Material and Intellectual Lightness: Reading Bruno Munari à la Calvino

by Margherita Zanoletti

A new publication about the Milanese artist Bruno Munari (1907-1998), titled Bruno Munari: The Lightness of Art, has been released by Peter Lang this month. The volume, edited by Pierpaolo Antonello, Matilde Nardelli and Margherita Zanoletti, is the first academic monograph on Munari’s work originally designed in English, and arguably the most comprehensive and methodologically innovative, with contributions from a stellar cast of scholars in art history, visual culture and Italian studies. By touching on underexplored and even unknown aspects of his work, the volume offers a truly fresh overview of Munari’s prolific, prolonged and metamorphic career not only as a designer and a pedagogue, but also as a multidisciplinary artist, writer and intellectual over most part of the last century.

In the last few years especially, the interest on Munari has been growing internationally, as the significant number of recent exhibitions, publications and educational initiatives on his work testifies. Capturing this resurgent attention, Bruno Munari. The Lightness of Art collects eleven newly commissioned essays by international scholars, organized around four thematic sections. The first section, Experiment and the Avant-Garde (with essays by Merjian, White and Rubino) engages with the key role of experimentation in Munari’s career not just as an aesthetic and conceptual guiding principle, but also as a mode of making and thinking. The second section, Designing and Subverting the Page (with contributions by Schnapp, Pelizzari and Zanoletti) focuses on Munari’s incessant and multifaceted engagement with the page, as both a physical space upon which visual graphic elements can be arranged and as a privileged medium for the communication of ideas. The third section, The Everyday Spectacle of Art (including essays by Lucchi, Nardelli and Antonello), is about Munari’s fascination with the seemingly opposed and contradictory poles of the spectacular and the everyday, with which the artist dealt throughout his entire career. Finally, the last section, Political Munari (Golan and Kittler), offers revealing and provoking answers to an issue which to this date has often been rejected or considered not pertinent to an unaffiliated artist, who generally strove to present himself as quintessentially a-political.

As the title Bruno Munari. The Lightness of Art suggests, these four overlapping thematics are unified by one common thread: the levitas that characterizes Munari’s opus. As the monograph proposes, it is ‘lightness’ above all that encapsulates Munari’s persona and work most effectively and concisely. As Italo Calvino understands it in his posthumous American Lessons, ‘lightness’ is not frivolity nor superficiality, but agility and lack of worthiness. It is not a lack, but a kind, of thoughtfulness, which aims at the ‘subtraction of weight’. This Calvino-like concept of removal of weight powerfully evokes one of Munari’s guiding principles and crucial objectives. Series of works such as the Macchine inutili (Useless Machines), Concavo-convesso (Concave-Convex), the Libri illeggibili (Illegible Books), the Sculture da viaggio (Travel Sculptures), not to mention the light projections, films and design projects, hint to the fact that for Munari, too, the subtraction of weight was a consistent preoccupation. Something that he pursued literally and materially, as well as figuratively and conceptually.

The empirical ‘Lightness of Art’ offered by Munari’s emphatic rejection of sculpture’s traditional heavy materials in favour of humble everyday materials such as cardboard and paper, and the ephemeral and impalpable materiality of light itself as a crucial component – if not a central medium – of his works, is also an intellectual and conceptual quality. Lightness as a mode of thoughtfulness in the sense evoked by Calvino, through which Munari performs a radical critique of the very category and the objects of art.

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