Bruno Munari was the ultimate generalist: He made paintings, installations, children’s books, sculpture, and graphic design during his long career. He started out as a Futurist and ended as a Concretist, making stops at Constructivism, Dada, and Surrealism along the way. Some critics argue that his kinetic sculptures represent Europe’s first pieces of installation art.
Perhaps that’s why Munari’s legacy is less known than other designers of his time: With so many eras, projects, and phases, it’s tough to pin him down. Apparently, Munari was well aware of his marketing problem. In 1969, he made an unusual request of Miroslava Hajek, a Czech art student he had met in Brno two years earlier. He wanted Hajek to oversee the preservation and curation of his work after his death. Hajek accepted, and for the next 30 years, maintained an encyclopedic archive of his work.
This fall, Hajek unveiled an exhibition curated from her vast store of material that seeks to explain Munari’s capacious life and work. Bruno Munari: My Futurist Past at the Estorick Collection pulls together work from four decades of Munari’s career. As the title suggests, it all began with Futurism. Munari looked up to older Futurists, like F.T. Marinetti, and would incorporate their ideas into his work throughout his life.
As a twentysomething artist, he made Italy’s first kinetic sculptures, roughly around the same time as Alexander Calder began making his own. For Munari, his Useless Machines allowed him to “liberate” abstract shapes and planes from the canvas, allowing light and wind to play a part in the art-making. In 1946, he unveiled Concave-convex, a series of kinetic sculptures made from twisting metal mesh, casting moire shadows on the gallery walls. It was one of the first pieces of installation art in Europe, later inspiring Op-Art artists in the 1960s.
Light fascinated Munari throughout his life, and in the 1950s, he found himself working with projectors and lenses. He dabbled in found art, sandwiching pieces of trash and plastic between two slides and projecting the incredibly beautiful results on the facades of buildings. Other slide works were more precise, made from layering prismatic colors onto the square pieces of film. In a sense, he was making street art several generations before we knew what it was called.
Munari had a legendary sense of humor, and there’s plenty of it on view at the Estorick Collection. He wrote and illustrated dozens of children’s books for his son Alberto. His graphic work is filled with puns and little jokes, offering a glimpse into the mind of a man who was as self-aware as any other modern artist.
We tend to think of Futurism as a movement of brash, ultra-serious declarations of a new world order. “We want to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness!” Marinetti wrote in 1909. But in Munari, we find a softer kind of Futurist, tempered with humor and intense intellectual curiosity. Looking at the work Munari produced late in life (he lived to be 91) we can be thankful that Marinetti’s pledge–that all artists should be killed when they turn 40, to make way for new ideas–fell flat.