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New Exhibit at the Guggenheim Is a Romper Room on Steroids

Courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

What happens to an art movement dedicated to perpetual movement when the world eventually moves on? This is among the tantalizing questions provoked by “Italian Futurism: 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe,” the brainstorm of a show that fills most of the Guggenheim Museum. It’s an enormous exhibition, and it looks terrific in Frank Lloyd Wright’s rotunda, a futurist building that trumps anything the architects who called themselves Futurists ever managed to build. Although the Futurists could be overly programmatic and schematic when they aimed to catch the speed of modern life in paint on canvas, this marathon exhibition—packed with paintings, drawings, sculptures, books, periodicals, photographs, murals, marionettes, and a wide selection of decorative arts—has some of the quality of a romper room on steroids, where the avant-garde played, and not always nicely.

Estorick Collection, London, 2014 Artists Rights Society, New York/SIAE, Rome
Giacomo Balla's The Hand of the Violinist (The Rhythms of the Bow), 1912

There is a crazy, crazed, exhilarating energy in the work of these Futurists: the poet F. T. Marinetti; the painters Giacomo Balla, Umberto Boccioni, and Gino Severini; the photographer Anton Giulio Bragaglia; and some 75 other artists included here. But the Futurists were also braggarts and brawlers, who glorified war as “the only hygiene of the world,” and had a long, tangled alliance with the Italian Fascists. It is an immensely complicated story, steadily and sensitively related in Adrian Lyttelton’s essay on “Futurism, Politics, and Society,” a standout in the very impressive exhibition catalogue edited by Vivien Greene, who organized the show. Too many museum exhibitions are occasions for historical simplifications and polemical flourishes. Vivien Greene has insisted on a subtler approach. For once, art and politics are not tied together in a neat package. Among the great pleasures of “Italian Futurism” is its intellectual openness—the extent to which we are urged to meet each work of art on its own terms.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Lydia Winston Malbin, 1989
Umberto Boccioni's Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1939 (cast 1949) 

Nevertheless, an aesthete with a political program is generally a disconcerting figure, and there is no way of avoiding the extent to which the Futurists’ avant-garde escapades could turn ugly, their polemical exuberance not always distinguished from anti-democratic demagoguery. In Severini's Armored Train in Action (1915), Gerardo Dottori's Triptych of Speed (1925-7), and Alessandro Bruschetti's Fascist Synthesis (1935), individuals are crushed by the streamlined imperatives of an increasingly dehumanized social order—and we suspect that the artists are not unhappy to be choreographing such a spectacle. Is it any wonder that in the history of early twentieth-century art, a subject dear to the hearts of liberals and progressives, Futurism has often been the elephant in the room? Especially in the United States, Italy’s essential contribution to the avant-garde has certainly received less attention than the work of the Fauvists, Cubists, Dadaists, Constructivists, or Surrealists. Although museums and galleries have by no means overlooked the Futurists, Futurism has been regarded as more virus than vanguard, a movement that sparked ideas about the lyricism of movement and the cultivation of chaos that were ultimately more satisfyingly expressed in the art of a variety of other creative spirits: Duchamp, Schwitters, Calder, or Miró. The Futurists had a complicated relationship with Mussolini, who as time went on embraced what he felt was a more conservative aesthetic, but their tendency to mix a nihilistic skepticism about bourgeois society with a taste for totalitarian power made them enduring if not always entirely comfortable partners with the Fascist regime. The anarchic energies of the Dadaists, by turns playful and scabrous, suggest to many a more appealing, or at least a less politically fraught, kind of institutional critique. The people who write the history of twentieth-century art have by and large been more comfortable with excesses on the Left than with excesses on the Right, so that (to give but one example) El Lissitzky's work as a propagandist for Stalin and the Soviet Union is granted a kind of sympathy denied propagandists for the Fascists.

Touring Club Italiano Archive
Filippo Masoero's Descending over Saint Peter, ca. 1927-37 (possibly 1930-33)

The Futurists were idea men, rabble rousers, and dreamers, at their best probably more system-smashers than system-builders. As Roman Jakobson, the linguist who as a young man was a force in the Russian avant-garde, wrote in a 1919 essay on the Futurists, “The overcoming of statics, the discarding of the absolute, is the main thrust of modern times, the order of the day.” The problem with that argument, at least as the foundation for an aesthetic, is that it is an aesthetic built on quicksand. There is not a single painting in the Guggenheim exhibition that I find entirely satisfying. For the Futurists that might reflect not an artistic failure or even an artistic problem, but rather the embrace of a brave new dream. It is easy to see why some artists dispense with absolutes. Absolutes are irreconcilable, so the argument goes, with the openness to new experience that is the essence of modern life. The danger for painters comes when they reject not the absolutes—that can be liberating—but when they reject the pressure or afterimage of the absolute, an idea or ideal that tempers sensibility and acts as a counterweight to the vagaries of taste.

I was struck, looking at the Futurist works of the years around World War I, at how closely some of their coiled, curvaceous volumes and voids echo the rococo charms of the Art Nouveau movement of two decades earlier. Boccioni’s Simultaneous Visions (1911), Balla’s Speeding Cars (1913), Bragaglia’s photographs, and Fortunato Depero’s Futurist waistcoats have a swirling sensuousness that brings to mind not the industrial-strength thunderclap their creators probably intended but something more like the opium dreams of the fin-de-siècle. Not the least of the fascinations of Futurism is its romantic pessimism, an element perhaps easier to see now than fifty years ago. The work gathered at the Guggenheim repays a long, close look. There are some dark, fiercely reasoned paintings by Mario Sironi, an artist still too little admired in the United States; the aerial studies in paint and photography by Filippo Masoero and Tullio Crali are a fascination; and the huge murals by Benedetta, never before removed from the post office in Palermo, are curiosities of the Fascist years, with passages that could have come from the brush of that all-American heroine, Georgia O’Keeffe.

“Italian Futurism” is a tremendous museumgoing experience—a brilliant reconstruction of the Futurists’ chaotic playroom—but it doesn’t exactly hold in the mind. The souvenirs of Italy’s early-twentieth-century avant-garde are all here, dusted off and beautifully installed. Together with a great many important loans from Italian collections, there are also key works from the Museum of Modern Art, which serve as a reminder that Americans have been following Futurism for a very long time. Much of the work on display exudes the melancholy of another era’s toys, relics of playground excitements, arguments, and brawls now a century old. The show ends in 1944, with the death of Marinetti. Only a few months later, the atom bomb would be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The trouble with Futurism is that we have seen the future.