Towards Futurism. Born in 1892 in a small village in the province of Trento – at that time part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – Fortunato Depero attended the Scuola Reale Elisabettina in Roveretto, in a middle-European atmosphere that awakened diverse stimuli, ranging from irredentist ambitions to the echoes of the nascent Futurist revolution. He began working as a sculptor when he failed the entrance test to the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. His interest in the study of volume goes back to this period, an interest that was to accompany him throughout his entire life and was to fall on fertile ground when he met Balla, Cangiullo, Marinetti, Sprovieri and was struck by Boccioni’s work when he was in Rome in December 1913. The small Indian ink drawing of Bust of a Woman from 1914 is an example of this particular creative movement, influenced by various components, ranging from expressionist graphics to Futurist cubism. In March 1915, together with Giacomo Balla he published the Ricostruzione Futurista dell’Universo [Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe] in which they projected Futurism in life, beyond painting and sculpture, and towards the applied arts.
Diaghilev and The Song of the Nightingale. In 1916 he met the Russian ballet entrepreneur Diaghilev, who commissioned stage sets and plastic costumes for Stravinsky’s The Song of the Nightingale. Neither this opera, nor another proposed by Diaghilev, Cangiullo’s Zoological Garden to music by Ravel, were ever performed, and Depero was left not only with his sketches, but also a vast amount of coloured fabrics that he later used for his tapestries (inspired by The Song of the Nightingale) which, produced together with his wife Rosetta, met with considerable commercial success and today are still regarded as some of the best compositions on fabric from the XX century.
Clavel and the fascination of Capri. During that period he also met the ballerino Massine, the poet Cocteau and countless artists, including Picasso. He met the Swiss poet Gilbert Clavel – a small, hunch-backed man with a very strong personality interested in esoterica. They went to Capri together in 1917 and Depero illustrated his tale, Suicide’s Institute, three preparatory drawings of which are on display here. Other works on display in the exhibition also belong to this evocative stay on Capri, including the famous Woman + Rosary, one of his first figurative collages, of great plasticity and inspired by the island’s folkloristic-religious traditions.
Magic Theatre. In the same year he also prepared plays and in 1918, in collaboration with Clavel, completed the Balli Plastici, a marionette play that was performed in Rome, with five actions, and music by Casella, Malipiero, Bartok and Tyrwhitt. In August he went to Viareggio, where he exhibited his work with De Chirico, Carrà, Prampolini to name but a few, and where he continued his studies on the theatre (that were now Magic rather than Plastic), creating new marionette – acrobats made of caoutchouc.
The House of Futurist Art. In 1919 Depero opened the House of Futurist Art where he produced objects of applied arts, fabric intarsia and collages. This is the Magician’s House, inhabited by mannequins that were almost metaphysical, illuminated by cones of light, a melting pot of esoteric, subterranean creations, the legacy of his period with Clavel. During the same period he also worked on decorations and interior furnishings, for example for the Hotel Bristol in Merano and the Devil’s Cabaret. Depero’s advertising works were also part of his activity in the House of Futurist Art, characterised by the irresistibly attractive combination of bright shades, dynamic layouts, and typographic inventions.
Futurism in the 20s. In the early 1920s, Depero also concentrated his studies on the new precepts of Futurist mechanical art. On the one hand, he combined it with Boccioni’s plastic dynamism, for example in his extremely successful, famous Speeding Nitrite, reproduced in diverse versions (this is the first); on the other, he was seeking an original way to revive the relationship with nature. The inspiration of works such as Blazing Horses and other works from this period were closely linked to the triumph of the machine. However, Futurism applied to life could not ignore fashion, interior architecture or decorations. And it was precisely this unique decorative attitude that he applied to his outstanding Venetian works; while Martinetti sensationally rejected “die-hard Venice”, in his own way, Depero celebrated it. It was thanks to these works that in 1925, together with Prampolini and Balla, Depero was invited to represent Italy at the International Exposition in Paris that was to lead to the birth of Art Deco.
The bolted book. Two years later he published Futurist Depero 1913-1927, also called the Bolted Book, the first example of a book-object, and futuristic in each and every aspect – from the binding designed by Fedele Azari, editor of the book, the multi-directional layout, the different types of paper and characters, not just the letters but even sentences, at times forming shapes or letters, and contents illustrating the artist’s multifaceted activities and theories. In the same year, in the shape of typographical cubes he created the pavilion of the publishing house Bestetti at the III Biennale of Decorative Arts in Monza.
New York or Futurism “fulfilled”. In September 1928 he went to New York, where he was to live for 2 years, and put down his impressions in hundreds of sketches. He was very active in the fields of theatre set design and advertising. This period was both intense and revealing – this “fulfilled” Futurism of the great metropolis was far removed from the utopian dream of the ignorant Italian Futurists.
The 30s and 40s. He returned to Italy in 1930. His stay in the United States had changed him. He had truly experienced the “future”, seeing its darker sides, contradictions, misery, worries and violence with his own eyes. He therefore rethought art, going back to his place of birth, his values and nature. Between 1931 and 1936 he founded and directed the magazine Dynamo, published Radio Lyrics as well as participating in numerous national and international exhibitions. He accepted various commissions in the field of business advertising and institutional advertising. In 1940 he published his autobiography Fortunato Depero nelle opere e nella vita [So I think so I paint]. His expressive studies during the war were characterised on the one hand by a return to the subjects of the 1920s, and on the other, the rediscovery of subjects he had previously shunned, such as still life.
The Post-war years and 1950s. The war ended. The return of democracy in Italy coincided with a difficult period in Depero’s life – he was not forgiven for having supported Fascism. In 1947 he returned to the United States where he stayed for 2 years. While there, he also met the Surrealists and worked on decorative projects. He then returned to Italy, to the Trentino region. In 1951 he took part in the IX Milan Triennale with his own personal room and in 1952 he was also present in the Sala dei Maestri at the XXVI Venice Biennale. This was a difficult period, also financially. He was still working in advertising and on various decorative works. One of his important commissions in this sector was for the Sala del Consiglio Provinciale in Trento, which he worked on from 1953 to 1956. In 1955 he took part in the VII Roman Quadriennale and, the following year, together with the Rovereto City Council, began the creation of the Permanent Gallery and Depero Museum, an institution that now has more than 3,000 paintings and drawings, around 7.500 manuscripts as well as a vast library on Futurism. The museum was opened in 1959. In the same year Depero took part in the exhibition for the fifty years’ celebration of the first Futurist manifesto. He died in Rovereto in 1960.