The Past World of Italian Futurism

Visiting the Italian Futurism 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe exhibit at the Guggenheim was a very different experience for me then attending, say, a retrospective or a gallery show. It is not unusual for exhibits that have works from specific eras to seem like a history lesson, but in the case of this exhibit, the amount of information was overwhelming. I would say it would take a while to summarize the many plaques detailing the politics and themes and theories of the Italian Futurists, but to keep it minimal, the show focuses on how before, during, and after World War I, Italian artists struggled to convey their ideologies and manifestos through art. The exhibition opens by giving you a sense of what all of these theories and beliefs are; to tell you the truth, I didn’t find the whole thing too original as it read like the Humanism section of a European history textbook; conversations about the need to glorify man, etc. date back all the way to the Greeks, much less to the Renaissance, after all. Much of the beginning part of the show consisted of pamphlets and advertisements and prints, mostly in Italian, that I found distracting from the artwork itself. The fascinating element of Italian Futurism was primarily being able to looking at the evolution of this style of painting overtime. 

In the early 20th century, Italian artists lead by Filippo Tommaso Emilio Marinetti, founder of Futurism, had trouble developing their own techniques for painting their elaborate ideas about surfaces and volumes and nature. They incorporated late French Impressionist styles of painting, especially Pointillism, until they walked away from realism entirely in favor of a kind of abstraction they made their own. The Italians began pulling in geometric forms everywhere and frequently crisscrossed angles giving a feeling of glass shattering. Some of the group’s members abandoned drawing and painting completely, and instead sculpted and later on, experimented digitally and made bizarre movies. When World War I came along, the artists created pieces that were very martial, patriotic, and industrial. The works from the war years are small and word centric, and often show abstractly trains running, or soldiers marching across planes of various levels. Post-WWI, the artists were less unified in their styles; some artists were very architectural, or mathematical, or mechanical and technical. There were ’20s works that kept to the black, gold and ivory colors of Art-Deco, and there were artists from the same era whose set designs for Futurist theater were chock full of color and came with crazy costumes to match. The photography of the time is very similar to that of Man Ray, who was part of the Parisian class of Futurists. I personally did not like the artwork, but I enjoyed attending as a learning curve. If you enjoy discovering art from a purely historical vantage point, check this out soon before it closes on September the 1st. If you’d rather encounter art emotionally, I would skip this one, though such confrontations are subjective; one person’s yuck is another’s yum. Not to worry, there’s always more to come. And follow me on twitter (@molapola) to hear even more art world buzz!

Miscellaneous Findings

The variety in the styles of art was unexpected as one would imagine that for a group of men working together collaboratively, bouncing ideas off of one another during the same period of time, their techniques should overlap. Since the curators at the exhibition loved to name-drop artists assuming that viewers  would come to recognize specific MO’s, here’s a taste of what it was like.

There was Anton Bragaglia, the photographer in love with distorted imagery and Umberto Boccioni, borrower from French Impressionism and children’s book illustrator. Then we have Gino Severini, pointillist, and Ivo Pannaggi, industrialist turned Bauhaus. There’s also Tullio Crali, the adventurer, and Fortunato Depero, man of many mediums, whiz-kid of Italian Futurism. He had a huge range: he began by experimenting with graphics in printmaking, proceeded to manipulate geometric shapes in his wartime paintings, and then transitioned to Art-Deco; furthermore, Depero’s design for the 3rd Monza Biennale’s Bestetti Treves, or book pavilion, in 1927 brings to mind postmodern incarnations such as the old CBS Cafeteria or the ’70s cover art of Bob Shein.

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