In Profile: Bruno Munari

A recent retrospective at the Museo Ettore Fico in Turin establishes the overlooked importance of a ‘total artist’

b.-munari-scultura-da-viaggio.jpg

Bruno Munari, Scultura da viaggio, 1959, cardboard, 18 x 30 cm

Bruno Munari, Scultura da viaggio, 1959, cardboard, 18 x 30 cm

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.

b_3.jpg

Bruno Munari, Macchina inutile, 1956-70, metal, nylon threads, coloured adhesive tape, dimensions variable

Bruno Munari, Macchina inutile, 1956-70, metal, nylon threads, coloured adhesive tape, dimensions variable

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.

b_7.jpg

Bruno Munari, Negativo-Positivo, 1951, oil on faecite, 34 x 34 cm

Bruno Munari, Negativo-Positivo, 1951, oil on faecite, 34 x 34 cm

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’.

b_4.jpg

Bruno Munari, Fossile del 2000, 1959, plexiglass and metal, 16 x 13 cm

Bruno Munari, Fossile del 2000, 1959, plexiglass and metal, 16 x 13 cm

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 lebt als Schriftsteller und Übersetzer in Mailand. Sein letzter Roman La cospirazione delle colombe (Die Verschwörung der Tauben) erschien in Italien 2011 bei Bompiani. Zur Zeit arbeitet er an einer neuen italienischen Übersetzung von F. Scott Fitzgeralds Tender is the Night (1934; Zärtlich ist die Nacht, 1952).

Most Read

Ahead of ARCOMadrid this week, a guide to the best institutional shows in the city
A report commissioned by the museum claims Raicovich ‘misled’ the board; she disputes the investigation’s claims
In further news: Jef Geys (1934–2018); and Hirshhorn postpones Krzysztof Wodiczko projection after Florida shooting
If the city’s pivot to contemporary art was first realized by landmark construction, then what comes after might not...
Ignoring its faux-dissident title, this year's edition at the New Museum displays a repertoire that is folky, angry,...
An insight into royal aesthetics's double nature: Charles I’s tastes and habits emerge as never before at London’s...
In other news: Artforum responds to #NotSurprised call for boycott of the magazine; Maria Balshaw apologizes for...
At transmediale in Berlin, contesting exclusionary language from the alt-right to offshore finance
From Shanghai to Dubai, a new history charts the frontiers where underground scenes battle big business for electronic...
Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton, UK
Zihan Karim, Various Way of Departure, 2017, video still. Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation
Can an alternative arts network, unmediated by the West's commercial capitals and burgeoning arts economies of China...
‘That moment, that smile’: collaborators of the filmmaker pay tribute to a force in California's film and music scenes...
In further news: We Are Not Surprised collective calls for boycott of Artforum, accuses it of 'empty politics'; Frida...
We Are Not Surprised group calls for the magazine to remove Knight Landesman as co-owner and withdraw move to dismiss...
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is both gorgeous and troubling in equal measure
With Zona Maco opening in the city today, a guide to the best exhibitions across the Mexican capital
The question at the heart of Manchester Art Gallery’s artwork removal: what are the risks when cultural programming...
In further news: Sonia Boyce explains removal of Manchester Art Gallery’s nude nymphs; Creative Scotland responds to...
Ahead of the India Art Fair running this weekend in the capital, a guide to the best shows to see around town
The gallery argues that the funding body is no longer supportive of institutions that maintain a principled refusal of...
The Dutch museum’s decision to remove a bust of its namesake is part of a wider reconsideration of colonial histories,...
At New York’s Metrograph, a diverse film programme addresses a ‘central problem’ of feminist filmmaking
Ronald Jones pays tribute to a rare critic, art historian, teacher and friend who coined the term Post-Minimalism
In further news: curators rally behind Laura Raicovich; Glasgow's Transmission Gallery responds to loss of Creative...
Nottingham Contemporary, UK
‘An artist in a proud and profound sense, whether he liked it or not’ – a tribute by Michael Bracewell
Ahead of a show at Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, how the documentarian’s wandering gaze takes in China’s landscapes of...
In further news: Stedelijk explains why it cancelled Ettore Sottsass retrospective; US National Gallery of Art cancels...
With 11 of her works on show at the Musée d'Orsay, one of the most underrated artists in modern European history is...
Reopening after a two-year hiatus, London’s brutalist landmark is more than a match for the photographer’s blockbuster...
What the Google Arts & Culture app tells us about our selfie obsession
At a time of #metoo fearlessness, a collection of female critics interrogate their own fandom for music’s most...
A rare, in-depth interview with fashion designer Jil Sander

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

October 2017

frieze magazine

November - December 2017

frieze magazine

January - February 2018