The aeropittura of Italian Futurist Tullio Crali takes flight.
Futurism, as an art movement, always had a romance with flight. As early as 1909, only six years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight, F.T. Marinetti wrote in Futurism’s founding manifesto of “the sleek flight of planes whose propellers chatter in the wind like banners and seem to cheer like an enthusiastic crowd.” That same year, at an air show in the northern Italian city of Brescia, the nationalistic poet and amateur military man Gabriele d’Annunzio, an inspiration for the Futurists, persuaded one of the pilots to take him up. After an extremely short spin in a plane that rose only a hundred feet or so off the ground, D’Annunzio announced ecstatically that the feeling of flying was “divine and yet inexpressible.” A few years later, during World War I, he would drop bombs on the Balkans from an airplane.
The Futurists were in love with machines and speed. The ever-advancing technology of flight certainly fit the bill, but there was something more: By placing the artist’s eye at a vantage point high above the landscape, the airplane made possible a disruptive, even subversive, new way of seeing that would surely shock the sensibilities of those used to seeing no farther than the horizon. Within Futurism, there arose a whole genre unto itself called aeropittura—aerial painting—which thrived especially during the interwar years. Its most accomplished practitioner was Tullio Crali (1910–2000), a so-called second-generation Futurist. Though some of his work was on view six years ago in the massive Italian Futurism show at the Guggenheim in New York, he is now getting an exhibition of his own at the Estorick Collection in London, a museum dedicated to Italian modern art. “Tullio Crali: A Futurist Life,” on view through April 11, presents a comprehensive career survey of one of the less-known and latest-surviving members of the Futurist school, which will be a revelation to most viewers.
Crali, who grew up in the Italian-owned part of what is now Croatia, started out as a Futurist fanboy. After reading an article by Marinetti in a newspaper when he was 15, he became an instant convert to the movement’s ideology and started painting on his own, starting with small-scale watercolors on cardboard. He first exhibited his work in a group show in 1929, and in the same year worked up the courage to write his idol a letter stating his intentions. To his amazement and joy, Marinetti wrote back: “Dear Futurist, delighted to have you with us in the Futurist struggle…” Crali was, he recalled, “in a state of excitement that I would not experience again until my wedding day.” When he finally met Marinetti, at an art show in Padua in 1931, “it seemed like I had known him for years.” Marinetti was a hard-core Fascist, and Crali followed him into that movement to a certain extent, though he always remained more poetical than political. During World War II, he lent his artistic talents to the creation of camouflage, but his innovative approach didn’t go over quite as well as he had hoped. “Camouflage demands imagination, but this disturbs the military mentality,” he recalled. Late in the war, he got into trouble for organizing poetry and music events that included works by Jews and politically proscribed people. Still when Marinetti died in 1944, Crali was inconsolable, and he never wavered in his devotion to Futurist ideals. As he declared later in life, “Non si cambia la fede—one does not change one’s faith.”
Crali, though not a professional pilot, first went up in a plane in 1928, and his aeropittura was informed by personal experience. One of his earliest paintings, done a year before his first flight, attempts to depict the sound and vibrational force of an airplane; Roarings of an Aeroplane (1927) places the viewer in the cockpit of a biplane, which is rendered in a cool aquamarine, abstracted into simplified formal elements. The roarings are shown as geometrically regular, recurring abstract shapes in shades of deep orange and red. The Forces of the Bend (1930) also uses Futurist abstraction to depict not flight itself but the aerodynamic forces that surround a plane and propel it into a curve. A more literal—though Cubistic—rendering of flight occurs in Tricolor Wings (1932), in which we are looking down on a formation of three warplanes; all that is visible beneath their wings is blue sky and clouds. A much later work, Assault of Motors (1968) uses the classic Futurist technique of using multiple iterations of the same figurative elements to convey motion, as in a time-lapse photo. Here the engine cowlings and propellers of planes seem to pile up upon each other, and one can almost hear the noise and feel the power and speed.
Two of the paintings in the Estorick show, Lights of Sunset in Ostia (1930) and Magic in Flight (1968) show no planes but instead gives the viewer something of the experience that a pilot has while looking down from the cockpit. In the earlier painting, we see rolling hills bathed in golden light, but it is actually two views at once—looking toward the horizon and looking down. As a plane spins and dives, these two can be interchanged with astounding rapidity, and the painting conveys the dizzying confluence of the two. The later painting shows what look like rocky ridges of land emerging from a bluish haze, and it is not quite clear which direction is which.
At its best, aeropittura gives us a sense of freedom from constraints, like that of the artistic imagination itself. Looking down from way up high, with the vanishing point below instead of at the horizon, one get a sense of being in free fall. There is something here that is akin to Leap Into the Void, the famous 1960 photo of the artist Yves Klein soaring out a window, blissfully abandoning himself to gravity without any concern for the pavement below. Seeing the world from a position radically different from that of everyday life is bound to shake up conventional preconceptions about the world, which was part of the Futurist project all along. Perhaps the ultimate example of aeropittura occurred during the Apollo lunar-orbit mission of 1968, when astronaut William Anders took the photo Earthrise and permanently changed our perspective on ourselves and where we are situated.
By John Dorfman