Guggenheim Museum Presents ‘Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe’

Richard Friswell
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Filippo Tommaso_Marinetti (1876-1944)

To be a Futurist in the Italy of the early twentieth century was to be modern, young, and insurgent. Inspired by the markers of modernity—the industrial city, machines, speed, and flight—Futurism’s adherents exalted the new and the disruptive. They sought to revitalize what they determined to be a static, decaying culture and an impotent nation that looked to the past for its identity. Italian Futurism began as a literary avant-garde, and the printed word was vital for this group. It was officially launched in 1909, when Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, an audacious Italian intellectual and iconoclast, published his “Founding and Manifesto of Futurism.” But rather than presenting his radical views in the conservative Italian press, he sought out a more receptive audience in avant-garde Paris, through its newspaper Le Figaro. artes fine arts magazine

Giacomo Balla, Abstract Speed + Sound (Velocità astratta + rumore), 1913–14, Oil on unvarnished millboard in artist’s painted frame, 54.5 x 76.5 cm. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice 76.2553.31 © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, RomePhoto: Courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York.

Manifestos, words-in-freedom poems, novels, and journals were intrinsic to the dissemination of Futurism’s ideas. But they soon embraced the visual and performing arts, politics, and even advertising. Futurist artists experimented with the fragmentation of form, the collapsing of time and space, the depiction of dynamic motion, and dizzying perspectives. Their style evolved from fractured elements in the 1910s to a mechanical language in the ’20s, and then to aerial imagery in the ’30s. No vanguard exists in a void—all are touched by their historical context. The Futurists’ celebration of war as a means to remake Italy and their support of Italy’s entrance into World War I also constitute part of the movement’s narrative, as does the later, complicated relationship between Futurism and Italian fascism.

The Guggenheim Museum exhibition conveys the spirit of Italian Futurism in all its www.artesmagazine.comcomplexity. The museum’s modernist architecture, itself, contributes to the impact of this groundbreaking work. Taking its cue from the Futurists’ concept of the “total work of art” (an ensemble that surrounds the viewer in a completely Futurist environment) and their aim to achieve a “reconstruction of the universe,” the multi-media exhibition integrates works on the walls of the rotunda, as it spirals upward. Objects are organized in a roughly chronological order, with filmic components bringing to life some of the movement’s more ephemeral activities, such as performance and declamation.

Left: Solomon R.  Guggenheim Museum, New York

The Futurists were insurrectionary and stridently vocal, and thus Italian Futurism welcomes a certain amount of visual and aural cacophony. Futurism was punctuated by paradoxes: while predominantly anti-feminine, it had active female participants; while calling for a breakdown between “high” and “low” culture, it valued painting above other forms of expression; while glorifying the machine, its proponents nevertheless shied away from the mechanized medium of film.

Italian Futurists, l to r: Luigi Russolo, Carlo Carra, Filippi Tomasso Marinetti, Umberto Boccioni, Gino Severini    (c. 1912)


By 1929, the artists who had denounced traditional institutions saw their leader, Marinetti, rescind many of his anti-establishment views to become a member of the conservative Academy of Italy. Many other revolutionary Futurists ultimately complied in some way with Mussolini’s Fascist regime, coveting favor as they turned their artistic talents to yet another radical political movement. The Guggenheim comprehensive exhibition does not turn a blind eye to the fact the many futurists ended up on the wrong side of history in the years leading up to World War II—a fact reflected in the bellicose themes of most of the works complete in the 1930s-40s. For many at the exhibition, winding their way to the upper levels of the show, this shift in focus toward militaristic motifs was a turn-off.

Early Futurism

With his provocative 1909 manifesto launching the Futurist movement, F. T. Marinetti outlined a philosophy rather than an artistic technique. Over the next few years, avant-garde artists who associated with him struggled to give pictorial form to the ideas belligerently voiced in the founding manifesto.

Right: Luigi Russolo,“The Art of Noises: Futurist Manifesto” (“L’arte dei rumori: Manifesto futurista”), Leaflet (Milan: Direzione del Movimento Futurista, 1913), 29.2 x 23 cm. Wolfsoniana–Fondazione regionale per la Cultura e lo Spettacolo, Genoa. By permission of heirs of the artist. Photo: Courtesy Wolfsoniana–Fondazione regionale per la Cultura e lo Spettacolo, Genoa.

