New York

View of “Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe,” 2014. Four works by Enrico Prampolini. From left: Sketch for Stage Design of The Merchant of Hearts, ca. 1926–27; Costume for Propeller Dance, 1928; Costume for Football Dance, 1928; Simultaneous Self-Portrait, ca. 1923. Photo: Kris McKay.

View of “Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe,” 2014. Four works by Enrico Prampolini. From left: Sketch for Stage Design of The Merchant of Hearts, ca. 1926–27; Costume for Propeller Dance, 1928; Costume for Football Dance, 1928; Simultaneous Self-Portrait, ca. 1923. Photo: Kris McKay.

“Italian Futurism”

View of “Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe,” 2014. Four works by Enrico Prampolini. From left: Sketch for Stage Design of The Merchant of Hearts, ca. 1926–27; Costume for Propeller Dance, 1928; Costume for Football Dance, 1928; Simultaneous Self-Portrait, ca. 1923. Photo: Kris McKay.

FROM THE FRONT PAGE of Paris’s Le Figaro in February 1909, the “Founding and Manifesto of Futurism” heralded not only a new cultural movement but, in the same hectoring breath, its own proleptic obsolescence. “When we are forty, others who are younger and stronger will throw us into the wastebasket, like useless manuscripts . . . !” So declared the Futurist poet and impresario F. T. Marinetti, hurling his now-famous paeans to youth, speed, and the sovereignty of the machine. He vowed to demolish celebrated monuments, artworks, and academies—those past glories to which Italy’s cultural present remained indentured, given the country’s belated modernization. From its beginnings on the eve of Italy’s pre–World War I colonialist campaign in Libya to its last gasps under the Fascist Republic of Salò in 1943–45, Futurism championed everything from the “destruction of syntax,” to war on academic pedantry, to war itself. A quickly growing band of Futurist brothers (joined only gradually by a handful of women) authored more than fifty manifestos before 1915 alone, insisting that any masterpiece “be burned with the corpse of its author,” pledging to destroy as much as they created, and declaring scorn for the very public whose attention they relentlessly courted.

For a movement that likened the admiration of “old paintings” to necrophilia, the ironies of a major museum retrospective are obvious; Futurism’s scorched-earth rhetoric poses challenges to any commemoration of its legacy. Pinned behind protective glass in the exhibition “Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the movement’s birth announcement, as fragile as a sheet of prized papyrus, now embodies the old news it so tirelessly derided. Nearby, an introductory gallery assembles key works by Umberto Boccioni, whose untimely death in 1916 cut short his remarkable achievements, particularly in sculpture. “I believe I have glimpsed a complete renovation of that mummified art,” he wrote in a 1912 letter from Paris, where the churning Hellenistic swirls of the Louvre’s Winged Victory of Samothrace (an early Futurist bugbear) surely lent more to his Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913, than he conceded. Indeed, for all the Futurists’ assaults on what they deemed the “auratic” object of art, traditional painting and sculpture took pride of place in their early efforts and remain the work by which they are best known—at least to an American public familiar with only a narrow swath of works from the group’s seminal years before World War I.

It is from this limited perspective that Futurism’s historical reception remains fitful and fraught, and “Italian Futurism,” organized by Guggenheim curator Vivien Greene, provides a refreshingly expanded view of the movement’s trajectory.Following centenary exhibitions in Europe in 2009, this first comprehensive retrospective on US soil assembles more than 350 works in a staggering variety of media, including photography, film, music, painting, ceramics, architectural design, and seemingly everything in between. It was, in fact, the space between media that occupied the movement’s keenest attention. Futurism aimed to at once transcend the strictures of different genres and synthesize them into a transformative worldview. Thus, the exhibition offers not only familiar canvases (Carlo Carrà’s Funeral of the Anarchist Galli,1910–11, and Gino Severini’s Armored Train in Action, 1915) but Giacomo Balla’s ceramic coffee service, Fortunato Depero’s painted puppets, and Enrico Prampolini’s set designs and theatrical couture.

