Curiosity as a method, experimentation as a project. Bruno Munari’s silent revolution

by Silvana Sperati.

Every time, I write about Bruno Munari, and more precisely when I pick up the ideas to do it, my personal shared experience, the artist and everything I studied and experienced become just one thing. This contamination stimulates a permanemnt reflection, which evolves and enriches itself adding new thoughts: above all, the experiences and considerations deriving from this reflection are contextualized with respect to the time we are going through. This is a typical Munari process: in fact, with his extraordinary ability to simplify and go to the essence of the processes he always offered, and continues to do, suggestions and stimuli of a universal nature, crossing time, separating what is historical and circumstantial from which is universal and forever valid.

Also for this reason today, we turn with even greater curiosity and interest to the artistic and human process of this Master of art and thought who was able to cross the entire 20th century showing a constant and articulated interest in different artistic and expressive languages: in fact, he was painter, graphic designer, sculptor, writer, philosopher, poet and finally teacher, as he liked defining himself.

We are evidently dealing with a personality with Leonardesque traits without hyperactivity or fragmentation of actions, but rather with an always harmonious and conscious flow, oriented towards his interest and curiosity.

Speaking about Bruno, we must pay attention not to force the priorities between the concrete action of doing and the considered more intellectual action of thinking; because in him these two aspects constantly interact, so much so that one could say that Munari “thinks by doing”, in a dimension of personal and constant “presence in being” which involves all aspects of the person and, consequently, of the project he expresses.

Regarding the need to pursue a global approach to different problems, we can find clear indications in the text Fantasia (Universale Laterza) where, speaking of design, he invited us to use creativity, imagination, and inventiveness in a global way, considering all the aspects of a single problem: from the economic to the social aspect, from the psychological to the image-related one, and so on.

If we are convinced the way of accessing knowledge, and the consequent ability to use information in the context of new functional relationships to projects, is one of the aspects that best characterizes this iconic artist, we evidently recognize the relationship between the artwork and the creative and artistic process that generated it. Let me to say that the artwork is a sort of staging of the creative process, first imagined and then created. Perhaps, we could suggest visitors of a Munari exhibition to use this observation strategy: grasp the process, research and careful experimentation that precede the creation of each artwork. A sort of curious game aimed at discovering “what is behind the artwork”. It would allow us to understand better this artist and to reconstruct, retrospectively the generative processes that underlie his designing. Above all, young people could learn from it: given the results achieved by this Master, who was able to inspire so much, they would acquire a lot in terms of discovery and growing.

But what are the most salient characteristics of Munarian research?

By analyzing the multiplicity of his production, which always produces amazement for his astonishing and abundant artistic creation, scholars and biographers highlight various aspects.

I personally place the emphasis on the characteristic and most intimate trait of the artist and the man revealed with words and actions in a coherent reference between art sphere and private one without any ostentation. Indeed, spontaneity and discretion were always his natural feature.

In short, I didn’t know a private Munari and a public Munari. Bruno had a behaviour and a way of acting and expressing himself with disarming naturalness in his daily life, dealing with any topic and in his public moments. Munari’s style was unique and for this reason it was easily recognizable.

An atmosphere of anticipation and joyful interest was created around him stirring empathy. He transferred this identical approach in his books, in his many activities or in conferences and lessons, always driven by the desire to share the results achieved and provide precise keys to access the artistic fact to as many people as possible.

Munari managed to be clear about every topic but he was able of “unsetting” the interlocutor allowing to glimpse aspects and possibilities unnoticed by most. Never presumptuous in his own considerations, always driven by the desire to make himself understood and helping others to understand.

His simplicity was never banal, but dense and essential, and therefore so effective.

I believe the driving force behind his moving towards things, the power of involving himself and being interested in such different phenomena and facts came from afar: perhaps from that game-laboratory that entertained him so much as a child in Badia Polesine. He often spoke and wrote about it. We can imagine him enchanted observing the fall of the maple seeds and trying to replicate what he saw throwing handfuls of seeds. But why do they fall like that? I’m sure he would have wondered it, just I’m sure he would have wondered if it could be replicated. Later become adult, he developed precise researches on different types and sizes of paper, discovering that a “little rectangle of paper of about five millimeters by five centimeters, slightly curved, in the air, it begins to spin and makes a shape illusory like candy… and it doesn’t fall immediately, but sometimes it flies over the person who threw it, allowing you to see the currents of hot air or the wind that otherwise wouldn’t be seen…” (Munari, Giochi e grafica, published on the occasion of the exhibition at the Castello di Soncino, 1990).

In him, the curiosity wasn’t static. Munari touched, tested, observed, tried again, created new relationships between objects and materials. He became curious about the sound produced by a drop falling from a broken tap finding the sound non-monotonous. He was ready to discover and describe the possible variables of the phenomenon, placing a crumpled sheet of paper under the drop or an overturned pan or an empty jam jar. What will happen? Will the sound remain the same or change? In every discovery, the action supports a game that becomes real experimentation.

