There is a playful perversity in celebrating an artistic movement that called for the destruction of “museums, libraries, academies of every sort…” with a monumental exhibition on Fifth Avenue. Italian Futurism 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe, on view through September 1 at the Guggenheim, takes an ungainly collection of painting, prints, sculpture, ceramics, fashion, and writing and tames it into a lively narrative about a curious strain of early 20th century radicalism that aimed to bully its way to utopia.
Later reviled—sometimes unfairly, writes art historian Enrico Crispoliti in a catalogue essay—for its associations with Italian Fascism and a misogynistic point of view, Futurism began as a literary movement spearheaded by the poet and editor F.T. Marinetti. In his original 1909 manifesto published in the French newspaper Le Figaro, Marinetti provocatively paid homage to war and speed, the former as a transformational force in society and the latter as a new aesthetic standard for modernity.
Marinetti’s medium was the written word, but through the years he gathered a motley, multidisciplinary crew under his tent, including poets, musicians, artists, and architects. The Italian movement, which emphasized plastic and dynamic forms, unfolded parallel to Cubism in France and was soon influenced by it. Umberto Boccioni, one of the better known artists from the movement’s so-called “heroic” early period, is well represented in the exhibition, as is the young architect Antonio Sant’Elia. A fascination with the infrastructure of transportation and communication shines through in Sant’Elia’s drawings of sleek, streamlined high-rises in his Città Nuova series, and his drawing Station for Trains and Airplanes looks like it may have come from the pages of a 21st century newspaper.
Killed in 1916 in World War I, Sant’Elia’s involvement in the movement was brief and on paper, although his name lived on as the title of a Futurist journal. Work of Sant’Elia’s contemporary Mario Chiattone, who was never formally part of the Futurists, is also included in the show, along with that of architect Virgilio Marchi, whose dramatic sketches for city plans with flyovers and floating walkways for the island of Capri—a Futurist outpost—evoke modern day Hong Kong.
The surprise star of the exhibition is Fortunato Depero, an artist and graphic designer who notably proclaimed in 1931, “The art of the future will be the art of advertising.” Unlike the architects associated with the movement, Depero actually managed to build something, and his 1927 Bestetti Treves Tumminelli Book Pavilion made of giant three-dimensional letters, showcased in a striking 1:3 scale model in the show, seems to foreshadow the contemporary pop-up shop. Depero’s ads for Davide Campari underscore his facility at bringing Futurist aesthetics into the commercial realm, while his designs for toys, textiles, and waistcoats speak to the Futurist ideal of the opera d’arte totale, or “total work of art,” a concept more familiar to architects and designers in its German iteration, the gesamtskunstwerke.
Like Gropius at the Bauhaus, the Futurists wanted to create a holistic environment. But if a movement so aggressively shuns the past, it is a challenge to create a way of living that does not refer to previous conventions. A Futurist tea set? A Futurist dining room suite? Both are represented, and it is at these moments in the show that Futurism almost feels quaint.
At the Guggenheim, visitors may be tempted to zip to the top of the building via elevator then let gravity help pull them through the main exhibition. But those who trickle down through Italian Futurism will miss the full impact of the careful story that curator Vivien Green methodically builds during a forced march up the museum’s ramp. With the mix of media including archival publications of Futurist manifestoes (there were many) as well as videos that deploy sound and photographic stills, content and context become effectively blurred.
The Futurists were a noisy bunch, declaiming their latest writings at serate, evening gatherings that often ended in a scuffle. The exhibition feels intentionally noisy, too, with an atmosphere of cacophony rather than contemplation. The message is that Futurism was meant to be experienced, not just observed. A side gallery dedicated to Futurist theater underscores this with a pulsating installation that evokes Giacomo Balla’s 1916–1917 lighting design for Igor Stravinsky’s orchestral composition Fireworks.
Politics aside, this dedication to the disorienting and disruptive gives the Futurists particular resonance today, when the speed of cultural and technological change is taken for granted. The movement’s love of aerial perspectives generates some of the most electrifying later work, such as Tulio Crali’s 1939 Before the Parachute Opens, which graces the cover of the exhibition catalogue and could be a still from a modern day action movie. Seen from above, a black clad figure is silhouetted against the countryside just as he jumps from a plane.
By comparison, the last gallery, featuring five large-scale painted panels by the artist Benedetta Cappa, one of the prominent female Futurists and later Marinetti’s wife, feels like a quiet coda rather than a conclusion. Based on the theme of communications, the 1933–34 public work was tucked away in a conference room in a post office building in Palermo. It is a reminder that with so few major commissions, the Futurists only come into focus today through massive efforts like Green’s at the Guggenheim.