Back to the Futurism: Exhibit Gathers Art From a Ravenous Past

Francesco Cangiullo's "Large Crowd in the Piazza del Popolo (Grande folla in Piazza del Popolo)," 1914. © 2014 Artists Rights Society

Modern art gets around. Museums want it for exhibitions, and collectors are usually happy to lend it out.

Not Italian Futurism. The movement began in 1909, when Filippo Tommaso Marinetti published his "Futurist Manifesto" (ah, for a good manifesto) in Italian and French newspapers, and continued through World War II. It was a wild embrace of modernity and included almost every medium, from painting, music and theater to graphic design, even ceramics.

Three decades is a pretty good run, and, despite the movement's disgraceful truck with fascism, much of the art remains a pleasure to behold. You'd think it would be everywhere.

"No. Italian Futurism doesn't come up very often at all," says Vivien Greene, a senior curator at the Guggenheim who organized "Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe."

How could an entire genre of art keep such a low profile when almost every movement from the 20th century is exhibited to within an inch of its shelf life? The fascism thing didn't help. Nor did the Italian government's "50-Year Law," instituted the same year Futurism was founded, in 1909. The law stipulates that Italian art at least 50 years old and “of historical, archaeological or paleo-anthropological interest” is under "government protection" and can't be sold to buyers outside of Italy.

Unlike other modernist art movements, "Futurism wasn't identified as a collectible avant-garde for a long time," says Greene. It took such a long time, in fact, that very few collectors outside Italy were interested in buying it before the 50-year window slammed shut. Not many works made it out of the country and into the art market. In 1998, the law became even stricter. For art to leave Italy even temporarily on loan, the borrower (i.e., the Guggenheim) would have to leave a deposit of 110% of the work's price with the Italian government.

So Futurist art rarely comes up at auction and is exhibited infrequently at best. "It's a funny conundrum," Greene says. "It's less well known, and thus less available. Art has to be in circulation for people to know about it, and for people to want it."

Consider the magnificent dining set by Gerardo Dottori, currently on view for the first time at the Guggenheim. The set is undervalued to the extent that it's "still used by the family," says Greene. "The poor woman had to take out all of her dishes from the sideboard so we could borrow it." When the time came to ship the set to New York, Greene says, "she said to me, 'I hadn't really thought it through. I'm not going to have a dining table for six months.' "

The scarcity of Futurist works, and thus Futurist exhibitions, did make people clamor to get their art into Greene's show. "We had the problem of too many people wanting to lend to us," she says. "It's the only time I've really had this experience."

The Guggenheim show is accordingly massive. There are 360 pieces, from videos to ceramic plates to the entire conference room of Palermo's post office, on display for the first time outside of Palermo. The lines will invariably be around the block, but it might be worth the wait. Who knows when you'll see any of it again?

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