The late modernist designer Achille Castiglioni famously said that his goal was to become anonymous, his projects so seamlessly blending with everyday life as to go unnoticed. This fate never befell his iconic oeuvre (which includes the 1962 Arco lamp, which he designed with his brother, Pier Giacomo); however, it could partially describe the trajectory of artist, writer and designer Bruno Munari, to whom the Museo Ettore Fico in Turin recently dedicated a vast retrospective, ‘Munari, Total Artist’, almost 20 years after his death.
For children growing up in Italy, Munari’s multi-faceted production forms such an integral part of the visual landscape that it is hard to believe it could have been the work of a single person. My personal recollections include his books on how to draw trees, his illustrations of animals seen through fog, his graphic alphabets, instructions for playing with Xerox machines and his ‘Talking Forks’ (1958): tiny sculptures formed from forks with their prongs bent to mimic hand gestures. He also designed toy boxes, filled with an assortment of various materials, such as metal and wood veneer, in order to encourage children to develop their tactile awareness. As a grown-up, I can add to this list the slides he used to lecture at ICA London in 1952, that he customized with semi-transparent layers to generate kaleidoscopic abstract shapes (which he described as ‘paintings for our ever-smaller houses’), the mobiles he exhibited in several shows at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and his 1963 Supplemento Dizionario (Addition to the Dictionary): a glossary of hand gestures that was published in English as Speak Italian.
And yet, despite his oeuvre’s ubiquity – or, perhaps, because of it – Munari, who was born in 1907, is hardly acknowledged as a seminal figure in Italian contemporary art. The recent exhibition at the Museo Ettore Fico (which ran 16 February – 11 June) was his first major retrospective in an Italian museum in over a decade; other shows dedicated to his work have mainly taken place in venues with programmes more specifically tailored for tourists or children rather than the wider museum-going public. ‘Munari, Total Artist’ sought to contextualize Munari’s best-known, mass-produced works within the larger bounds of a practice spanning more than six decades and across media including painting, film, sculpture and graphic design.
This sprawling exhibition offered a chronology of Munari’s artistic growth, starting with his early forays into futurist painting, which betrayed his uneasiness with any one set of strict rules. The Machine Hospital (1929), for example, betrays both a fascination for futurism’s focus on vibrant colours and movement, as well as his impatience with its rejection of figuration. His ‘Useless Machines’ (1930–33) blend Alexander Calder’s fascination for dynamic mobiles with a range of materials (thread, silk, cardboard, raw wood) that Arte Povera was to employ decades later. But whereas Calder’s aerial structures have a slickness to them that tends towards abstraction, the imperfections and fragility of Munari’s mobiles of the same period highlight the playful sculptural doodling of their origins.
For almost 50 years Munari also made graphic studies exploring ideas around Gestalt perception (‘Negative Positive’, 1948–95) and for 26 years he worked on a long-term collage series, ‘Theoretical Reconstructions of Imaginary Objects’ (1950–76), for which he applied mock-paleontological techniques to fragments of drawings or musical scores, turning them into complex abstract patterns. The artist’s playful and rhapsodic approach betrayed – in the words of curator Claudio Cerritelli – ‘a natural disposition not to take the art system too seriously’. At a time when artists were striving to develop a strongly individual style, Munari seems to have deliberately resisted any attempt at pigeonholing his practice, both in critical categories and in art-market terms.
The exhibition also documented how Munari sought to extend the possibility of art to account for technological and social transformations. Like portable Brancusis, his ‘Travel Sculptures’ (1958–90) are collapsible geometrical structures made of folded cardboard meant for travellers to bring art into their motel rooms. His abstract experiments with early photocopiers ('Original Xerographies', 1963-80) were meant to prove how ‘the technological potential of our age may allow anyone to produce something with an aesthetic value’ – an idea which, 50 years on, could well describe post-internet art. Similarly, Munari’s interest in mass-produced objects (as a designer, and as an author producing dozens of children’s books and textbooks and essays on the theory of art) stemmed from his dissatisfaction with the idea that art can only offer ‘beautiful things to look at, while the things we actually use are mostly ugly’.
So much of Munari’s work has become a familiar part of contemporary visual language that it could, paradoxically, seem to diminish his role to one of a finder rather than a creator. (Art historian Giulio Carlo Argan once praised Munari’s oeuvre as being ‘always obvious, yet never banal’.) Its very success seems to have made the artist’s practice too diverse to fit into what we have come to understand as contemporary art. In this perspective, the exhibition at Museo Ettore Fico, with its seemingly endless array of surprises, could also be understood as a meditation on the fine line between expanding the limits of a discipline, and crossing them. Munari did both.
Main image: Bruno Munari, Sensitiva, 1940-90, painted wood and wire, 25 x 50 x 10 cm
Vincenzo Latronico is a writer and translator based in Milan, Italy. His latest novel La cospirazione delle colombe (The Conspiracy of Doves) was published in Italy by Bompiani in 2011. He is currently working on a new Italian translation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night (1934).