You’ve got to admire the Italian Futurists for their audacity, the screaming over-the-top nature of their countless manifestoes. Some of those wonderfully foolhardy declarations can be found in bold type on the walls of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York: “We intend to sing to the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness,” wrote the poet F.T. Marinetti in the movement’s Founding Manifesto of 1909. “We intend to hymn man at the steering wheel,” Marinneti continued, “the ideal axis of which intersects the earth, itself hurled ahead in its own race along the path of its orbit.” His words precipitated a headlong rush toward a new world, one dominated by speeding automobiles, trains, and airplanes, and shaped by mass production and mass militarization.
You’ve also got to despise the Futurists for the way their determination to create an entirely new culture prompted them to regard Italy’s entry into World War I as a necessary cleansing ritual. Some of their leaders, like the architect Antonio Sant’Elia, died in that war. Marinneti, for his part, served as one of history’s rare poet/war correspondents, translating the sound of shells bursting into onomatopoeic art: “Zang Tumb Tuuum.” The movement’s disdain for tradition also caused them to embrace Fascism and Mussolini, who did not exactly embrace them in return. And as Fascism ascended, the quality of the Futurists’ work declined.
Love the Futurists or loathe them, Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe—now mounted at the Guggenheim as the first comprehensive survey of the movement in this country—is terrifically engrossing. Curated by Vivien Greene, the museum’s senior curator of 19th- and early 20th-century art, it is also a powerful reminder that there emerged, in the first decades of the 20th century, many modernisms. And that some of those modernisms were crazier than others.
Much like their peers at the Bauhaus, the Futurists wanted to use every possible medium to “destroy the cult of the past.” So the exhibition includes many astonishing paintings, like Giacomo Balla’s 1911 Street Light, a study of the transformation of an anonymous object into a pointillist cascade, or Carlos Carra’s furious swirl of cubist shards, Funeral of the Anarchist Galli. Chaotic assemblages of typography intended to convey momentum—Parole in Liberta (Words in Liberty)—was another favorite strategy. There are a few examples, largely unappealing, of Futurist household goods, clothing and furniture. (The hunger for momentum, it seems, engendered misshapen coffee cups and pieces of dining furniture that look like sad imitations of the Wiener Werkstätte.)
The Futurist movement also produced architectural concepts that were extremely prescient, but mostly unrealized. Indeed, one Futurist manifesto (not on view at the Guggenheim) was penned, mostly, by the architect Sant’Elia, and published with additions from the prolific, bombastic, Marinetti. Sant’Elia’s 1914 manifesto, no surprise, cast architecture as the perfect medium for the age of technological glory: “This architecture cannot be subject to any law of historical continuity,” proclaimed Sant’Elia. “It must be new as our frame of mind is new.
Before he died in the battle of Monfalcone in 1916, Sant’Elia had begun work on the Città Nuova, together with a colleague named Mario Chiattone. A section of the exhibition devoted to the pair’s ink and pencil drawings elegantly anticipate an architecture that didn’t begin to appear until the 1930s. Their buildings are lean, decidedly vertical, rhythmic and complex; they are generally integrated with mechanical and infrastructural systems, such as tram lines and bridges. The two architects may be the only Futurists who genuinely saw the future.
The show features one of Sant’Elia’s best-known drawings, which depicts a combined railway station and airport. The trains pull in on tracks below grade, while the planes land on runways constructed atop the railroad rights-of-way. The concept, while impractical in an age of dense cities and jumbo jets, was, at the time, stunningly logical. It’s a future that, arguably, could have happened.
The show’s most inspired architectural visions, however, are found in paintings by Virgilio Marchi. Works like Building Seen from a Veering Airplane and Fantastic City feature stripped down, neo-gothic buildings dramatically distorted by the momentum that so obsessed the Futurists. Marchi can be seen as a precursor to Lebbeus Woods, and it makes perfect sense that he went on to be a noted film production designer.
The most unexpected pleasure, meanwhile, might be the diverse body of work on display by the multi-talented Fortunato Depero, the Futurist with the lightest touch. He crafted endearing figures for his puppet ballet, the Balli Plastici. He designed Campari ads featuring lovely neo-primitive graphics, and commemorated a stint in New York (cut short by the stock market crash of 1929) with a clever typographic representation of the city’s subway system. Depero is also responsible for the one work of architecture in the show that was actually built: a book publisher’s kiosk for a 1927 decorative arts biennial in Monza composed mainly of words cast in concrete, a graphic conceit realized in three dimensions.
Of course, toward the top of the Guggenheim’s spiraling ramp, the final example of Depero’s work suggests that he, too, got sandbagged by Fascism. It’s a 1935 study for a heroic mosaic, Proclamation and Triumph of the National Flag, and it’s as deadly as it sounds. The piece pretty much signals the demise of the Futurists as a creative force. Indeed, by the time you reach high end of the museum’s rotunda, it becomes obvious that the movement, initially so exhilarating, was overtaken and subsumed by the history it was trying to leave in the dust.