Marvel at the kinetic Bruno Munari

The problem with remembering seminal individuals throughout history is that each generation produces luminaries, all of whom enjoy their moment in the limelight and, in their own distinct way, change the world. In your time, you might have been one of the most important people in the public sphere, but, many years on, have been relatively forgotten by today’s masses.
One such person who fits this description to a tee is Bruno Munari, a 20th century Italian artist and designer, whom to the non-cognisant, is relatively unknown, despite his authority in both respective spheres.
Fittingly then, he is the subject of the Estorick Collection of Modern Art’s new show Bruno Munari: My Futurist Past, an exploratory show that details and investigates his contribution to Futurism and aesthetics.
He was, as the London-based museum observes, one of the most captivating, versatile and intriguing artists working in Italy during the last century, contributing significantly to ideas about visual culture.
This manifested itself notably in his interest and contribution to Futurism early on in his career, as well prompting the next generation of artists and designers later in life with Movimento arte concreta, his own movement.
A creative in every sense, Munari was captivated with the idea of expanding the realms of possibility. Initially, he was interested in how painting could be expanded from a static space and become spatial, which was partly influenced by the suggestions listed in Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe, a document that built on the initial ideas of Futurism.
This period would prove to be decisive because, by the thirties, Munari was, similar to his Surrealist contemporary Marcel Duchamp, really challenging what was acceptable. His Useless Machines, ironically titled of course, were created to unshackle abstract painting from its inert state of being.
Effectively installations, the way in which they were suspended allowed for the works of art to be moved by sheer human presence or the slow permeation of a breeze into the gallery space. In a way it was impertinent behaviour, but initiated by a genuine intrigue in dissolving the boundaries of logic. Tacitly, they were also made to express a political statement.
“I intended these objects to be thought of as machines because they were made of a number of movable parts fixed together,” he explained in his 1966 book Design As Art. “They are useless because unlike other machines they do not produce goods for material consumption, they do not eliminate labour, nor do they increase capital.”
In the forties, Munari became increasingly preoccupied by spatiality and began to engineer works that were “alive”. His first spatial installation, known as Concave-convex, was made up of a moulded metallic-mesh object, topologically inspired, that would move.
Against a backdrop of a slightly darkened room, further illuminated by spotlights – which refracted the light and created new shapes and shadows – the work eschewed all conventions of passivity. It was one of the first kinetic paintings in the history of European art.
By the end of this decade, his innovative movement, which was co-founded with Atanasio Soldati, Gianni Monnet and Gillo Dorfles, was beginning to take form as the gallery notes:
“This movement acted as a catalyst for Italian abstraction, giving rise to a ‘synthesis of arts’ capable of complementing traditional painting with new tools of communication and able to demonstrate the possibility of a convergence between art and technology, creativity and functionality, in an industrial context”.
Munari matters to modern Italian art. His enthusiasm for the offbeat, the mathematical and of movement might not mark him as a memorable icon to the masses – the more abstruse you are, the greater the diminishment of visibility – but nevertheless, as this exhibition shows, his influence has been decisive if not observably known.
“There should be no such thing as art divorced from life, with beautiful things to look at and hideous things to use,” he once said. “If what we use every day is made with art, and not thrown together by chance or caprice, then we shall have nothing to hide.”
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