This show also includes the creations of no fewer than nine women, together with works rarely exhibited on these shores, such as Tato’s and Bruno Munari’s mischievous photomontages; Virgilio Marchi’s designs for Fantastic City, ca. 1919; Ivo Pannaggi’s watercolor abstractions, redolent of international Constructivism; and the various manifestos that propose or rehearse these diverse works. Read aloud at Futurist serate (evenings), such proclamations were inevitably met by vegetable projectiles and evoked summary brawls, bringing the group’s shibboleth of arte-azione into real time and space. “We desperately want to re-enter into life,” reads the 1910 “Futurist Painting: Technical Manifesto.” Fittingly, the exhibition borrows its title from Balla and Depero’s “The Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe,” a 1915 manifesto that broadcasts an explosive ambition. The pamphlet and its related objects propose a wholesale reconfiguration of modern experience, pushing past the confines of frame or plinth to a “total fusion” of Futurist sensibilities.

Indeed, as suggested by its “universal” aims, Futurism reached well beyond Italy’s borders. Marinetti’s flair (and funds) for publicity rendered it the first truly international avant-garde movement, as notorious in London or Moscow as in Milan or Rome. Yet Futurism also remained grounded in the circumstances of its origins: Italy’s relatively late unification and an attendant crisis of identity. This mix of local and global orientations has long frustrated analysis. By limiting the show to Italian artists, Greene affords a more thorough survey of Futurism’s evolution than previously undertaken on this side of the Atlantic, with engaging didactic materials (photographs, videos, wall texts, and a map) marking the way. While the 1986 landmark exhibition “Futurism and Futurisms” at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice captured the gamut of media that is the movement’s defining characteristic, it included related developments, from Russian Rayonism to British Vorticism. Likewise, Tate Modern’s 2009 centennial retrospective saw non-Futurist works—by Georges Braque, Robert Delaunay, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, and others—upstage many of their Italian counterparts; Futurist innovations appeared less radical than derivative, with even Boccioni’s pioneering experiments wilting somewhat in the wake of Picasso’s example.

As many scholars have long argued, however, Futurism’s chief contribution to European modernism was less a formal revolution than an “activist model.” With several of their number volunteering in World War I, the Futurists formed an avant-garde even in the literal, military sense of the term. Futurism’s obsession with irredentism and interventionism lent vital momentum to the Fascist revolution. By 1919, Marinetti was standing for elections alongside Mussolini—a sustained (if strained) rapport that the exhibition sets into relief, and which is further addressed in the rigorously erudite and fittingly synthetic catalogue.

Marinetti waxed lyrical about shipyards and factories in his early writings; Boccioni’s painting The City Rises, 1910–11, forms a throbbing elegy to the urbanism wrought by workers’ hands. Yet laboring bodies gradually recede from Futurist representation. That shift reflects a reorientation from a loose-knit faction of anarcho-nationalists with working-class sympathies to a movement increasingly solicitous of Fascist benefaction—a patronage that forbade sustained attention to class struggle. Fascism never acknowledged any aesthetic as its official propagandistic arm, yet the regime recognized in Futurism both its own activist origins and a fetishization of modernity that could underscore its more progressive tendencies. The vagaries of this affiliation have ensured an ambivalent and often contradictory historiography: Futurism is either collapsed too quickly into Fascism or else exonerated entirely from ideological complicity. For some, Fascist totality is merely the logical upshot of Futurism’s utopian “reconstruction”; for others, the regime’s mounting conservatism betrayed the cultural movement’s dynamic profanations.

Futurism remains disturbing in its callous celebration of violence and combative nationalism. Yet no student of twentieth-century culture can still feign shock at the affinities between modernism and Fascism; the latter, after all, formed a modernist project in its own right, promising a gleaming new future even as it made opportunistic use of the past. “Reconstructing the Universe” goes some way to laying bare that peculiar symbiosis. Notwithstanding individual dissenters, Futurist artists served as Fascist mouthpieces well into the 1940s, rendering even the Roman Forum and Saint Peter’s Basilica sites of “aerial dynamism,” as in Filippo Masoero’s stunning photographs on view. The exhibition’s wide-ranging inclusion of such later works—for example, so-called Aeropainting and Aeropoetry, which celebrated the poetics of flight—offers a substantial look at this second phase, when efforts were channeled into vaunting military and technological prowess. The period witnessed many chauvinistic (and ham-fisted) efforts as well, whether Balla’s corny homage to a Fascist minister and pilot, Italo Balbo, 1931, or Alessandro Bruschetti’s to Mussolini, Fascist Synthesis, 1935. On its 1939 cover, the journal Artecrazia proclaimed “the Italianness of all modern art.”