The artist Munari did not consider these his first researches as a simple legacy of the past or a useless childish game, but in them, he was able to recognize the propulsive force of the “spirit of childhood”, so much so that he advises all of us to preserve this spirit throughout life: the curiosity to know, the pleasure of understanding, the desire to communicate is expressed through it.

The extraordinary fact is Bruno kept this attitude throughout his life: perhaps this was the elixir which permitted him to enter his time but also to achieve it, reaching the deepest and purest tension of man: knowing and expressing oneself through the arts.

Today, I believe this is precisely Munari’s lesson: acquiring an attitude of curious openness towards every phenomenon, every element coming to our attention; becoming capable of questioning it without taking anything for granted.

How many are the types of clouds in the sky? According to what rule do the tree branch? What does the internal organization of an orange look like? A toothbrush, dipped in paint, what kind of marks can leave on a sheet of paper? What is the form of an “illegible writing” of an unknown people? These things and much more constitute the wonderful world of Bruno: a lively, interesting, sometimes astonishing world, a world made of continuous discoveries and the joy of sharing them. A democratic world without the need to excel one over the other, where we understand the importance of collaborating for a common project.

Of course, with this singular and disenchanted approach, he could rediscover, at various moments of his artistic career, the path that would take him back to the childhood, to the precious generative memories of his childhood. This journey was never a simple journey backwards, a reminiscence of a happy era; on the contrary, it was always supported by a clear awareness of the value of action and experimentation within a context of pleasant play, that same playful, carefree mode that we all experience in our early years and which can become, in some, a habit of inspired and planning action at all ages of life.

For Bruno, the match between childhood and experimentation occurred through the planning of a collection of books known today as “books of 45”. He made them for his son Alberto when he was five years old because Munari couldn’t find anything suitable for his child. It was a project that completely overturned the approach to children’s books, showing a path that later many followed.

The attention to growing children continued with a partnership offering new tools for a renewed school, in a fruitful collaboration with the educational director Giovanni Belgrano; they created a series of “game boxes”, the best known is probably the one called “Più e meno” (Plus and Minus). The box presents a series of transparent tiles, each with a small design: blades of grass, a little man passing by on a bicycle, yellowed leaves, a small bare trunk, a flight of little birds…. Overlapping the tiles one over the others, or subtracting them, these tiles give life to ever-changing images and stories.

But in 1977, with the experience of the “Giocare con l’arte” workshop hosted at the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, the founding elements of his main educational project could be outlined, stimulating children towards a first knowledge and using different artistic techniques. Munari suggested a method starting from the direct experience of the child and from the experimentation of main artistic techniques in various eras and in different cultures. The children were not invited to copy the artworks because this would not have allowed them to learn anything beyond the frustration resulting from the inability to replicate the masterpieces. Instead, the children had the opportunity to experiment, in absolute freedom, with the same techniques chosen by each artist. Signs, colors, shapes, frottage, divisionism, chromatic perspectives, materials, transformation of natural forms and much more. The experience was a great success not only in Italy: it showed a new way of promoting art education to children. From that moment, in all the workshops, the teaching is about how children can do and not about what they can do.

I believe I will not be contradicted saying that even today Munari’s proposal is a source of inspiration for the educational sections of many museums. That project, born from a request of the Pinacoteca di Brera, made Munari even more aware of the need to educate future generations about art and the promotion of creative thinking, educating individuals capable of solving the problems of life without remaining simple “code repeaters”. In short, creativity for everyone, growing up as free individuals.

In 1996 interviewed by Luciano Maruzzi, the artist expressed this thought: “The famous psychologist Piaget said that you cannot change the mind of an adult. I held several meetings and conferences in universities, in middle schools, in elementary schools and now, finally, I reached nursery schools. That’s where we need to work, otherwise children are already conditioned to distorted and closed thinking; they are stifled in their creative and fantastical possibilities. Therefore, if we want to change society, that is precisely where we must do for hoping for a better world in a few generations.” It is a reflection that puts us in contact with Munari’s wishes (is wish the correct word?) and with Munari’s own cultural heritage, i.e. the workshop. Personally, as I expressed several times, for an artist who considered continuous experimentation as an essential trait of his artistic work, the workshop is precisely the place that best expresses this value in the utmost concreteness: for this reason, we can consider workshop as an artwork. A dynamic artwork, constantly evolving, capable of welcoming new materials, new techniques, new needs to offer always interesting and generative responses, capable of promoting important contents and skills useful for the growth of children.

In recent years, in Munari’s words and actions we can feel how the artist was able to find a permanent breeding ground of wonder, creativity and generative processes in his laboratory. He always recognized curiosity and experimentation as the essential values of doing and creating art, for him, the achievement of this awareness became a new epiphany, capable of cheering him up because he was immediately aware of the power of his message. A message offered, first of all, to children – never considered as vases to be filled but as people who can have an extraordinary access to knowledge. For adults, he told us, it is too difficult because they have too many preconceptions.

In one of my last interviews, when I asked “Munari for whom?” he replied “Well, for everyone”. These words profoundly inspired my life and my profession, stimulating a constant effort aimed at disseminating the principles of this extraordinary artist.