Total Art (1930s)
The great urban, technological, and industrial transformations that began at the end of the XIX century (flight, film, electricity, radio, the automobile) eventually consolidated themselves during the first decades of the following century. Around the same time applied mathematics was born, a discipline that will fully develop during WWII, when it will be employed to crack secret codes, and for calculations dealing with atomic weapons, radars, calculators, and the theory of information. Futurists responded to these cultural stimuli through an art that was total, i.e. by breaking down typographically «words in freedom» [parole in libertà] (Marinetti) or by the pictorial «de-composition» of speed and dynamism (Balla), or of form (Boccioni); by recurring to dynamic photography or experimental film (Bragaglia), or to a mechanical art and to plastic complexes (Balla, Depero, Prampolini); by envisaging the synthetic visions of «aeropainting,» or projecting the architecture in glass, iron, and concrete of great train stations (Sant’Elia), or with Russolo’s «art of noise,» and much more. Futurism attempted to describe the new reality with a language aptly relating to it, with an experimental approach developed in any formal and aesthetic realm (this is why it was «total art»). This approach aims at reaching any aspect of daily life and deals, among other things, with the design of furniture, textiles, advertisements, editorial graphics, children’s toys. Such an approach led to limited productions of prototype design, but, more importantly, deeply modified the role of the modern artist that, from now on, will not be dealing with just brushes, landscapes, and still lives.
The artist has now become designer and builder, has developed experimental working methods with regard to materials and procedures, works in close contact with the manifacturing industry, and joins the new professions connected to mass communication (collaborating to reviews, books, advertisements). Milan is the center of this paradigmatic transformation. An important role is played by private exhibition facilities like the bookstore-gallery Il Milione that by importing Bauhaus books, the review «Art Concret», and through the publications of its «Bollettini», disseminates the rationalist and neoplastic ideas that were developing in Europe. Il Milione is where for the first time in Italy, although with some difficulties, abstract artists (the «degenerate» ones of Nazi propaganda) such as Kandinski, Vordemberge-Gildewart, and Albers could exhibit their works. New professional firms in the field of graphics were born, like the Studio R+M founded by the two young futurists Ricas and Munari, or like the Studio Boggeri, as well as new magazines like «Campo Grafico» (specialised in aesthetics and graphic technique), «Casabella» and «Domus» (both for architecture). New occasions for intellectual exchange are established: Biennali (Venice), Triennali (Milan), Quadriennali (Rome). Foundations are laid for a change of mentality about the role of modern artist in the advanced industrial society, an artist that is active, technological, and experimental. The futurist revolution of a total art is fully realized, overcoming the alleged and ruinous political revolution sought by Marinetti that is eventually transfigured in the Fascist experience that much owes to Futurism. Finally, the lesson taught is that of the aesthetics’ and culture’s superiority over politics in the processes of transformation of man.
The Concrete Art Movement
In Italy, at the end of WWII, the debate among the artists produced a secession, partly caused by the official stance taken by Palmiro Togliatti, the secretary of the Italian Communist Party, against those works of art that were not aligned with Socialist realism. The secession saw «realist» artists on one side, and «bstract» ones on the other. But the real historical novelty was the diffusion of the ideas of the concrete art movement, developed by authors such as Theo Van Doesburg, Jean Arp, and Piet Mondrian. This artistic trend was established in Italy with the first exhibition of the M.A.C. (Movimento Arte Concreta, founded in Milan by Bruno Munari, Gillo Dorfles, Gianni Monnet, and Atanasio Soldati). The show was held at the gallery-bookstore Il Salto in Milan, in December 1948, and featured twelve serigraphies realized by the members of the group. The goal of the concrete artists was to set art free from an idea of representation that is not the aesthetic visualisation of abstract thoughts. In so doing, concrete artists aimed at providing visual and artistic languages with that speculative autonomy that would make them independent from any representational or neorealist stance. The fact that the first exhibition of this Milan-based group revolved around a dossier of serigraphies tells us that these artists attributed importance more to the content of the visual communication rather than to the means employed to realize it (for them, a single, hand-made painting has the same communicative value of a serial print). M.A.C. could count on the support of some of the historical fathers of Futurism, such as Giacomo Balla and Enrico Prampolini, and among its founders we can find a figure acting as a link between futurist culture and new experimental stances: the polyedric artist Bruno Munari. A shift in paradigm and methods occurred, and art began displaying a closer dependence on industrial technologies (polymers, neon, steel, stainless steel, etc.), becoming more and more oriented toward design thanks to a «synthesis of the arts», that is, a closer collaboration between architects, artists, and graphic designers. It was indeed Munari, for whom art is essentially creative experimentation, who on the April-May 1950 issue of the magazine AZ wrote an article entitled Arte e Industria (Art and Industry), whose incipit reads: «The real function of art should be that of improving human spirit but also the environment where man lives. […] People walk through gray and dull streets, travel on ugly vehicles, and their eyes fell on ads that for the most part are vulgar and painted in mismatched colors. […] Why don’t we bring some of our artistic sensibility to the industry and the commodities it produces?» How can’t we liken these words with those that Steve Jobs spent telling of the success of his i-Phone? The merit of the M.A.C is that of having laid ground for the establishment of an Italian style experimenting with new materials and promoting a culture that was able to intercept the industrial demand opened to the innovative forms of design. Besides the most important exhibitions of concrete art—in Milan, Paris, Zurich, and Rome—it is important to remember also the exhibitions held at the Saletta dell’Elicottero in the Galleria dell’Annunciata in Milan in 1952 (Materie plastiche in forme concrete [Plastic Materials in Concrete Forms] and Studi per forme concrete nell’industria motociclistica [Studies for Concrete Forms in the Motorcycle Industry]), and at the Salone dell’Automobile in Turin in 1954 (Colore per le carrozzerie d’auto [Colors for Automobile’s Bodywork]). These are small-sized shows that give the sense of a positive and collaborative atmosphere, of a connection between aesthetics and industrial production. In the same years, between the end of the 1940s and the beginning of the 1950s, a crucial transformation in the scene of the Italian art takes place: the shift, largely theorized by the futurist movement, from the third to the fourth dimension, through the creation of a setting in which the spectator takes part, physically and perceptively (and more engagingly than in the past), to the work of art.
