Modernist Monday: Futurism
So let them come, the gay incendiaries with charred fingers! Here they are! Here they are!… Come on! set fire to the library shelves! Turn aside the canals to flood the museums!… Take up your pick axes, your axes and hammers and wreck, wreck the venerable cities pitilessly!
-Filippo Tommaso Marinetti The Futurist Manifesto 1909
Hi everyone, today on Modernism Monday I am going to look at Futurism, specifically Italian Futurism. In this post I describe some of the goals and founding principles of the movement. We’ll have a look at some of the art produced by Futurist painters. We’ll also see some connection to the Cubist arts from last week.
For more, join me after the break
Futurism began in 1909 with the publication of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurism 1909.(1) Marinetti was a poet and playwrite born in Alexandria Egypt of a wealthy Italian family. Educated in Paris and various Italian cities; Marinetti developed and maintained friendships with the avant-garde in the French Capital in the late 1890s.(2) Marinetti’s family relocated from Alexandria to Milan around the turn of the century and Marinetti would settle in the Northern Italian city after finishing his studies.
In Milan, Marinetti began his own publication called Poesia where he could share his literary inclinations and writing.(3) What Marinetti found in Milan was not always to his liking: J.M. Nash, in his book Cubism, Futurism and Constructivism, documents Marinetti’s disdain for “moribund palaces and stagnant canals.” In Marinetti’s own words, quoted by Nash, the contrast with old Milan was an energizing, loud and based in technology where “”the formidable sound of the enormous double-decked trams that jolted past, magnificent in multicolored lights…’” was great progress.(4)
In the world of Art, Marinetti was disappointed with Italians not wanting to embrace modern forms of expression as the French had. He disliked the German tourists who made art excursions to see the masterpieces of Classical Rome and the Renaissance. Current Italian art seemed to be always in the shadow of the past and innovation had basically perished.(5) The elements of Marinetti’s Futurism stem from this combination of literary exploration, Italian Nationalism and fierce love of the latest technology.
Futurism, as Marinetti set it out in 1909, was to liberate young Italians in all the arts by showing them a new way of being. It would destroy all art that came before; releasing the weight of history from young Italian shoulders (6). The art Marinetti was specifically championing was poetry, in time, however, the impact of the Manifesto would reach a diverse array of disciplines.
The following is a summary of the eleven points made in Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, as re-printed in English on pages 21 and 22 in Futurist Manifestos Edited by Umbro Apollonio:
The first and second points extol Futurist virtues; “the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness” along with, “courage, audacity and revolt.” These virtues were matched with a new beauty, the beauty of speed. The fourth point provides the famous quote, “-a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.” Here, Marinetti not only describes the beauty but re-affirms the importance of modernism with the car replacing the classical greek statue Victory of Samothrace as the icon of beauty and representation of speed.
In relation to the transformative technologies of the time, the fifth and eighth points also relate to speed. The fifth reaffirms speed and violence: ”We want to hymn the man at the wheel, who hurls the lance of his spirit across the Earth, along the circle of its orbit.” The imagery of the hurled lance as a swift, flying, weapon controlled into travel, plays with the dynamism and contradictions that will be explored in Futurism by later artists.
The eighth point argues against reflection in order to, “break down the mysterious doors of the impossible.” Further more, Marinetti again relates the change futurism brings with, “Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed.” In this point, it is clear that the mechanical advances were so impressive to Marinetti and others, that the very boundaries of physical reality seemed to be bending.
The ninth is very straightforward and oft quoted: “We will glorify war- the world’s only hygine-militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for women.”
The tenth also promises to “fight moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice.” The other fight the tenth point begins to take up is with the urban infrastructure of heritage and cultural memory. This point begins with,” We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind.” This physical destruction is part of separating the past. Later he writes that one should only go to the museum once in a while, “as one goes to the graveyard on All Souls’ Day” rather than live, daily, in its shadows as he believed Italian culture had been.
