Bruno Munari may not be the most well known artist of the twentieth-century, but he made a significant impact in the art of his own country as well as the international art world. In an exhibition charting the development of the artist over a quarter of a century, The Estorick Collection’s current special exhibition provides a glimpse at the history of art seen through a rather prolific career.
Born in 1907, the history of Munari’s life is like a history of the century. The first, and most notable, wave of Futurism lasted from 1909 to 1916 when Munari was clearly much too young to participate. The influence of artists such as Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Giacomo Balla, Gino Severini, and Antonio Sant’Elia, however, dramatically altered the perception of Italian art both within the country and abroad. After the utter devastation of the Great War, many became disillusioned with Futurism’s adoration of machines and (borderline) fascist politics, but a second wave gripped the eager youth of the country searching for modernity. It was during this second wave that Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the patriarch of the movement, later remarked that Munari was one of the most promising artists of his generation. Though Futurism was just a small segment of an impressive career, certain Futurist elements never really disappear: an interest in technology, transportation, and flight is present in many works as is a continuously forward-looking mindset. Munari’s move beyond Futurism allowed him more flexibility and led ultimately to a more successful career.
The exhibition at the Estorick Collection is thorough and enjoyable without being overly exhaustive (and exhausting) as some retrospectives can be. The roughly chronological display occupies three rooms – two on the ground floor exhibit paintings, sculptures, prints, and collages, while a small upstairs room contains an installation. The organization demonstrates clearly the progression of Munari’s career and his willingness to experiment with different styles and media.
While visiting ‘My Futurist Past’ significant parallels can be drawn to many of the major art movements of the twentieth-century, and it almost becomes like a game looking at Munari’s work and by whom he was possibly influenced. An obvious stepping stone beyond Futurism is Soviet Constructivism, and a series of paintings entitled ‘Negative/Positive’ embrace the aesthetic of the movement. Most of the works on display are very strong, but perhaps the most interesting is ‘ABC Dada’ (1944) comprised of collaged pages with short poems for each letter of the Italian alphabet. Whether the objects are found to illustrate the poems or the poems are written around found objects is unclear, but the reference to Dada and Surrealist free-association is obvious. Munari did not limit himself to working in two dimensions and throughout his career explored sculpture, often in the form of mobiles. These three-dimensional works began in the 1930s and many carry the title of ‘Useless Machine.’ The understanding of physics and clear reference to machinery relates to the Futurist interest in technology, but the inherent ‘ueslessness’ and pure aestheticism is a clear shift away from the artist’s Futurist past. Using bright and primary colours a clear parallel can be made to the work of Alexander Calder, known for his abstract mobiles. Yet another point of influence for Munari appears to be the Bauhaus due to his interest in bringing together various forms of art and design. In addition to fine art, the Estorick’s exhibition features graphic design in the form of posters as well as studies for textile designs. A figure drawing from 1935, ‘Dance on Stilts’, directly refers to paintings and studies of movement done by Oskar Schlemmer while he was an instructor at the Bauhaus. It is important to acknowledge that despite the multitude of references made to other artists/styles/movements, Munari was not copying the work of others, but rather his study of other art seemed to make him a stronger artist.
Throughout the exhibition, throughout all the varied pieces included, two major themes arise: a sense of humour and a study of stark dichotomies. I am fascinated by the Futurists, though it is unlikely that they would appreciate my admiration – as a woman devoted to museums, libraries, and studies of the past, I am at odds with the Futurist doctrine. But Bruno Munari took many of the positive aspects of the movement and injected his own personality, making a closed circle of men (who took themselves entirely too seriously) much more accessible. In the models for toys and playthings, the use of humour is obvious, but other works are more subtle. In “Study for a Children’s Book” (1935) to birds are surrounded by a connect-the-dots game. Mentally connecting the dots reveals that one bird is sitting atop a tree branch and the other is enclosed in a bird cage, but viewers must engage in the game to see the full picture. Many of Munari’s collages utilize bizarre juxtapositions of objects to evoke a playfulness that is refreshing to see.
The other major theme Munari explores throughout his career is the use of opposites, comparing and contrasting. The series of ‘Negative/Positive’ paintings use black and white to create geometric forms. In the installation upstairs, entitled ‘Concave/Convex’ Munari suspends a curvilinear form from the ceiling, dramatically lit so it’s movement casts shadows along all four walls. Munari uses these opposing colours and shapes, I think, to demonstrate that art (and life) cannot be simply black and white, that complexity is necessary for a more well-rounded practice. Munari’s success is not based on remaining the same, but rather on continuously moving forward and embracing new things.
In 1952, Munari comments on contemporary art saying, “How can one expect today’s public still to take an interest in the problems of painting or sculpture when it is accustomed to seeing everything resowed in concrete terms in the cinema, in illuminated advertising, in the great three-dimensional publicity signs of the international fairs? So is art dead or has it just altered aspect without many people noticing? What would Leonardo be doing today … Art is not dead, it has merely altered course and this is where we must look for it. It no longer responds to the old.” It is apt Munari makes reference to Leonardo da Vinci, one of the great Renaissance masters, because Munari himself becomes a ‘renaissance man’ consistently reinventing himself.
The Estorick Collection is one of London’s lesser-known treasures and certainly worth a visit. With several special exhibitions throughout the year as well as a strong permanent collection, the Estorick explores modern Italian art as it is not considered elsewhere.
Words: Emily Sack © ArtLyst 2012