The first seminal works in this direction were Bruno Munari’s Macchine inutili [Useless Machines], realized since the 1930s, and Concavo-convesso [Concave Convex] (1946). The first is a work composed by light materials (sticks, geometrically-shaped pieces of paper) hanging and rotating freely in the air, and whose structure is counter-balanced by the unpredictable movements of its components, moved by the slightest breath of air. The second work is instead a shell-like space in semidarkness built with a bent metallic net which reminds of some of those non-orientable objects of mathematical topology, such as the well-known Möbius strip. The illumination of this work via point sources of light, together with the refractions of their shadows on the background walls, generate images in movement, veritable abstract movies. In 1949, at the Galleria del Naviglio in Milan, Lucio Fontana exhibited his Ambiente spaziale a luce nera [Spatial Environment in Black Light], obtained by suspending, in a darkened space, some shapes painted in fluorescent colors lit by a Wood lamp. In 1950, Bruno Munari produced some pictorial micro-compositions to be projected and magnified, and affirmed: «Modern life has given us music played by records […] now it gives us painting to be projected». For the entrance hall of the Milan Triennale in 1951, Fontana created Luce spaziale–Struttura al neon [Spatial Light-Neon Structure], a set of round graphic signs brightly lit. Lastly, taking advantage of the new photographic technology developed by the American company Polaroid, in 1953 Bruno Munari designed his Proiezioni polarizzate [Polarized Light Projections] that is micro-compositions lit by a light that changes according to the rotations of the Polaroid filter placed in front of a projector. The projected pictures were presented for the first time in the fall of 1953 at the Studio B24 in Milan and then in 1955 at the MoMa in New York. It is as thought the futurist insights had undergone a sudden acceleration and had turned, at once, in a few years, in highly technological and all-encompassing environments.
La Civiltà delle Macchine (1955)
We would like now to remember the role of the poet and engineer Leonardo Sinisgalli, who was invited by Enrico Fermi to join the study group of the «guys» of via Panisperna in Rome, who were conducting research on the atomic bomb. Sinisgalli was a key figure of national import, for the contribution he gave in stimulating the relationships between technology, science, and the visual arts and in finding a common ground between the humanities, technology, and industrial production. Having as a background a city like Milan where artists, technicians, tycoons, and architects rubbed shoulders and were all oriented toward a strong sense of planning, Sinisgalli, after having worked for pioneering companies such as Pirelli and Olivetti, became the director, from 1953 to 1958, of «La Civiltà delle macchine», a journal published by Finmeccanica, a partially state-owned company for the mechanical industry. On this very elegant company periodical, Sinisgalli wrote with a clear, informative style, about physics, mathematics, cybernetics, architecture, philosophy, poetry, and the visual arts. The integration of different disciplines is an isolated and unique phenomenon in the Italian culture of the time. Similarly uncommon was the idea he had together with the futurist artists Prampolini, of organizing an exhibition at the Galleria Nazionale di Arte Moderna in Rome in 1955 entitled Le arti plastiche e la civiltà meccanica [Plastic Arts and Mechanical Civilisation]. There, works of art and industrial machinary were aesthetically and expressively confronted. The machines were provided by companies such as Finmeccanica, Alfa Romeo, Delta, Ansaldo, Pirelli, Cantieri dell’Adriatico. Among the artists who took part at the event were Arp, Bloc, Corpora, Munari, Perilli, Prampolini, Radice, Reggiani, Severini, Veronesi, and many more. In this unusual exhibition, the inventions of the engineers were juxtaposed with the creations of the artists, among which a sample of Munari’s «useless machines», a work of kinetic art which is likely to be the best visual realisation of a poetics that lies exactly at the intersection between arts, science, and technology, and is enriched by qualities like paradox, chance, lightness, spatiality.
This is the third of the four parts of an article by Luca Zaffarano that originally appeared in Italy on the magazine «Ithaca.Viaggio nella Scienza/A Journey into Science», n. III, February 2014, http://ithaca.unisalento.it/nr-03_04_14/Ithaca_III_2014.pdf (original title: Arte e Scienza. Dal Futurismo all’arte Moltiplicata). The magazine is born as an initiative of the Department of Mathematics at the University of Salento and it opens to the cross of a variety of disciplines. This article was translated from Italian by Francesco Caruso. The first two parts of the article were published on Arshake on April 22nd and on April 30th, 2014. The article moves on Arshake from focus to news from the past as it goes back to the history of Futurism while linking to a current event, that is to say, the exhibition «Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe» at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, 21.02.2014– 09.0 1.2014.
images (cover, 1 and 2) Bruno Munari, composition with various materials in glass slide for multi-focal projection, 1952, Fondazione Jacqueline Vodoz and Bruno Danese Foundation collection, Milan, photo by Roberto Marossi (cover: variation of the projected image; 1:glass slide: 2: glass slide viewed from one side) (3) Bruno Munari, Macchina inutile, 1956-68, Nicoletta Gradella Collection, Brescia, Italy, photo by Pierangelo Parimbelli.