The Futurists, in fact, spied their own influence everywhere.Visiting the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, Balla and Depero claimed to find Futurism’s effects even in the burgeoning aesthetic of Art Deco. By a similar logic, the Guggenheim’s rotunda itself might be claimed as an extension of the Futurist universe, evoking Boccioni’s desired “sculpture of environment” and translating the Futurist obsession with diagonal and helical movement to a much larger scale.

The exhibition’s design enhances this effect. Glass-topped parallelograms pitched at steep angles replace typical, staid display cases. Given the extensive inclusion of manifestos and other printed material, these vitrines dominate several sections, flanked by thin, oblong walls printed with enlarged images drawn from the works on display. While such additions contribute energy to the museum’s pitched ascent, they fail to generate a truly bold atmosphere. Despite several attempts to capture Futurist forays into the design of multisensory environments (multiple films; spoken-word recordings of concrete poetry; the re-creation of Balla’s light show for Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Fireworks, 1916–17, in a small side gallery), the consignment of the bulk of the show’s material to the museum’s syncopated bays inevitably confounds those Futurist watchwords (interpenetration, expansion, dynamism) that might otherwise have unified the works on display. Padded with a few too many charming charcoal drawings by Depero, the ramp loses something of its initial punch. The famous Futurist command to “put the spectator in the center of the picture” may be impracticable in actuality, but it nonetheless merits more of a plunge into immersive sensibilities. From the upper levels of the poised and elegant “Reconstructing the Universe,” the atrium appears unruffled in its white spiral.

Such elegance and poise raise urgent questions in relations to Futurism. Where is the will to discomfit, or at least to register the Italian avant-garde’s frenzied and deeply unsettling attention to environment? Should visitors to a show about this movement (as consequential to Dadaist shock and 1970s performance art as to Alberto Sartorio’s rationalism) feel entirely at ease? What happened to Marinetti’s scorn for the public? After all, Futurism staked itself not simply on stylish formal acrobatics but also on a raucous assault against given truths. (Ironically, this spirit was evoked more forcefully during a recent protest that happened to unfold against the backdrop of the Futurism exhibition, as demonstrators critical of the Guggenheim’s labor policies in Abu Dhabi rained thousands of fake dollar bills down into the atrium.) Despite its antibourgeois lip service, Futurism was no stranger to consumerism—to wit, Depero’s savvy advertisements for Campari and covers for Vanity Fair. Yet to judge from the show’s inauguration, the Futurist disdain for “first-night audiences” did not ripple the glasses of chardonnay circulating through the lobby, and the sleek Lavazza espresso bar erected there since (perhaps an homage by the show’s sponsor to Marinetti’s nickname, “the Caffeine of Europe”) hardly creates a buzz. Nor does the show’s grand finale by Benedetta Marinetti—murals celebrating Fascist feats of communication—quite convey Futurism’s enduring, insidious mix of “modernolatry” and reaction. Just before the exhibition opened, the New York Times quoted the curator as saying she wanted the show to end “on a really positive note. Instead of lingering more on the end of the war, when poor Italy is so beat up it’s so depressing.” It should be remembered, though, that Mr. Marinetti not only glorified war—calling it the “greatest Futurist poem”—but followed Mussolini’s regime to its last, bloody hours. Detached from their perch in a Palermo post office and hung on white walls, his wife’s proud panels, stripped of their context, appear sterile even in their beauty. Long haunted by the art-historical mummies it sought to bury, Futurism seems finally to have yielded to its own graceful museumification.

“Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe” is on view through Sept. 1.

Ara H. Merjian is assistant professor of Italian studies at New York University, where he is an affiliate of the Institute of Fine Arts and the department of art history.