Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Action, 1915-1916. Ink on writing paper. 21,6 x 27,6 cm., Rachel Adler Gallery.

Future Perfect: Revisiting Futurism, the Fire that Consumed Itself

Umberto Boccioni, The City Rises, 1910, Oil on canvas, 781/2 x 118-1/2", The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Giacomo Balla (Italian, 1871-1958), Speeding Automobile, 1912, Oil on wood, 21-7/8 x 27-1/8", Purchase. © 2009 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SIAE, Rome, 271.1949.

Giacomo Balla (Italian, 1871-1958), Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash, 1912, Oil on canvas, 35-3/8 x 43-1/4", Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York.

The Founding and Manifest of Futurism, Published in Le Figaro, February 20, 1909.

Alessandro Bruschetti, Il Duce, 1937.

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Palabras en libertad. Primeros récords.

 

By STEVE SHAPIRO

Of the axis of isms that rocked the world at the start of the 20th-century — Dadaism, Surrealism, and Futurism — the first was short-lived anarchy, the second eventually smoothed itself into a kind of aesthete’s party with conferences and rules, and the third turned out to be visceral, violent, and various. Is it coincidence that le Futurisme originated first, in 1909, several years before Dadaism took shape or Surrealism after that? Art history is built on coincidence that appears later as arrows on a timeline of the sort that Alfred Barr proposed for the Museum of Modern Art in 1936. For the Dadaists who came together in 1916, World War I's negation of the natural order of things evoked by the artists started with a nonsensical name. By the time Surrealists organized in 1924, it was a boy’s club. Where Futurist founder Filippo Tomasso Marinetticalled for destruction of “monuments, libraries, and academies …,,” Surrealists dreamt about women’s breasts and proclaimed (in Magritte’s legendary non sequitur), “ceci n’est pas une pipe.” How quickly the art of destruction and revolution softened into the art of artfulness.

Any acknowledgment of Futurism’s 100th anniversary this year makes for awkward celebration, to say the least; it is like reading T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf knowing of their anti-Semitism that lay just below the surface, or watching The Birth of a Nation fully aware of its noxious sensibility. The proximity of the Futurist agenda to what evolved into Italian Fascism under Mussolini is a kind of smog that never burns off however long the day stretches. Futurism was but one of one after another of bourgeois-thumbing art movements that came regularly to Europe’s (and eventually America’s) front door, like costumed trick-or-treaters, too old to play but do so, anyway, any way they wish. Each ism was anti-something: Cubism was anti-perspective; Dadaism was anti-content; Surrealism was anti-context. Art was remaking itself alongside society and technology: Marx and Engels wrote about “the spectre haunting Europe” the same year (1888) as Tesla’s electric motor and Kodak’s box camera were invented. This interplay of radicalism reached an early zenith in Futurism more than other movements that restricted their goals.

It is not surprising so many new art circles were formed out of the ashes of the old; in some cases it was the new who lit the fires. For all but the Futurists, however, tossing art into the ash heap of history was intended to reform society. Like the Futurists before them the imaginative Russian Constructivists in the mid-1920s envisioned a Constructivist culture of architecture clothing, textiles to typefaces. When an ism did not dissipate on its own, like Fauvism, it was co-opted. Both Futurism and Constructivism were assimilated into their own country’s politics: Mussolini (with help from Marinetti) used Futurist manifestos for fascist rhetoric; Stalin drew on the inspirational posters and imagery of Constructivism until he drew the line and instituted a drab social realism that permeated totalitarian countries, Europe to South America.

Reform was not the goal of Futurism — destruction was the key. No one ever feared a Surrealist. With their dreams and games of the unconscious, the Surrealists talked big but kept to themselves. The Futurist march toward a new tomorrow was different organically. In the years before and after the new century, Italy was in the midst of enormous change. Various feudal states came together with Rome as their capitol. Unification was (like it would be for East and West Germany) a matter of personalities and the past. (The Catholic Church, resisting conflicting claims to power, added to the circus-like atmosphere.)

Enter Filippo Marinetti: in the history of Futurism, all roads lead to Marinetti. Part poet, part artist, war correspondent, magazine editor, Marinetti was a fulltime instigator and scandal-meister. It is hard, even after the notoriety of the Beats, of Warhol’s anything-goes Factory and raucous New York poets John Berryman and Robert Lowell, or even of Punk music in the 1970s, to sum up Marinetti’s influence. His art divided into so many overlapping mediums like ever expanding microbes; and his themes were not to be easily inoculated from, the way one could stand ironically at a distance from Duchamp’s jokes.