The eleventh and final point speaks of “great crowds” and the “multicoloured, polyphonic tides of revolution in the modern capitals;” The Futurists “sing” and “cheer” locomotives, steamships, planes; the creative energy of shipyards and factories; and the transport infrastructure of railway stations and bridges “that stride the rivers like giant gymnasts.”(7)
The aggressive elements within the Manifesto, arguing for war and conflict, became a galvanizing force in Italian politics with Monarchists, Papists, revolutionaries, republicans and nationalists who all liked Marinetti Italian expansionism agenda North to Austria and South into North Africa.(8) The methods Marinetti and his friends and followers used to push their agenda included inciting and organizing civil disorder for political ends.(9)
In a years time, after Marinetti has travelled around Italy lecturing from his manifesto, artists from various fields become interested in exploring Futurism. In 1910, a group of painters came together to write their own manifesto to outline the qualities of Futurist painting. The final signatories of the Manifesto of the Futurist painters were Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carra, Luigi Russolo, Giacomo Balla and Gino Serverini. (10) The language and attitude of the painter’s manifesto was very similar to that of Marinetti’s a year earlier. The targets for scorn were more specific to art though; with critics, academics and previous movements all thrown into the waste-bin. They also reveled in the new technologies of aeroplanes, and dreadnoughts; the qualities of speed, power and the scientific conquest of the unknown.(11)
Later in 1910, the Futurist painters wrote another Manifesto, the Technical Manifesto, in which the first glimpse of some core goals of Futurist painting were first fleshed out. Again there are points of declaration, most of which is familiar but the last three provide something more:
7. That universal dynamism must be rendered in painting as a dynamic sensation.
8. That in the manner of rendering Nature the first essential is sincerity and purity
9. That movement and light destroy the materiality of bodies (12)
There are two states of dynamism: movement and motion. Movement is the displacement of an object, happening now or displacement happening in the future; any possible displacement of an object. Motion is the inherent activity in any object with mass and volume. Dynamic sensation is the sensitivity to the motion and movement of objects, the emotional state Futurists hope to channel.(13)
A few different authors writing about Futurism point to the influence of the French philosopher Henri Bergson in developing the ideas of dynamism. W.C. Wees speaks of Bergson’s “‘continuous flux’” as the idea supporting universal dynamism in Futurist imagery; where objects and their surroundings, merge; the house and the motor bus combine on the street.(14) Time was also an element in flux as J.M. Nash quotes the French philosopher, “perception and experience were not instantaneous. Memory played a fundamental role in our experience, which was inevitably extended over time.”(15)
An early example of Futurism is Carlo Carra’s Funeral of the Anarchist Galli of 1911. The bright colours exclaim the action like the Manifesto’s bombastic words. The captured motion of the police batons, fanning the crowd explores the representation of the material with action and speed. J.C. Taylor comments in his book Futurism “we are more aware of actions than actors.”(16) The division between actors is not paramount but the energy and passion emanating from the riot. In many ways this is the futurist scene: violence, conflict within an urban context, erupting at a most respectful occasion by the fists of ordinary citizens. The motion of the swinging batons breaks the club out of solidity and its traces give the motion a temporal dimension.
The summer and fall of 1911 was important time when Futurist artists were exposed to the French Cubists. Ardengo Soffici, an Italian art critic and thinker, published an article on a Picasso and Braque show in the summer 1911. Later that year Gino Severini, who lived in Paris, came back to Italy to meet his fellow Futurists, lead his fellow artists on an excursion that autumn to Paris. (17)
Umberto Boccioni went to Paris that fall, and while there he met with many Cubists and others of the Parisian avant-garde. To some, this visit by Futurists would be a sign of change in the style of Futurist painting to that point. In Boccioni’s ’State’s of Mind’ series, early work suggests a swirling rhythm that drastically changed into more geometrical formality. (18) While some suggest the number on the train is representative of Synthetic Cubism that is rejected by J.C. Taylor, who claims the numbers, in the Farewells, were not formal plays like those of Picasso but simply bring to mind a train.(19)
Despite the Cubist influence, Futurists at the time, attacked the Cubists, down playing the significance of their formal experiments. One key departure between the two groups was subject matter: Cubists often used the nude or still life as subject, which Futurists disparaged as attachment to the past. In the Exhibitors to the Public Manifesto the Futurist writers complain that Cubists “‘obstinately continue to paint objects motionless frozen, and all the static aspects of Nature.’” (20)
Boccioni’s State’s of Mind series helped to set Futurism on an emotional bend, where the viewer is meant to be engrossed in the feeling of the work. The artwork projects these feelings, “by colour and the rhythm of lines and brushstrokes.”(21) Boccioni began to think about how to show the dynamic relationship of objects and their surroundings. Taking his cue away from impressionistic melting he formulated
every object influences its neighbour, not by reflections of light…but by a real competition of lines and by real conflicts of planes… These force-lines must encircle and involve the spectator so that he will in a manner be forced to struggle himself with the persons in the picture (22)
The goal is a personal, individualistic interpretation of the world as it is. A world fragmented into sights, noises movements and memories. Part of the subjective aims of this painting was physical transcendentalism which aspired to represent, as Boccioni said, ”‘all objects…towards infinity by their lines of force, whose continuity is measured by our intuition.’” (23) So while the world in which the Futurists revel is run by engineers and scientists, Boccioni at least, seems inclined, as J.C. Taylor puts it, “to humanize the machine, rather than mechanize man…” (24)
The final Boccioni work in this post is a sculpture Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913. In this sculpture there are all the representations of space and time, force lines and dynamism discussed above. Boccioni writes, ”‘Owing to the persistence of images [in] the retina, objects in motion are multiplied and distorted, following one another like waves in space.’” (25)
The overall effect of the sculpture is a bold individuality as though the universe is clawing at the arms and legs of the figure. The length of the stride and solidity of the materials suggests real confidence.