In their early forays, first-generation Futurists such as Giacomo Balla, Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo, and Gino Severini painted in a Divisionist manner, which is characterized by defined brushstrokes of intense, individual hues. While this method looked back to an earlier Italian style, the Futurist painters broke with their forebears. In their works, jagged forms erupt, force lines vividly describe motion, and imagery is agitated and abstracted. Despite certain stylistic divergences, all the artists addressed archetypal Futurist themes: the city, modern life, and political insurgence. Then, in the fall of 1911, Boccioni and Carrà visited Severini, who lived in Paris, and saw French Cubism firsthand. This pivotal experience gave the Italians more formal tools to fully develop their own modernist praxis.

Filippo Masoero, Descending over San Pietro (Scendendo su San Pietro), ca. 1927–37 (possibly 1930–33) Gelatin silver print, 24 x 31.5 cm. Touring Club Italiano Archive.

The Futurists’ endeavors in visual art coincided with experiments in other disciplines. They used manifestos and declamatory texts to codify the movement’s ideas regarding music, painting, politics, and theater. Anton Giulio Bragaglia worked with his brother Arturo to capture movement in photographs, developing a method called photodynamism. Performance proved one of the Futurists’ most revolutionary creative outlets. Marinetti orchestrated legendary serate, confrontational, politicized multimedia performances that often escalated into violent melees. These events came to define avant-garde art as action for generations to come. Russolo began inventing instruments to generate mechanized sounds such as buzzing, gurgling, and popping, and created radical sonic soundscapes. His noise compositions, which refer to the sounds of the modern world, soon joined the realm of Futurist performance.

Umberto Boccioni, Elasticity (Elasticità), 1912, Oil on canvas, 100 x 100 cm, Museo del Novecento, Milan. Photo: Luca Carrà © Museo del Novecento, Comune di Milano–all legal rights reserved.

Among the many artists and writers who called themselves Futurists, the young Umberto Boccioni participated in the founding of Futurism, becoming the movement’s most important sculptor. He worked primarily in plaster, but the majority of his plaster sculpture was inadvertently destroyed soon after his untimely death in the war, in 1916. The casting of the posthumous bronzes on view here was overseen by F. T. Marinetti, Futurism’s leader, and, later, by the artist Benedetta, Marinetti’s wife. Boccioni’s 1912 “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture” and his book Futurist Painting and Sculpture (written in 1912 and published in 1914), reflect the similarities between his theory of motion and that of French philosopher Henri Bergson. In fact the writings of both Bergson and French sculptor Auguste Rodin influenced Boccioni as he developed his groundbreaking concept of dinamismo plastico (plastic dynamism).

Boccioni consciously avoided Cubist techniques and the multiplication of the image www.artesmagazine.comfavored by other Futurists, such as Giacomo Balla. Boccioni devised the original idea of “unique forms” in early 1913 when his principal artistic interest shifted from painting to sculpture. He used the phrase to refer to forms that represent the synthesis of a body’s phases of motion—as movement unfolds, the body changes shape in spiral patterns while retaining a plastic unity. Boccioni demonstrated the principle in his iconic sculpture, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913), included in the exhibition. In one of the many paradoxes of Futurism, Boccioni used nineteenth-century sculptural materials such as plaster to experiment with radical depictions of motion.

Above, left: Umberto Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (Forme uniche della continuità nello spazio), 1913 (cast 1949), Bronze, 121.3 x 88.9 x 40 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Lydia Winston Malbin, 1989. Image Source: Art Resource, New York © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Ivo Pannaggi. Speeding Train (Treno in corsa), 1922, Oil on canvas, 100 x 120 cm. Fondazione Carima–Museo Palazzo Ricci, Macerata, Italy. Photo: Courtesy Fondazione Cassa di risparmio della Provincia di Macerata.

