New York

Fortunato Depero, Cavalcata fantastica (Fantastical Ride), 1920, wool on burlap backing, 12' 4“ x 7' 9 1/4”.

Fortunato Depero, Cavalcata fantastica (Fantastical Ride), 1920, wool on burlap backing, 12' 4“ x 7' 9 1/4”.

Fortunato Depero

Fortunato Depero, Cavalcata fantastica (Fantastical Ride), 1920, wool on burlap backing, 12' 4“ x 7' 9 1/4”.

CIMA, the Center for Italian Modern Art, is a research resource that opened this past February in New York City. Its inaugural exhibition, which remains open until June 28, focuses on Fortunato Depero (1892–1960), a second-tier figure within Futurism, a first-tier art movement. Depero is a particularly apt opening choice, since his career is punctuated by two American sojourns, the first between 1928 and 1930, when his stylish fusion of Futurist motifs and Art Deco design seemed to predict a certain success here in skyscraper New York. The stock-market crash dashed those hopes. Following World War II, Depero briefly returned to the US, to New Milford, Connecticut, of all places, then still a milk stop for the state’s waning dairy industry.

A provincial from Rovereto, in the Trentino region of Italy, Depero arrived in Rome in 1913, a bit after the glory years of Futurism; there, he fell in both with F. T. Marinetti, whose vile social values—masculinist, militaristic, and totalitarian—are memorialized in his inflammatory, still-influential Futurist Manifesto (1909), and with the more genial Giacomo Balla. Futurism, built on a Symbolist/Divisionist mode, came to encode signs of energy, speed, and movement, qualities ultimately replaced in the art of both Balla and Depero with a geometric fusion of the representational and the mechanical. In Depero’s case, this particular aspect of his work emerges in the late 1920s and leads to daffy amalgamations oddly predictive of recent animated films such as Toy Story or Cars. His painting Motociclista, solido in velocità (Biker, Solidified in Speed), 1927, for all its nominal obeisance to Umberto Boccioni—think The Dynamism of a Soccer Player, 1913, for example—falls in line with the values of an Italy gearing up for Mussolini’s brutal Abyssinian campaigns, as well as with an emerging worldwide fetishization of murderous airplane warfare.

The CIMA show mostly sidelines Depero’s art of the 1930s, perhaps owing to its enthusiastic sponsorship by the Fascists; rather, the heart of the exhibition is Depero’s more disarming work circa 1920. Deeply dispirited by Sergey Diaghilev’s rejection of his stage decor and costumes for Stravinsky’s Le Chant du Rossignol (1916–17)—the commission went instead to Matisse—Depero left Rome in 1919 and returned to Rovereto, where he and his wife cocreated a quasi-folkloric Futurism, inaugurating a period when he produced his best work, at least in the CIMA version of events. The couple set up a workshop for weaving, tapestry, cushion cases, applied designs of all sorts, a crafts-oriented life that Depero commemorated in Io e mia moglie (My Wife and I), 1919, a painting wherein each figure—Gabriel and Mary, as it were—is assigned a chamber delineated in orthogonal perspective. This self-conscious trecentismo recalls the work of Carlo Carrà, whose painting was then also typified by an archaizing, toadying flag-waving.

Still, Depero’s tapestry Cavalcata fantastica (Fantastical Ride), 1920—depicting a weird mechanical figure astride a triple-headed camel-like animal—might be considered a masterwork. Equally striking is Flora e fauna magica (Magical Flora and Fauna), 1920, a painting distinguished by its tight rendition of a blue elephant surrounded by fish, otherworldly birds, and plants. Also on view are the pages of Depero’s typographically distinguished artist’s book Depero Futurista (Libro imbullonato) (Futurist Depero [The Bolted Book]), which fuses Soviet-style layouts with Marinetti’s “Words in Liberty.” Clearly, I am skeptical of grand claims made for Depero. But CIMA’s fledgling effort at fulfilling its scholarly mandate is a marked success.

Robert Pincus-Witten