March 2018

Like the Futurists he associated with, the Italian writer, painter, designer, and sculptor Fortunato failed to change the world. It is precisely this fate that makes the prescience of his commentary so striking. "The art of the future will be advertising," he once wrote. Decades later, his advertising and design for the Campari company––including a bottle design which remains in circulation today––remain his preeminent legacy. Much of the logic and contradiction of "Second Futurism," the movement's slow-burning afterglow through the 1920s and 1930s, can be read through these prints and designs. In his capacity as artist-as-advertiser, Depero developed an eccentric (but prophetic) approach to the changing terrain of his century: his Futurism came to mean an aspiration toward "all things at all times"; the extension and expansion both of Futurist aesthetics and the perspectives encompassed within it.

In "Futurism and Advertising Art," an essay published within Depero Futurista (1927), Depero casts advertising as concomitant with mechanization and mass reproduction: it is the only way for the artist to "keep step with industry, science and politics," he writes. Today, this point is so intuitive that one forgets it was not inevitable––Depero's opening feint, which stakes the legitimacy of advertising in precedent, shows as much. But in the essay that ensues, the familiar spectacles of Futurism ––"crystalline and mechanical style [...] metallic, geometrical, and imaginative flora, fauna, and people"––are equated with the "utterly new [artistic] field and themes" of "advertising art." Depero's assertion that "the art of advertisement [must be] extremely colorful [and] highly synthetic"––and found "everywhere"––has a certain resonance with our contemporary media landscape. But while one could justly read Depero as a bridge between fascism and the 20th century capitalism, what matters for the purposes of this essay is his equivocation of mass media with the multiplication of perspective. He hails advertising as the "living, multiplied art," in contrast to the art "isolated and buried in [the] museums" his compatriots once swore to firebomb. As he continues, he echoes Marinetti's definition of art as "the need to destroy and scatter oneself": "In the ongoing contact with the landscapes of steel, light, and reinforced cement," Depero writes, "the Futurists have created new techniques, a new form of multiple perspective."

Depero's argument––that the multiplication of perspective had already been depicted by modernists, but could be actualized only through the opportunism of advertising––follows neatly, if obliquely, from the "Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe" he had vowed to a decade earlier. It is clearest, however, in his repeated reference to plastic dynamism. In the 1913 manifesto where he introduced the term to the Futurist vernacular, Umberto Boccioni writes:
"We must raise the concept of the object to that of a plastic whole: object plus environment [...] We exhort the young to forget the idea of figures enclosed within a traditional framework––a result of culture, academism, and tradition! Instead Futurist sculpture will put the figure at the center of a plastic orientation of space."

In keeping with the voraciousness and aggression endemic to Futurism––to say nothing of the colonial apologia––plastic dynamism expands art to a total art of object and environment, surroundings, relations. It is easy to read Depero's conceit of advertising as environment (and vice versa) in this: "spellbinding art boldly placed on walls and the façades of big buildings, in shop windows and trains, alongside pavements and streets, everywhere..." But Boccioni's manifesto also aids in understanding Depero's crusade to frame advertising as art. In his campaign to merge disciplines––sometimes by dramatic means, as with the showcasing of what amounted to an advertisement for Campari at the 1926 Venice Biennial ––Depero was not agitating for the sake of agitation, nor anticipating Duchampian snark. Rather, this was an effort to expand the impact of Futurism from art to art object to object-as-art. Function trumps form because function is politically expedient, because function is proximate to lived experience. Here, there is an ironic overlap between the notorious misogyny of the Futurist project and scholarship at the opposite end of the 20th century: where some critics have sought to legitimate historically "feminine" forms (quilt, needlepoint) through a critical lens, Depero's futurism adopted the same forms (vests, textiles) to annex the domestic sphere into Futurism.

Depero's "Nine Heads with Hat" (1929-30) is a tidy meeting point for these themes: a stylized Al Capone, "quintessential mass-media icon of [his] time," is reproduced nine times in a grid. The multiplication of the subject in the work serves as a metaphor for his propagation via mass media outside it––but what is more bizarre than this association (and the subject's implicit violence) is Depero's choice of medium: the pillowcase.

This, along with the aforementioned irony, begs a question: is the violence and scope of Futurism not at odds with interior design? What form would Futurist design take? In "Italian Futurism and the Decorative Arts," Irina Costache gives us a sense for this:

By creating objects that resembled sculptures more than chairs, the futurists transformed the inertia of the object into a dynamic presence, and transposed the indifference of the users into a dynamic relationship that would “involve [them] so that [they] will in a manner be forced to struggle” to find an ideal position.