Futurism was launched in 1909 against a background of growing economic and social upheaval in Europe. Marinetti’s manfesti garnered attention because of his arresting personality and revolutionary views, among them: to abolish the past; to champion modernization; and to extol aggression. Although it began as a literary movement, Futurism soon embraced the visual arts as well as advertising, fashion, music and theater, and it spread throughout Italy and beyond. The Futurists rejected stasis and tradition and drew inspiration from the emerging industrial era, glorification of machinery—specifically the speed and power of the automobile and aeroplane—and the romanticism of the modern metropolis.

The first generation of artists created works characterized by dynamic movement and www.artesmagazine.comfractured forms, aspiring to break with existing notions of space and time to place the viewer at the center of the artwork. Extending into many mediums, Futurism was intended to be not just an artistic idiom but an entirely new way of life. Central to the movement was the concept of the opera d’arte totale or “total work of art,” in which the viewer is surrounded by a completely Futurist environment.

Left: Carlo Carrà, Interventionist Demonstration (Manifestazione Interventista), 1914. Tempera, pen, mica powder, and paper glued on cardboard, 38.5 x 30 cm. Gianni Mattioli Collection, on long-term loan to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice. © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome. Photo: Courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York.

More than two thousand individuals were associated with the movement over its duration. In addition to Marinetti, central figures include: artists Giacomo Balla, www.artesmagazine.comBenedetta (Benedetta Cappa Marinetti), Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Fortunato Depero, and Enrico Prampolini; poets and writers Francesco Cangiullo and Rosa Rosà; architect Antonio Sant’Elia; composer Luigi Russolo; photographers Anton Giulio Bragaglia and Tato (Guglielmo Sansoni); dancer Giannina Censi; and ceramicist Tullio d’Albisola. These figures and other lesser-known ones are represented in the exhibition.

Right:Fortunato Depero. Heart Eaters (Mangiatori di cuori), 1923, Painted wood, 36.5 x 23 x 10 cm. Private collection. © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome. Photo: Vittorio Calore.

Below, left:  Giacomo Balla, The Hand of the Violinist (The Rhythms of the Bow) (La mano del violinista  [I ritmi dell’archetto]), 1912, Oil on canvas, 56 x 78.3 cm. Estorick Collection, London © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome.

Futurism is commonly understood to have had two phases: “heroic” Futurism, which www.artesmagazine.comlasted until around 1916, and a later incarnation that arose after World War I and remained active until the early 1940s. Investigations of “heroic” Futurism have predominated and comparatively few exhibitions have explored the subsequent life of the movement; until now, a comprehensive overview of Italian Futurism had yet to be presented in the U.S. Italian art of the 1920s and ’30s is little known outside of its home country, due in part to a taint from Futurism’s sometime association with Fascism. This association complicates the narrative of this avant-garde and makes it all the more necessary to delve into and clarify its full history.

Tullio Crali, Before the Parachute Opens (Prima che si apra il paracadute), 1939, Oil on panel, 141 x 151 cm. Casa Cavazzini, Museo d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Udine, Italy © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome. Photo: Claudio Marcon, Udine, Civici Musei e Gallerie di Storia e Arte.

Along the way, it gained new practitioners and underwent several stylistic evolutions—shifting from the fractured spaces of the 1910s to the machine aesthetics (or arte meccanica) of the ’20s, and then to the softer, lyrical forms of the ’30s. Aviation’s popularity and nationalist significance in 1930s Italy led to the swirling, often abstracted, aerial imagery of Futurism’s final incarnation, aeropittura. This novel painting approach united the Futurist interest in nationalism, speed, technology, and war with new and dizzying visual perspectives. The fascination with the aerial spread to other mediums, including ceramics, dance, and experimental aerial photography.

Italian Futurism unfolds chronologically, juxtaposing works in different mediums as it traces the myriad artistic languages the Futurists employed as their practice evolved over a 35-year period. The exhibition begins with an exploration of the manifesto as an art form, and proceeds to the Futurists’ catalytic encounter with Cubism in 1911, their exploration of near-abstract compositions, and their early efforts in photography. Ascending the rotunda levels of the museum, visitors follow the movement’s progression as it expanded to include architecture, clothing, design, dinnerware, experimental poetry, and toys.

