Italian Futurism may be one of the less-acclaimed early-20th-century artistic movements, but its striking aesthetic interpretations of the human being and radical ideological manifesto have left a legacy that must still be reckoned with. All of these aspects of Futurism are on full display at this fascinating, comprehensive, and surprisingly beautiful retrospective of this challenging modern movement.
The Guggenheim has been home to some of New York’s best exhibits of the past several years, and “Italian Futurism” joins last summer’s James Turrell installation, last year’s “Picasso Black and White,” and 2009’s “Kandinsky” as a bravura blockbuster. Indeed, Frank Lloyd Wright’s rotunda is ideal for an exhibit about an artistic movement that was infatuated with the future—or at least in love with its own conception of the future.
Like Impressionism, Realism, and Romanticism, Futurism was a movement that encompassed all of the arts. Italian Futurism began when its founder, the writer Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, published “Founding and Manifesto of Futurism” in Le Figaro in 1909, calling for a revolution in politics, art, and culture. Marinetti pioneered a “words-in-freedom” (parole in libertà) style of direct, clear, and concise writing that shattered many literary conventions. Futurism’s literary influence rapidly spread to film, music, theater, photography, dance, architecture, and, most significantly, as “Reconstructing the Universe” shows, painting.
The Futurists fumed over the feeble state of early-20th-century Italy and became outspoken proponents of radical political, social, cultural, and artistic progress. Much as Theodore Roosevelt fulminated over what he believed to be the decline of America—and believed that American manhood needed to be reinvigorated—the Futurists advocated war as a means of reversing Italy’s deterioration and reinvigorating Italian citizens.
Accordingly, the Futurists wished to sweep away any cultural institution believed to be holding Italy back from its mission of ushering its citizens into a glorious future. And because they believed that new art reflecting a forward-thinking, future-looking Italy needed to be produced, they were enthralled with the dynamic Cubist-influenced paintings of Gino Severini and Giacomo Balla, the sleek sculptures of Umberto Boccioni, and any art that seemed to act as an aesthetic harbinger of a future in which technological change was embraced.
This show appropriately begins with Umberto Boccioni’s 1913 sphinx-like bronze sculpture Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, perhaps Futurism’s most characteristic artwork. All of the themes and motifs that concerned the Futurists—the portrayal of movement, speed, energy, athleticism, and dynamism; the fracturing of geometric forms; whirling metallic structures; the virility, vitality, and violence of modernity; the glorification of modern technology; the celebration of aggression—are encapsulated in Boccioni’s sculpture. Here, Boccioni’s brilliant bronze is surrounded by studies and sketches, and we are informed that he was more influenced by Rodin and Henri Bergson than by Cubism (in marked contrast to Severini and Balla).
I would recommend circling around the sculpture (most viewers tend to look at it from only one angle) to get a sense of its dynamism. You’ll also notice something curious: Though its body is that of a man, its head seems to look like a rhinoceros. Later, we see Furtunato Depero’s toy-like “Series of 8 Rhinoceros” pieces as well. My companion suggested that the Futurists may have adopted the rhinoceros as their mascot because it connotes aggression and ferocity, and I agree—adding that its silver skin and jarring head also symbolize the Futurists’ interest in modern technology and in upturning the staid Italian bourgeoisie.
Not all Futurist art is as jarring as Boccioni’s strange sculpture. In fact, the majority of Futurist painting is surprisingly beautiful. Carlo Carrà’s Funeral of the Anarchist Galli (1910-11) is one of this exhibit’s many wonderful surprises; the energy of the painting’s frenetic red, black, and orange-tinged crowd scene explodes off the canvas. A Balla painting of a glowing city lamp illuminating a night street is Monet-like in its pointillist portrayal of the distorting effects of light. Some of the paintings here so closely resemble Cubist and Suprematist works that they could easily be mistaken for Braques or Maleviches. Severini’s serene Blue Dancer (1912) is a sublime spiritual masterpiece whose metaphysical and mystical motifs and deep, vivid blue pigments (as well as its title) evoke Kandinsky’s The Blue Rider (1903). Mario Sironi experimented with a hybrid form of Futurism and metaphysical painting (pittura metafisica) as well.
That such beautiful art became associated with such an ugly ideology—fascism—is disquieting, as is Futurism’s overt misogyny. Like the music of Richard Wagner, however, Italian Futurist painting deserves to be appreciated for the strikingly beautiful—if eccentrically unusual—art that it is.
Daniel Ross Goodman is a lawyer and rabbinical student in New York.