In other words, the dynamism of Futurism takes shape as a "struggle" the user must undergo to define their relationship to the object. Depero Futurista embodies this: as a "bolted book," it cannot sit neatly with other books on a shelf (spazio vitale); this same bolting mechanism allows it to be disassembled and viewed in any order (i.e. perspective). For Costache, this dynamism is not just an embodiment of the Futurist ethos, but linked with the breakdown of artistic conventions: "the barrier between fine arts and the decorative arts" is dismantled with the "classical notion of man as the measure of all things." Tellingly, a chapter from Depero's autobiography (So I Think, So I Paint) is entitled "Struggling with the Futurist." We also see the notion of "struggle" in Depero's application of perspective to language: where prior Futurists made use of onomatopoeia to physicalize the aggression of language (as in Marinetti's Zang Tuum Tumb); Depero inverted (sections of Depero Futurista) and reversed (the title of Annihccam del 3000) text to contest the viewer's relation to it. (Depero's foray into what he would call "typographical architecture" at the 1927 Monza Biennial only pushed this further.)

This logic––the "[rejection of] both ergonomics and the decorative passiveness assigned to objects" –––is how one begins to make sense of the Campari bottle itself, a functional object that counters expectations. Depero's design is not ergonomic so much as aerodynamic: even as an "inverted chalice," it resembles a shell projectile more than something to drink from. (The cone is not restricted to Campari: it is found throughout Depero's work in the 1920s from the cover of Depero Futurista to the essays typeset in the shape within it). In the advertisements themselves, the Campari bottle––polysemous silhouette-as-brand––is interpolated into a number of scenarios, all of them modern. The Campari cone becomes streetlight, hat, megaphone: an embodiment of the urban life Depero was infatuated with.

What is often more interesting than the representation of the Campari bottle is the figure bearing it. In some instances, the drinker is simply a recombination of conic silhouettes, an hourglass face or torso formed from conjoined bottles. The drinker rarely resembles (or purports to be) human: in the vast majority of the Campari prints, the figure is a marionette or robot (borrowed from Depero's costume designs for theatre or ballet). The appendaging of the Campari bottle onto or into the figure––alongside the "struggle" of Futurist design and media theory of "Futurism and Advertising Art"–––hints at what Hal Foster calls the "double logic" of prosthetics; "technology as both extension and constriction of the body." But where prosthetics became a hallmark of Marinetti and the early futurists, Depero's concerns could be more precisely described as animation, with the marionette and robot as primary examples.

In this, Depero is more closely aligned with the anti-Bergsonian rhetoric of thinkers like Wyndham Lewis, who derived comedy not from the revelation of men acting like machines, but of man as a machine acting like man.

What is so remarkable about Depero's animated figures is the collapse of meaning and process inscribed in them. In Depero, 1.) the visual vocabulary of mechanization––cones, tubes, modularity––and 2.) the effort to represent the multiplication of perspectives which results from mechanization and acceleration––resemble one another. To revisit plastic dynamism, this time in Depero's words:

“As soon as I started trying to make paintings inspired by plastic dynamism, I realized that what I needed was a multiple perspective. In fact, having to include different pieces of landscape in a single work, not just different but distant, upside down, interpenetrating, one on top of the other, or fleeting, logically the different perspectives were called upon to reflect these different subjects simultaneously.”

In expanding to contain its environment, plastic dynamism seems to necessitate the multiplication of perspective––in the same fashion that it necessitates the breakdown of barriers between object and user and between "fine arts" and "decorative arts." Given his distance from the doctrinaire factionalism of earlier Futurists, Depero is able to acknowledge that the multiplicity of perspective functions as a prosthetic in cubism:
Simultaneous impressions are various impressions which one has at the same time. In cubist and futurist painting [we] draw half a face seen from the front and the other half in profile, the two halves being joined together [...] simultaneously conjoined, cast together, as if they belonged to a single body.”

But though Depero notes the similarities, his rationale for the multiplication of perspective is at odds with the cubist rationale. Where Depero sought to emulate the Futurist processes of mechanization and the city (not to mention the Futurist fervor for it), cubism's embrace of multiplicity followed from a Bergsonian discourse of subjectivity. (The critical impulse to situate cubism in tradition was only further anathema to Futurism: upon cubism's arrival in America in 1913, several journals published essays "connecting cubism with classicism and maintaining that the style was a logical extension of Renaissance experiments with perspective," Elizabeth Carlson recounts. ) Nonetheless, Depero’s interpretation of multiplicity does not operate fundamentally differently, so much as take this logic to its logical conclusion. In a dialogue from So I Think, Depero explains just how the multiplication of perspective comes to resemble industrial design:

“Will you please explain to me the reason of those sharp noses and of these oblong heads?”

“Of course. Do you know the scholastic definition of a line? A straight line is represented by an endless number of points following one another. Now imagine this point to be represented by a sphere in motion. An endless number of these spheres following one another would make not a line, but a huge cylinder, a transparent tube. Now imagine a human head, instead of a sphere, rapidly moving from place to place: the resulting image would look like a humanized cylinder."

For Depero, the multiplication of perspective is not an internal, subjective process, but the representation of the modern world. Motion is how he renders this multiplication legible––and the result is that his depictions of the multiplication of perspective come to resemble the graphemes (tubes, pipes, cones) which make such a perspective possible.