The exhibition is enlivened by three films commissioned from documentary filmmaker www.artesmagazine.comJen Sachs, which use archival film footage, documentary photographs, printed matter, writings, recorded declamations, and musical compositions to represent the Futurists’ more ephemeral work and to bring to life their words-in-freedom poems. One film addresses the Futurists’ evening performances and events, called serate, which merged “high” and “low” culture in radical ways and broke down barriers between spectator and performer. Mise-en-scène installations evoke the Futurists’ opera d’arte totale interior ensembles, from those executed for the private sphere to those realized under Fascism.

Above, left: Enrico Prampolini and Maria Ricotti, with cover by Prampolini. Program for the Theater of Futurist Pantomime (Théâtre de la Pantomine Futuriste), Illustrated leaflet (Paris: M. & J. de Brunoff, 1927), 27.5 x 22.7 cm. Fonds Alberto Sartoris, Archives de la construction moderne–Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Switzerland. By permission of heirs of the artist. Photo: Jean-Daniel Chavan.

Benedetta (Benedetta Cappa Marinetti), Synthesis of Aerial Communications (Sintesi delle comunicazioni aeree), 1933–34, Tempera and encaustic on canvas, 324.5 x 199 cm. Palazzo delle Poste di Palermo, Sicily, Poste Italiane © Benedetta Cappa Marinetti, used by permission of Vittoria Marinetti and Luce Marinetti’s heirs. Photo: AGR/Riccardi/Paoloni.

The exhibition, Italian Futurism, 1909-1944, Reconstructing the Universe, reflects on a period in early 20th century history when art, science, politics and industry were on a shared collision course. Artists, like the French Cubists and Dadaists, Italian Futurists, German Expressionists and Russian Constructivists shared a common believe that painting and poetry could truly alter the course of human history. Struck by the impulse that the new century would reveal a new humanity—bouyed by a renewed human spirit aided by technology’s marvels—civilization on both sides of the Atlantic was poised to welcome a brave new world. Instead, the massive and far-reaching destructive powers of war, along with the economic and political devolution that followed in its wake, unhinged and derailed even the most zealous within the avant-garde community. The Guggenheim’s modernist, winding floor plan becomes a perfect metaphor for Italian Futurism’s legacy: like so many others in the course of history, caught up in the upward spiral of technological advancement aimed at global domination, they would be forever linked to promises unfulfilled and ultimately abandoned.

By Richard Friswell, Managing Editor


One Comment

  1. Gary Arseneau April 14, 2014 10:44 pm

    April 14, 2014

    Richard Friswell
    Managing Editor

    Re: “Above, left: Umberto Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (Forme uniche della continuità nello spazio), 1913 (cast 1949), Bronze, 121.3 x 88.9 x 40 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Lydia Winston Malbin, 1989. Image Source: Art Resource, New York © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.”

    Dear Mr. Friswell:

    Umberto Boccioni died in 1916.

    Since the Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space only existed during his lifetime as a plaster cast, a posthumous [after 1931] wax had to be made for lost-wax casting in bronze by the hands and fingers of the foundry workers[?] with their fingerprints, not Umberto Boccioni’s, subsequently reproduced in bronze.

    The Metropolitan Museum of Art is a member of the Association of Art Museum Directors. As an AAMD member they endorse the College Art Association’s ethical guidelines on sculptural reproduction. In part, it states: “any transfer into new material unless specifically condoned by the artist is to be considered inauthentic.” It used to also include the term “counterfeit” but that was eliminated in the last few years, coincidentally after WTSP broadcast a Degas story documenting major museums were violating those endorsed guidelines by exhibiting Degas counterfeits.

    They have no shame.

    Rhetorically, the dead don’t condone but the vast majority of the museum industry doesn’t let a little thing like that interfere with their commerce.

    Finally, a slavish reproduction of a public domain work, much less the Umberto Boccioni posthumous forgery, cannot be copyrighted [Bridgeman vs Corel]. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s hubris seems to know no boundaries.

    In closing, I hope you find the enclosed of interest.

    All the best,

    Gary Arseneau
    artist, creator of original lithographs, scholar and author
    Fernandina Beach, Florida

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