Italian Modernists at War and Play at New Guggenheim Show


“For too long has Italy been a dealer in second-hand clothes. We mean to free her from the numberless museums that cover her like so many graveyards.” So proclaimed Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti when he unleashed his Futurist Manifesto upon the world in 1909, further thundering, “We intend to glorify war — the only hygiene of the world — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of anarchists, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and contempt for woman.”

Considering that a 1976 National Lampoon parody — “We Demand . . . to be recognized as geniuses by next Thursday, lest we vent our youthful artistic spleen in ways that make even us tremble with their imagining” — almost passes as a genuine Futurist polemic, why do we still care about this bombastic art movement?

Because Marinetti, who dubbed himself “la caffeina d’Europa” (“the caffeine of Europe”), was a soothsayer of the world we inhabit right here, right now. As early as 1913, he spoke of an “earth shrunk by speed,” meaning not only automobiles and airplanes but also such burgeoning communications networks as radio, which represented the triumph of information over distance. Marinetti’s first manifesto (many would follow — he would no doubt be a king-hell blogger today) included this homage to Einstein’s then recent, world-shaking theories: “Why should we look back, when what we want is to break down the mysterious doors of the Impossible? Time and Space died yesterday.”

This rhetoric underpins the stirringly dynamic, often beautiful paintings and objects in this Guggenheim survey (few exhibitions have felt more simpatico with Frank Lloyd Wright’s poured-concrete vortex). Futurism’s strident Italian nationalism was also the background against which a number of the movement’s early proponents, such as the sculptor and painter Umberto Boccioni (1882–1916), met early deaths during World War I. In a 1913 letter to a colleague, Boccioni insisted, “We have to respond seriously [to Cubism] with our great strength: the wild beauty of color!” The young painter was as good as his word in The City Rises (1910–11), a large canvas striated by vertical scaffolding slashed diagonally with straining men and rearing horses (one of which, in gape-mouthed profile, could be mother to the agonized equine in Picasso’s 1939 Guernica). Atomized, brightly contrasting colors convey a sense of breakneck progress, yesterday’s sleepy town evolving into tomorrow’s vibrantly chaotic metropolis.

The Futurists proselytized through powerfully designed magazines, leaflets, and witty visual transformations of words, such as in Pasqualino Cangiullo’s 1914 watercolor The Train on the Bridge, in which girders, locomotive, and rail cars are all formed from letters. Futurist performances might include Dr. Seuss–like noisemakers, processions of dwarfs with grotesque hairstyles, sound poetry, untuned pianos, and other provocations that could engender “the pleasure of being booed,” as Marinetti put it. Their pugnacious politics arose out of a witch’s brew of aggression from both left and right: Futurism “is an anti-philosophical, anti-cultural movement of ideas, intuition, instincts, punches, kicks, [and] slaps,” one performance declared. After the First World War, such rhetorical thuggery was easily aligned with Benito Mussolini’s Fascism, and Marinetti agitated for Futurism to be proclaimed the national style. But Il Duce, no art lover, favored no aesthetic faction, caring only that none question his iron rule. Throughout the inter-war years, the Futurists refined their cocky style, including Fortunato Depero’s vivacious textiles and dashing graphics, and free-wheeling ceramics by Nikolay Diulgheroff.

Marinetti himself tamped down his misogyny — which he claimed was less about gender than a condemnation of outmoded notions of romantic love — long enough to marry the painter Benedetta Cappa, whose lovely vision of a speedboat slicing azure water surprisingly combines Futurism’s mechanical geometries with a lushly spiritual aura.

Despite his age, Marinetti served in World War II, and died of a heart attack while editing a collection of poems about an Italian combat unit, a fitting epilogue for both man and movement.