“Il Modo Italiano”

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

SINCE WORLD WAR II no country has been more thoroughly identified with the lure of design than Italy. Curatorial attempts to consider the historical relationship between Italian design and art, however, have often proved disappointing. For example, the last North American treatment of the subject, Germano Celant’s “The Italian Metamorphosis, 1943–1968” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1994, was perhaps most memorable for its Ferragamo shoes and mannequins in Valentino evening gowns. By contrast, “Il Modo Italiano: Italian Design and Avant-Garde in the 20th Century,” co-organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Museo di Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto (MART), and the Royal Ontario Museum, is striking for curators Giampiero Bosoni and Guy Cogeval’s thoughtful juxtapositions of developments in design with those of contemporaneous avant-garde art movements.

Opening their exhibition with rarely seen examples of Stile Liberty (the Italian spin on Art Nouveau) placed among rural landscapes, executed in a Divisionist style—such as Angelo Morbelli’s In risaia (The Rice Field), 1901, depicting women harvesting rice—the curators pursue the argument that Italy’s twentieth-century investment in design was a compensatory move for what designer and theorist Andrea Branzi has called that nation’s “imperfect” and “incomplete” modernity. An overwhelmingly agrarian Italy, only recently unified (in 1861), tried to join, overnight, the mighty industrialized nations of Europe. Under Fascism, the synthesis of Italian art and design developed a strong national identity and was forcefully promoted by the Triennale and the magazine Domus. In the show the neoclassical, feminized elegance of the Novecento style, a movement that peaked in the mid-’30s, is represented by slender furniture and porcelain urns and vases designed by Giovanni Muzio and Gio Ponti as well as the ominous muscular archaism of the painter/sculptor/designer Mario Sironi. One of the real trouvailles among the 375 items exhibited is Sironi’s massive wood-and-ivory dining-room set, circa 1936, displayed in Montreal alongside I costruttori (The Builders), 1930, a typically dark, monumental cityscape by the artist. In an attempt to redeem the bourgeois everydayness of the decorative arts—which Sironi considered to be “beneath” the masculine élan of Fascism—the ensemble summoned the savagery of the primeval. No less striking, for both aesthetic and ideological reasons, is the Sant’Elia armchair designed by Giuseppe Terragni for the boardroom of his 1932–36 Casa del Fascio in Como, a building meant to epitomize another offshoot of Fascist design, modernist rationalism. This chair, with its continuous structure of chrome-plated tubular steel, morphs an earlier Bauhaus design by Marcel Breuer into an “armored” modernism.

As the unified aesthetics of the Fascist “total work of art” finally unraveled during the economic boom of the ’50s, Italians dominated international design with iconic objects such as Marcello Nizzoli’s and Luigi Figini’s typewriters for Olivetti, Ponti’s Superleggera chair for Cassina, and the Castiglioni brothers’ Mezzadro stool for Zanotta. Here the curators try to maintain a connection to visual art by juxtaposing flashing film reels of Neorealist cinema, arguably Italy’s most influential artistic contribution in the second half of the twentieth century, with the country’s most famous postwar product, Corradino D’Ascanio’s Vespa motor scooter for Piaggio. The combination fails to deliver, largely because Neorealism was antithetical to the slick universe of design. A more effective cinematic sample might have been the indelible scenes of urban and conjugal anomie in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Il Deserto rosso (The Red Desert), 1964. That film’s jaundiced images of the industrial wasteland of the Po Valley at least would have looped back hauntingly to Morbelli’s painting of rice pickers in that same region.

The show finds its dialogical footing again when reveling in the upbeat flirtation between Pop art and furniture design. Ferociously ironic items—such as the polyurethane-foam Attica chair, designed by Studio 65 to convert a splintered “neo-Novecento” column into a comfy seat; Gruppo Strum’s Pratone (also in foam), with its huge leaves of grass to recline on; and the hyperkitsch Safari, a sunken living-room sofa with fake leopard skin designed by Archizoom Associati for Poltronova—were conceived as “antidesign design.” After considering this important, if brief, stab at criticality, the curators end with a series of colorful “tableaux” featuring garishly whimsical furniture from the ’80s designed by Ettore Sottsass for Memphis, Gaetano Pesce for Cassina, Alessandro Mendini for Studio Alchimia, and Aldo Rossi for Alessi. These lighthearted designs (paired here with large dreamscapes by painters associated with the Transavantguardia) were, significantly, created during the “years of lead,” when the country was racked by terrorist bombings conducted by neo-Fascists and the Red Brigades. They provide a disturbing echo of the “nursery room” atmosphere of the Futurist environments designed by Fortunato Depero and Giacomo Balla in the midst of World War I and the early ’20s, just before Mussolini came to power. Both periods are particularly well represented in this exhibition thanks to the holdings of MART, resulting in an emphasis on political escapism that, although probably highlighted by the exhibition’s curators unwittingly, is hard to overlook.

Largely—and regrettably—missing from the show is arte povera, represented by a single 1989 iron piece by Jannis Kounellis. The movement’s loudest spokesman, Celant, has argued that the art’s “poverty” of materials represented a guerrilla strike against the world of conspicuous consumption. But arte povera actually imagined a more generative and dialectical relation between art and design. A closer look at arte povera would have added a provocative angle to “Il Modo Italiano.”

Romy Golan is professor of contemporary European art and theory at the CUNY Graduate Center, New York.

Il Modo Italiano: Italian Design and Avant-Garde in the 20th Century” travels to the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Oct. 28, 2006–Jan. 7, 2007; and the Museo di Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto, March 3–June 3, 2007.