Out with the old. So said the Italian Futurists who, “sought to revitalize what they determined to be a static, decaying culture and an impotent nation that looked to the past for its identity.” While wholesale rejection of the status quo is de rigueur for youthful up-and-comers, the Futurists seem especially dour.
Consider these gems from the group’s founding Manifesto, published in Le Figaro in 1909:
“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.
We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.”
Strangely, I don’t remember hearing that perspective in art history class. In any case, what I knew of Futurism was restricted to a few representative paintings. Thanks to Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe on view through September 1, 2014 at the Guggenheim Museum, a much more comprehensive and vibrant history of the movement is now available to explore. The show, with over 300 works, is perfectly suited to this venue. The dynamic energy of Futurism pairs naturally with Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiral design.
Here are eight key points to know about Italian Futurism:
1) Futurism began as an avant-garde literary movement. Manifestos were issued regularly, and ten are available online for closer reading, including the perhaps inevitable Manifesto of the Futurist Woman.
2) Futurists were committed to reinventing the world through rigorous advocacy of all that was new and modern. Its mostly philosophical origins presented artists with the challenge of giving the movement a recognizable pictorial form. Consequently, distinct stages of artistic evolution exist although most of us are only familiar with works from the “heroic” stage just before World War I.
3) Futurism was conceived as a holistic movement. As such, artists – painters, set designers, architects, musicians, fashion designers, potters, and furniture makers alike – created environments big and small that represented the Futurist vision. From designs for cities, to designs for toys, furnishings and opera costumes, no opportunity to reshape the world was left unexplored. The dress above made me think of Marni, a contemporary Italian fashion brand.
6) Futurism is historically associated with Fascism. While Futurism is a source of national pride for Italians, Mussolini’s Fascist reign is definitely not. This controversial identity may explain why Futurism is treated as a footnote in art survey classes, and why it has been the subject of so few museum shows.
7) Marinetti was an eager advocate for Italy’s entry into World War I, war being the ultimate change agent. So it is not surprising that he was a Mussolini supporter. However, Mussolini did not make Futurism the official art of the Fascist regime despite what Marinetti might have hoped. Most new regimes embrace historical styles to establish legitimacy, and Futurism wouldn’t have helped with this.
8) Movements, like people, don’t exist in a vacuum. Inevitably Futurist art was influenced by the past to some extent. Futurist teapots share the same basic form with their non-futurist cousins, and children still need toy rhinos to play with, Futurist or not.
Exhibition design: The design includes an elegant integration of additional curved walls, video and plenty of space between objects. Every view across the atrium pops with color.
Website: A dedicated site for the exhibition is well designed, with bright colors, large images, and easy navigation across content areas. Oddly, there is no mentioned of the audio guide on this site-within-a-site, though it is available online.
Audio guide: The audio guide includes and illustrates several related works that are not on display; this expanded content is where these guides have an opportunity to really shine. You can listen online, or via the Guggenheim app.
The visitor experience: room for improvement
Exhibition design/labels: The label placement was a frustration. I’m all for eliminating visual clutter, but not if it means a) searching for a label, b) bunching up with everyone else trying to read the label, and c) leaning in to find the audio guide number when there is ample space for less congested label placement. The labels are primarily grouped together on the right wall of each display alcove. Elegant, yes. Accessible, not especially.
Audio guide: I downloaded the app to my phone, but unfortunately it shut down three times while I was listening to the introduction within the museum. I decided to use the museum’s audio device instead, which uses the same app. It doesn’t seem to have been optimized for the device at all, and the hardware/software interaction is really clunky. For example, I would enter an item number. Then I would have to press “Enter Exhibition” on the screen. And then I would have to press a tiny “Play” button on the screen. Why should I ever have to press “Enter Exhibition” in the first place? And why isn’t there a hardware “Play” button?
I wasn’t alone in my frustration; I watched one guard answer questions from three different people about how to use the device. This is a shame because the content (audio and visuals) is engaging and really rounds out the visitor experience nicely. What good is great content if people can’t access it?
These are minor inconveniences. By all means, go see this show. It’s a great and possibly rare chance to learn about a neglected art historical movement in a comprehensive way, and a visual treat that shows the spiral at its best. If you can’t make it in person be sure to visit the website and browse the excellent exhibition catalog. Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe is on view at the Guggenheim Museum through September 1, 2014.