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Futurist Tense

A Guggenheim exhibit shows how Umberto Boccioni’s portrait of his mother turned Cubism on its head—and irked the French.

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We are living in a materia world: Materia (1912), Boccioni's portrait of his mother.  

In 1912, four years before his death during an army training exercise, the Italian Futurist Umberto Boccioni painted a picture—a very funky picture—of his mother. That painting is now the centerpiece of a modest but marvelously revealing exhibition, ,b>Boccioni’s Materia: A Futurist Masterpiece and the Avant-garde in Milan and Paris, at the Guggenheim. On the surface, the show uses the painting to tell a conventional academic story about Futurism, the radical Italian movement dedicated to bringing the dynamism of modern society into art. On a deeper level, “Materia” brings to life as few shows have the unending tension between barbarous vitality and the paler temples of taste.

The poet and critic F.T. Marinetti issued the first Futurist manifesto in 1909, declaring that “the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath—a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.” Marinetti even glorified modern war, regarding it as a way to cleanse the present of the past. Italian writers and artists, eager to throw off the burden of history and celebrate the churning spectacle of the new age, hurried to his movement. Today, almost a century later, the Futurist manifestos read like the rantings of poetic speed freaks. The Futurists themselves, who detested academic politesse, would not have minded such a comparison. In their day, they considered madman “a title of honor.”

Some Futurists eventually became Fascists, and their celebration of violence cannot be dismissed as poetic license. At the same time, the creation of an atmosphere of overwrought senselessness allowed the Futurists to escape from convention and locate a volatile current of feeling in contemporary culture. They sought to embody or hallucinate the modern, not simply describe or reflect it. Not surprisingly, Boccioni—the most talented painter and sculptor of the group—turned to Cubism as the style that best captured the flux of the new world. He traveled to Paris regularly, where he studied the latest work of Picasso and Braque. But he transformed the style into something very different from anything found in Paris.

The revelatory moment in the show comes when the curators surround Materia with French Cubist paintings. The elegant expressions of Parisian Cubism are the superior works of art if you value subtle composition and exquisite harmonies of tone. In this setting, however, they resemble a group of dainty courtiers propitiating a fierce idol—Boccioni’s mother. He depicted her on a balcony in Milan with her hands clasped in front of her. The hands are enormous, distorted, bizarre, inelegant. They become the center of the world, knitting together the unruly planes of the picture. Much larger than her head, they lie right on the surface—except for the mysterious indentation of one thumbnail. The colors of Materia are heated, jangling, and garish. The light is sharp. The bustle of the street invades and cuts apart the private space of the traditional portrait. (Boccioni called an earlier picture The Street Enters the House.) In Materia, no boundary holds. The world is messy and theatrical. Mothers are not objects of contemplation.

Of course, French writers—and many subsequent critics—disdained Futurism, regarding it as an inexpert offshoot of French art. The Futurists were the “vulgarians at the gate,” to borrow the title of Emily Braun’s provocative catalogue essay. What this exhibit implicitly makes clear, however, is that both perspectives can foster great works of art. There is a space in the modern mind for the metaphysical ruminations of Cubism and one for the eruptions of the street. The contrast between the two perspectives enlivens art throughout the twentieth century. In the early fifties, for example, de Kooning’s brassy, leering Woman I—an idol in the tradition of Materia—violated the good taste of Abstract Expressionism. So did the street smarts of Pop Art. (Eventually, artists like Donald Judd reasserted the value of metaphysical clarity.) In our own day, the painter John Currin, whose recent show at the Whitney attracted much interest, has been trying again to use the female figure to upset good taste.


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