireworks. True to Futurism's literalism, he greets the fireworks in the music with bursts of stage lighting. And the turn to design really gets going in the 1920s. Balla crafts a tea set and coffee service, Giovanni Acquaviva and Nicolaj Diulgheroff ceramics, and Gerardo Dottori dining room furniture. Depero designs men's waistcoats and marionettes, as clowns and devils for his puppet theater. His mix of creativity and consumerism also includes a pavilion styled after the firm's initials in block capitals, advertising, and a cover for Vanity Fair in 1930, right when Edward Steichen was working as chief photographer for Condé Nast.

The show's most singular achievement may be to rescue Depero from oblivion or the footnotes. And, yes, the Guggenheim's other important discovery is women—with an aerial photograph by Olga Biglieri (who styled herself Barbara), Giannina Censi in a mannered "Eurythmic dance," Rùzena Zátková in that hideous portrait of Marinetti, and Benedetta. She offers one of Futurism's grandest if also most placid representations of motion, a speeding motorboat. She also has the tower gallery beyond the ramps for five tall murals completed in 1934, as a playful but majestic conference room for a post office in Palermo, Sicily. Benedetta's tempera picks up the paler blues of true fresco, but with a freedom close to whimsy. Synthesis of Communications carries the eye over oceans and mountain peaks, across radio waves and telegraphy, and into the staggered depths of an overland tunnel, and of course modern communications travel fast.

The show's success may hinge on what one thinks not just of motion in art, but of the very idea of a movement. Was second-generation Abstract Expressionism as for Michael Goldberg a continuation or a departure, a sign of life or a sign of its irrelevance? And what of the resurgence of abstraction and gesture today? Was Marinetti's leadership enough to ensure continuity, or did he obliterate Futurism's early diversity by dedicating it to Fascism and the dead? At least he ended that first manifesto on a high note. Nous lançons encore une fois le défi insolent aux étoiles ("We launch once again an insolent, defiant challenge to the stars"), but one may remember more the defiance than the art or the stars.

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"Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe" ran at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through September 1, 2014.


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