Futurist Cheerfulness

In the domain of games and toys, as in all passéist manifestations, one sees only grotesque imitation, timidity (miniature trains, little cars, dolls that can’t move, cretinous caricatures of ...

In the domain of games and toys, as in all passéist manifestations, one sees only grotesque imitation, timidity (miniature trains, little cars, dolls that can’t move, cretinous caricatures of domestic objects), things that are monotonous and discourage exercise, prone only to dishearten children and make them stupid.

— Giacomo Balla and Fortunato Depero, “Futurist Reconstruction
of the Universe”

Virtually every artistic avant-garde fancies itself the creators of a new pedagogy. Yet few movements moved so quickly and forcefully from desecration to prescription as did Futurism, founded in 1909 by Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. The movement composed countless manifestos, on topics ranging from architecture to poetry, from advertising to fashion, all clustered around Marinetti’s fundamental concept of cultural renewal. Violently refusing everything past, Futurist artists strove to critically renovate life through a radical appropriation of the machine and by expanding beyond the constraints of the body what was traditionally considered as human.

Italian Futurism has in recent years been the subject of many prominent and successful exhibitions in Europe, starting with those scheduled to coincide with the movement’s centennial in 2009. Now it has finally made its way across the Atlantic, in the form of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s Italian Futurism 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe, curated by Vivien Greene and on view until September 1. With its title evoking one of the most ingenious Futurist manifestos, the show is the first comprehensive, multidisciplinary survey of the movement in the US, spanning from its “heroic” beginning through the downward trajectory that followed upon its fatal embrace of Fascism.

It is to its great credit that Reconstructing the Universe does not stop at Futurism’s explosive first season, which concludes roughly with the entry of Italy into World War I and the participation of the artists themselves as soldiers in the conflict. In 1916 both architect Antonio Sant’Elia and painter and sculptor Umberto Boccioni—among the most dynamic and visionary artists of the movement—die on the battlefield. While the Guggenheim show confirms the pivotal role of their works, it less conventionally proceeds to trace the continuities between the movement’s anarchic beginnings and its evolution under Mussolini’s regime, when Futurism expanded its attention to advertising, interior design, and photomontage, through artists such as Benedetta, Bruno Munari, and Enrico Prampolini.

The spectator senses the many contradictions raised by the encounter between artistic avant-gardes and a fascist aestheticization of politics.

By opting not to dismiss Futurism’s second wave, Reconstructing the Universe begins to tackle the most unsettling issue raised by Futurist art—its endorsement of fascist totalitarianism. Futurism aimed at a total art capable of changing human nature; Fascism deformed political action toward a dystopianly total control of human life. Following the spiral ramp of the Guggenheim displaying the developments of Italian Futurism, the spectator senses the many contradictions raised by the encounter between artistic avant-gardes and a fascist aestheticization of politics.

Coinciding with Reconstructing the Universe until June 28 is another remarkable exhibition featuring works on display for the first time in America. The Center for Italian Modern Art (CIMA), recently opened in New York’s SoHo neighborhood, hosts more than 50 works by the cheerful, ironic, and often oneiric Fortunato Depero.1

Depero boasts a strikingly colorful reinterpretation of traditional categories of art, working in not only sculpture and painting but also tapestry, scenography for ballet and marionette theater, industrial design, and advertising. As urged in his and Balla’s manifesto, Depero’s toys defy imitation or caricature, generating a new creative space in which there is no opposition between man and machine, and no boundary between children and grown-ups. “Futurist toys,” add Balla and Depero, “will also be very useful for adults, helping to keep them young, agile, playful, carefree, ready for everything, tireless, instinctive, and intuitive.”2

“Performance is Futurism’s greatest legacy in terms of contemporary art, that’s where they were really ahead of everyone,” Greene claims. “It also integrated high and low culture, which is very relevant for art today.”3 In fact, one of the highlights of Reconstructing the Universe is the three films, commissioned from documentary filmmaker Jen Sachs, that visualize the most original, although ephemeral, invention of the group—the serate futuriste, Futurist soirées conjuring up the spirit of the movement through provocation, words-in-freedom poetry, and startling mise-en-scènes. Intended for live performance, Futurist poetry overtly disparaged traditional forms of reading as bourgeois private experience, and the excited collective atmosphere of the serate is on vivid display here.

One of the Guggenheim show’s highlights is a set of films visualizing the most original, although ephemeral, invention of the group—the serate futuriste.

In this context, it is surprising that the best Futurist poet has been almost completely overlooked. Aldo Palazzeschi is a major European avant-garde writer, a proto-Dadaist poet in his 1910 collection L’incendiario (The Arsonist), and the author of the outstanding 1911 novel Il codice di Perelà (Man of Smoke), the finest achievement of Futurist literature. The protagonist of the latter work is Perelà, a man with no body, literally made only of smoke. Palazzeschi coalesces in his character the two founding myths of modernity: political messianism and Nietzsche’s Übermensch. The result is truly hilarious: an almost theatrical parody—the novel consists entirely of dialogue—of a contemporary society ruled by pseudo-values. To the crowd demanding a weighty final revelation, the man of smoke insists again and again: “I am light,” anticipating the more celebrated developments on this theme by Kundera and Calvino. A constant presence at the serate futuriste and highly praised by Marinetti, Palazzeschi would leave the group at the outset of WWI, publicly declaring his pacifism and denouncing the Futurist cult of violence.

Depero and Palazzeschi do not fit comfortably into the current appraisal of Futurism. Their cheerfulness, irony, and lightness appear in conflict with both the rigid proclamations of Marinetti and the antiliberal politics associated with the movement. Indeed, Futurism’s eventual endorsement of the Fascist regime still haunts most prominent interpretations today. It is undeniable, though, that the emancipating charge of artists such as Depero and Palazzeschi complicates every generalizing assessment of this contradictory avant-garde. icon

  1. A selection of these works can be found in the slideshow at the head of this post. I thank CIMA for their permission to reproduce them here.
  2. Giacomo Balla and Fortunato Depero, “Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe” (1915), translated by Lawrence Rainey, in Futurism: An Anthology, edited by Lawrence Rainey, Christine Poggi, and Laura Wittman (Yale University Press, 2009), p. 212. Emphasis in original.
  3. Quoted in Nicolai Hartvig, “Is Futurism’s Time Now? The Guggenheim Takes a Chance On Turbulent History,” Art + Auction (February 2014).