Born in Alexandria in 1876 and educated by Jesuits, he moved to Paris as a young man where he studied law and wrote poetry, principally Symbolist. The first Symbolist Manifesto was issued in 1886; it decried the use of naturalism and heralded freedom in verse, as depicted in the wild romanticism of Mallarmé, Verlaine, and Rimbaud. Dark, brooding, and filled with symbols of personal import, Symbolism was the dark cloud looming over the arts in Europe toward the fin-de-siècle. Marinetti pushed the Symbolist formula further. His 1912 Manifesto technico della letteratura Futurista advocated the abolition of all order in language — grammar, punctuation, tense, even typography — to free up what he believed was a desiccated form.

The manifesto is Marinetti’s true contribution to art. The landmark Founding and Manifesto of Futurism was published on February 20, 1909, in Le Figaro. It begins like a story, like a dream recounted in a poem by Rimbaud or Keats: “We had stayed up all night, my friends and I, under hanging mosque lamps with domes of filigreed brass, domes starred like our spirits, shining like them with the poisoned radiance of electric hearts.” They feel themselves “alone, awake, and our on feet, like proud beacons or forward sentries against an army of hostile stars”; the silence is broken by the sound of “famished automobiles,” and Death appears to Marinetti. He shouts, “Let’s give ourselves utterly to the Unknown, not in desperation but only to replenish the deep wells of the Absurd!” A crowd joins around his muddied car (having been overturned in a ditch), which is compared first to a dead then reborn shark: “a caress from me was enough to revive it; and there it was, alive again, running on its powerful fins!”

If the surrealistic story were all of the manifesto, it would be a footnote; but next come eleven principles — proclaiming both the glory of speed, fearlessness, and revolution as well as calling for the destruction of museums and academies in the name of “war — the world’s only hygiene” — followed by still more explication of the most enfevered kind. Futurism would, in Marinetti’s mind, “free this land from its smelly gangrene of professors …” Museums are repeatedly compared to cemeteries; but the past is nothing they “want a part of, we the young and strong Futurists!” “Take up your pickaxes, your axes and hammers and wreck, wreck the venerable cities, pitilessly!” Well, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues are two variants on Marinetti’s homesick howl; the whole manifesto might even recall Whitman’s Song of Myself in its cosmic vividness and collective sensibility. But the edge to the manifesto, its hymn to violence, separates it from other possible influences. The poet Kenneth Burke critiqued it in 1937 with the notion: “Perhaps the most charitable thing we can say is that his manifestoes were themselves the works of art they proposed to herald.”

Indeed, there is no flipping the coin to see Marinetti’s rhetoric as mere art-speak, or as an instance of pre-postmodern japery. To view the Futurist oeuvre overall, from Italy to Russia, is to chance upon many wonderful artistic pieces that fulfill parts of the Futurist whole: Umberto Boccioni’s painting The City Rises, Giacomo Balla’s two famous paintings Speeding Auto and Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash, and Gino Severini’s painting Dynamic Hieroglyphic of the Bal Tabarin all feature elements of speed, of the automobile, and of looking forward in a manner unseen. Futurist paintings and sculptures lack the basic-ness, the authority, and the threat of the first manifesto. Marinetti’s idea to expand the theme of newness into every area of life, from books and graphic design to architecture — he even authored The Futurist Cookbook— adumbrated not only art movements like Russian Constructivism but also political systems from the USSR to Cuba.

Futurism was Marinetti’s baby; it died out as the participants died (Boccioni was a casualty as a volunteer in the First World War), and as the full brunt of Mussolini’s takeover became evident. While Marinetti saw to one manifesto after another, the outside world, ever too large to be defined (or redefined) in a manifesto, continually encroached. Artists moved on, or borrowed what they liked (i.e., the sense of motion in Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2). Over time, the violent themes have slowly slipped into that cemetery past Marinetti so dreaded. As anniversary celebrations are laid out, such as those this October sponsored by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the violence is less of a draw than the art; perhaps we deem it so, as a way to cauterize the reality of the times. Yet it remains fascinating because of its naked shout. The paintings are pretty to look at and the poems are fun to read. The manifestoes, though, are art on fire; ten, 15 years, and the fire had consumed itself.

 

Gino Severini (Italian, 1883-1966), Dynamic Hieroglyphic of the Bal Tabarin, 1912. Oil on canvas with sequins, 63-5/8 x 61-1/2", MoMA Collection, Acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest. © 2009 Gino Severini / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris, 288.1949.