at the Block Gallery of Northwestern University

Italian Futurism was born of an urge to destroy. In 1909 poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti set the movement’s first manifesto on the front pages of Le Figaro: “We will destroy museums, libraries, and fight against moralism . . . and all utilitarian cowardice. . . . We will glorify war–the only true hygiene of the world–[and] the beautiful Ideas which kill.” The Futurists wanted to mow down the old classical and Renaissance aesthetics that still dominated Italian cultural life. They sought to create a new cultural movement that would enliven their country’s stagnant economy and conservative institutions. They believed a ruthless modernism should tear down the ancient cities and replace them with vibrant industrial metropolises. For them, the best world was one in flux, characterized by their favorite words: motion, virility, excess, bombast, and revolution.

New York was the Futurists’ favorite city, though for most it was a love affair from afar. Of the dozens of poets, dramatists, composers, and artists who made up their official ranks, only one, artist and designer Fortunato Depero, ever visited the United States. Northwestern University’s Block Gallery, the Italian government, and the Campari Company have collected 65 of Depero’s works, mostly drawings, in a fantastic show that, true to the Futurist spirit, seems to shake the gallery walls.

Depero is something of a kinder, gentler Futurist. He joined the movement late, in 1915, and was its youngest member by ten years. But unlike the older members, Depero rarely glorified martial virtues.

The most famous and spectacular of Futurist works, Umberto Boccioni’s sculpture Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913), is a massive bronze humanlike figure that suggests a machine in motion. It epitomizes the Futurists’ attempt to portray action without freezing it; as in most of the movement’s creations, forms stretch in jagged shapes away from the work’s center. Futurists, who supported Mussolini and to some degree inspired him, have been linked to the birth of Italian Fascism, and Boccioni’s fearsome work looks like a precursor of Italian Fascist designs. (Hitler’s Nazism appealed to German conservatism by drawing on the classical aesthetic the Futurists decried.)

Depero’s work is too soulful to embrace destructive forces so ardently. Shortly after being inducted into the Futurist ranks he committed the blasphemy of creating a series of rural scenes, some of which are included in the exhibition. His charcoal drawing Vacche (“Cows”) is not in the Italian pastoral tradition, but it nonetheless conveys the calm one expects in a picture of grazing animals. The figures are round and full. The udder of the cow in the foreground is a perfect sphere, so stretched that it shines. A goat, donkey, and faceless peasant woman stand by passively, like God’s good creatures. Futurist writers scorned the aristocrat-run farm-based economy and pushed for industry and mass urbanization, but Depero offered up the countryside’s virtues.

The Futurists championed Italy’s entry into World War I, and some were jailed for their activism. But once war came the movement lost its momentum. Some leading figures died in battle; others died at home. Some of those who remained continued to advocate destruction as a means of change, but Depero chose to show an uglier side of violence, from 1920 on. His remarkable 1923 drawing Ingranaggi di guerra (“Cogs of War”) depicts an embattled citadel where soldiers, civilians, corpses, bunkers, and bombs mix together in one large commotion that screams from the paper.

Depero borrowed his angular style from cubism. But instead of bogging himself down in cubism’s tendency to overanalyze and sometimes deaden objects, he showed a scene as it might have looked in a cracked fun-house mirror. Unlike the cubists, he was not concerned with precise proportions or simultaneous perspectives of just a few objects. He used multiple, subjective perspectives of many objects to convey his emotional response to a rush of events.

Depero found a chaos he particularly liked in 1928, when he made his first trip to New York City, where he stayed for two years. In 1931 he wrote down his impression of the city: “Walls in every perspective are drilled with millions of lighted windows disguising millions of tiny, busy humanities. . . . Millions of loves. Millions of writing and reading people. Millions of sleeping and dancing people that make this cubist metropolis alive, this new and boundless Babel that looks like a madhouse and laboratory at once.” Depero’s New York drawings have a kaleidoscopic, Busby Berkeley joy about them. Looking at them one feels Depero left nothing out.

Most of the elements of this work–as in Broadway, vetrine, folla, macchina Paramount (“Broadway, Windows, Crowd, Paramount Cars”)–radiate from the center of the page, with buildings above and something below the street, here the subway. The drawings are packed with street life: skylines jutting out of sidewalks, cars, stoplights, billboards. All float in a dense mass surrounded by a white space that pushes the images in.

Depero’s black-and-white New York drawings are loud–the compositions explode outward like sonic booms. Filled with rushing cars, legions of dancers, and marching pedestrians, they are perhaps the greatest visual evocation of a big city’s timbre ever produced. Clatters and roars, squeaks and hums–all the sounds are there. Depero even captures the silences. In the lower left of Broadway, vetrine, folla, macchina Paramount sit four women on a subway bench under a tunnel arch; quiet, calm, their hands in their laps, they stare into space, each with a slight grimace that can be read partly as a warning to others to bug off, partly as lonely anguish.

As Depero grew older, he drifted ever farther from the radicalism of the Futurists. Nevertheless it was he who spread the Futurists’ visual language to a wide international audience. He had always had an interest in working in media that would give him tremendous exposure. In 1915 he and fellow Futurist Giacomo Balla penned their own manifesto, “The Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe,” in which they advocated spreading their aesthetic to commercial enterprises. Intrigued by mass culture, Depero contracted his services to toy, clothing, and interior-design companies after World War I. By far his most famous commercial collaboration was with the Campari Company, and the exhibition offers 15 original drawings Depero did for ads for the firm’s cordial, a good share of which are brilliant applications of his style. He simplified his fragmented style, conveying motion by rotating his images and using the cartoonist’s jagged lines and concentric arcs. Nothing in the graphic pieces ever seems settled. Puppet figures rock on unsteady legs, glass tumblers teeter back and forth–even the toppling calligraphy jumps off the page. The designs are elegant yet avant-garde. Yet this is Futurism for the bourgeoisie, analogous today to the mock radicalism of the ads for Benetton clothes, another Italian trendsetter. In Depero’s hands the style that began out of a drive to create industry evolved into industry’s servant.