Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe, Guggenheim, New York – review

The Guggenheim’s new survey of Italian futurism speeds up the museum’s spiral ramp, popping with invention and bursts of rhetoric. But the show slows as it rises, until it pants and plods into the movement’s dotage on the upper floors. Futurism had a pair of explosive stars whose ends, nearly 30 years apart, defined its first and second acts. In his paintings and sculptures, Umberto Boccioni dismantled old pieties and rebuilt awkwardness into dynamic elegance. He was killed in 1916, and if the exhibition had ended there it would have told only the story’s glorious beginning. Instead, the show perseveres until the death in 1944 of futurism’s three-named, sartorially splendid, relentlessly provocative and prodigiously mustachioed propagandist, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti.

Almost immediately, we come face to mangled face with “Antigraceful”, Boccioni’s brilliantly unsentimental 1913 portrait of his mother and muse. He spared her no violence, gouging her round, comfortable features into grotesque clods. She has been ravaged by the forces of modernity, flayed into strands of the cityscape all around. Boccioni collapses space and time into bronze, making his mother’s image the portrait of an age.

“We must smash, demolish and destroy our traditional harmony, which makes us fall into a gracefulness created by timid and sentimental cubs,” he proclaimed. He loved his mother and painted her often, but he was no timorous pup. He paid her the honour of plucking her from filial corniness.

Boccioni both embodied and transcended futurism’s speed-drunk bombast. In “Dynamism of a Cyclist”, gold, green, fuchsia, and indigo shards collide and rearrange themselves into a portrait of pure, hectic energy. “The City Rises” goes further, weaving horses, motorcars, factories and pavement into a kaleidoscopic tapestry of feverish rhythms. Here and in the monumental triptych “States of Mind” Boccioni merged physical and psychological reality. He captured the way it feels to be tossed in the tumult of a train station, and analysed the way we project emotions on to our surroundings. The oblique tilt of “Those Who Go” conveys the “loneliness, anguish and dazed confusion” of departure. In “Those Who Stay”, staid verticality hints at the static sadness of loved ones left behind.

Boccioni craved war and died young. He volunteered for the Italian army, and was hurled from his saddle during a training exercise. It’s hard not to speculate about his thoughts during his final seconds: he might have preferred to be thrown from an irreproachably modern car instead of an antediluvian horse, but perhaps he savoured the experience of lethal momentum. In any case, his quick death was the beginning of the movement’s protracted end.

Curator Vivien Greene does a superlative job of tracing the movement’s birth and trajectory, and she is determined to see it through to the spluttering finale. To the roster of well-known names – Marinetti, Boccioni, Carra, Balla, Severini, Sant’Elia – she adds another cohort, responsible for the muted, mechanistic and deadened iterations of the 1920s and 30s. They include Fortunato Depero, who dabbled in posters, puppetry and graphic design, visited New York in 1928 and produced a series of inert city views.

The point of Greene’s thoroughness is not to trumpet mediocrity but to examine the movement in all its moral and political complexity. Futurism, like fascism, was an attitude more than a philosophy, a glorification of youth, action and militarism concentrated in a leader’s personality. That artistic Caesar was Marinetti, who in turn fawned on Mussolini – at least until the Duce declined to anoint futurism as the state’s official art.

Born in Egypt to Italian parents and educated in France, Marinetti was both a cosmopolitan and a zealous nationalist, hamming it up on an international stage. The manifesto he penned in 1909 – by far his most brilliant achievement – appeared on the front page of Le Figaro, France’s leading daily. The magniloquent Marinetti wrote like Whitman on speed, exalting “movements of aggression, feverish sleeplessness, the double march, the perilous leap, the slap and the blow with the fist”. He extolled the dynamism of urban life, the rat-tat-tat of industry and the vibrancy of transit. “A roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace,” he declared.

To Marinetti, modernity meant violence, which he thought of as a cleansing force, wiping away obsolete sentimentalism in spasms of masculine energy. “We want to glorify war – the only cure for the world – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.”

That last clause seems to have embarrassed the Guggenheim, which puts it out there with little comment or context. In his manifesto, Marinetti placed feminism alongside museums and libraries as aspects of an exhausted culture to be wiped away. That position only sort of aligned with fascist orthodoxy, which treated women as precious machines for popping out babies and increasing the ranks of patriots. Rather than lingering on the movement’s revulsion towards the less swashbuckling sex, Greene includes a few decorative but not distinctive works by Benedetta Cappa, who was virtually the movement’s sole female painter – and Marinetti’s long-suffering wife.

In her pursuit of comprehensiveness, Greene toughs out the dullness and disappointment of the final chapter. She can’t prevent the show from fizzling in synch with its subject, but she does lay out a nuanced understanding of why the futurists failed. For most of the 1920s and 30s, they tried to reconcile their desire for freshness with their militarism, to marry their programme of perpetual upheaval to the increasingly conservative tastes of the regime. The paradox was bound to fall apart. Inevitably, an iconography of flux ossified into a catalogue of bellicose emblems: aircraft, tanks and radio towers. Already by its second decade, Futurism was trapped in a credo of newness that proved unable to adapt.

Until September 1,

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