"Objects to look at in the way you look at a drifting group of clouds having spent seven hours inside a factory full of useful machines," declared Bruno Munari, introducing his Useless Machines in the 1930s. And there you have it: the credo of one of the most playful, inventive and influential Italian artists of the modern era.
Not that he was without purpose. Munari, the subject of a rare exhibition of his work, Bruno Munari: My Futurist Past, at the Estorick Collection in London, started out as a bright young thing in the second generation of Futurists, Italy's special contribution to modern art. Two early pastels from 1927 have him using repetitive forms and swirls to create the appearance of movement in exactly the same way as the Vorticists, also learning from the Futurists, were doing in Britain at the time. But in a few years he was doing very much his own thing.
He was one of those very rare creatures in art: he was genuinely witty. To the abstraction of Futurism he added words and images, and a precise sense of space. At the Double is the title of a dynamic picture of a moving man of 1932, subverting the whole Futurist enthusiasm for movement and machinery. His series of flight collages from the 1930s include three girls leaping from mining machinery with the graphic of a sore foot and entitled Moreover, nothing is absurd to those who fly, while Misunderstood Poet from 1933 has the internal organs of a man dreaming of an aeroplane engine just as basically mechanical in its working. In ABC DADA he animates the letters of the alphabet – a lifetime pursuit – with a name, a face and objects beginning with a letter. "B" is for "Bice" and is illustrated with real buttons, a "biggliettaio" and a bust represented by a corset ad.
It may seem childish and Munari, who later illustrated children's books, certainly wished the artist to be childlike, but it works. Seeing the caption "Useless machine" on the gallery wall above a fire extinguisher, your first thought is that it is for extinguisher rather than the standing sculpture nearby. He would have liked that. Critics at the time accused him of being too frivolous as an artist to be considered seriously – he has a splendid picture of the "Hypercriotic" in the show, all bewhiskered and Victorian with the figure of a devil bat above – but Munari, a fine theoretician as well as practitioner, passionately believed that the art of his time should be popular as well as involving.
The Estorick show concentrates on Munari's work from the pre-War years (born in 1907, he died in 1998), up until the 1950s when he became a leading light in the postwar Movemento Arte Concreta, which he helped found. The exhibition's title is taken from the artist's own later statement that he owed his art to his "Futurist past". It was a past he himself long ignored during the post-War years when the movement, with its passion for machines and action, was regarded as an art of fascism.
Munari was never political, but, as this exhibition makes clear, he owed a great deal to the Futurists and their philosophy of modernity. Many of the things he became notable for with the later Arte Concreta, although expressed in terms designed to distance itself from pre-War movements, can be traced back to his experiments with abstract art and multi-media sculpture in the 1930s.
He flourished in advertising and design in the 1930s and 1940s but never gave up on painting as a proper focus for creativity, for all his assertions that, in the words of his fellow painter Giacomo Balla in 1918: "Furs, travelling bags, china – these things are all a much more rewarding sight than the grimy little pictures nailed on the grey wall of the passeist painter's studio." His Compositions from the 1930s along with his Geometric Compositions and most of all his Negative-positives from the 1940s have extraordinary dynamic power in their use of colour and rhythm, even at their most mathematical. Paradox was applied to composition as much as titles.
What made Munari so individual and so different from his colleagues was not just his wit but also his sheer inventiveness. He was one of the first artists to create mobiles as part of his Useless Machines in the 1930s in an effort to add dynamics and spontaneous movement to sculpture. They still hang as modern and as graceful as an Alexander Calder, who started using mobiles at roughly the same time. The Insects and Arrhythmia of wire, fabric, clockworks and bits of metals from the 1940s and 1951 are installations before their time, but also astonishingly light and inspirited. Sensitive no 7 from 1946 is just made from curved wire and coloured wood but it is, as its title indicates, almost spiritual in its feeling.
Munari was never content with simply expressing his concepts but with taking them as far as possible in any work. His juxtapositions of imagery were there not just to entertain but to interact with the viewer. He wanted an art that was total but also involving. An early sculptural object from 1938 is a Tactile Board in which the fingers are urged to move from emery paper across wood and feather.
He was one of the earliest artists to think of using a work to create an environment, at first with his mobiles, then with objects that could cast shadows. Always fascinated by light, Munari experimented continuously with it refracted through sculptures and projected through slides and polaroids. The last work in this endlessly fascinating exhibition is a single object taking up a whole room. Concave-convex from 1947 is a folded wire mesh sheet, suspended from the ceiling and lit from above so that it casts intricate shadows on the surrounding wall, gently moving in the air conditioning. It is at once peaceful, intriguing and quite beautiful – an ordinary material filling space in an extraordinary way.
Munari is sometimes accused of spreading himself too thinly and widely to be a great artist. This three-room exhibition displays just how consistent he was, in his ambition and his imagination. A show to lift your spirits in these dispiriting times.
'Bruno Munari: My Futurist Past' Estorick Collection, London N1 (www.estorickcollection.com) to 23 December