The many diversions Futurism would take in the arts included Futurist theatre, the main subject of Christina J. Taylor’s book Futurism: Politics Painting and Performance. Architect Antonio Sant’ Elia drove futurist architecture before his death serving in the First World War in 1916. Giacomo Balla designed Futurist outfits, complete with geometrical, asymmetric colourful shapes, though the clothes wouldn’t last long.(26) A more popular and novel futurist endeavour was music. Luigi Russolo promoted his “Noise-turners” with pieces entitled “‘Awakening of a Great City‘” and “‘ A Meeting of Motar-Cars and Aeroplanes‘” (27)
After the war, Futurism, having lost Boccioni and Sant’Elia in that conflict, changed and was adopted by Fascists in the 20s and 30s. It is not surprising that Futurism would lend itself to Fascism after the war. From the founding Manifesto, Marinetti’s nationalistic, war mongering words promoting public, street level conflict. Fascist Imperialist ambitions were also in line with the expansion desired by Marinetti before the First World War. Still, there is a great many contradictions, controversies and conflicts throughout the lives and writings of Futurists, throughout the books, not yet burned, documenting their accomplishments. Umbro Apollonio describes it best:
Futurism, in short, is a complex and composite phenomenon. In it we find various fruitful and vivid intuitions concerning the near future, and, at the same time, labourious revivals of declining themes which had already had their day; genuinely new formal solutions, accompanied by derivative and artificial mannerisms; impulses aiming at a free and progressive society, alongside an arrogantly imperialist and autocratic political viewpoint. (28)
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(1) William C. Wees Vorticism and the English Avant-Garde. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972.) 88.
(2) Marianne W. Martin Futurist Art & Theory 1909-1915. (New York: Hacker Art Books, 1978) 28.
(3) Joshua C. Taylor Futurism (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1961) 7.
(4) J.M. Nash Cubism, Futurism and Constructivism. (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd. 1974) 32.
(5) Christiana J. Taylor Futurism: Politics Painting and Performance. ( Ann Arbour: Umi Research Press, 1979.) 2.
(6) Tate Gallery The Tate Gallery: an illustrated companion. (London: Tate Gallery, 1981.) 90.
(7) Umbro Apollonio Ed. Futurist Manifestos (Boston: MFA Publications, 2001) 21-22
(8) Christiana J. Taylor Futurism: Politics Painting and Performance. (Ann Arbour: Umi Research Press, 1979.) 7.
(9) Christiana J. Taylor Futurism: Politics Painting and Performance. (Ann Arbour: Umi Research Press, 1979.) 8.
(10) William C. Wees Vorticism and the English Avant-Garde. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972.) 90.
(11) Umbro Apollonio Ed. Futurist Manifestos (Boston: MFA Publications, 2001) 25-26
(12) Umbro Apollonio Ed. Futurist Manifestos (Boston: MFA Publications, 2001) 30
(13) Christiana J. Taylor Futurism: Politics Painting and Performance. (Ann Arbour: Umi Research Press, 1979.) 22.
(14) William C. Wees Vorticism and the English Avant-Garde (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972.) 90.
(15) J.M. Nash Cubism, Futurism and Constructivism. (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd. 1974) 39.
(16) Joshua C. Taylor Futurism (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1961) 32.
(17) Marianne W. Martin Futurist Art & Theory 1909-1915. (New York: Hacker Art Books, 1978) 104.
(18) J.M. Nash Cubism, Futurism and Constructivism. (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd. 1974) 42.
(19) Joshua C. Taylor Futurism (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1961) 50
(20) Christiana J. Taylor Futurism: Politics Painting and Performance. (Ann Arbour: Umi Research Press, 1979) 18.
(21) Tate Gallery. The Tate Gallery: an illustrated companion. (London: Tate Gallery, 1981.) 90.
(22) Christiana J. Taylor Futurism: Politics Painting and Performance. (Ann Arbour: Umi Research Press, 1979) 20.
(23) Marianne W. Martin Futurist Art & Theory 1909-1915. (New York: Hacker Art Books, 1978) 110-111.
(24) Joshua C. Taylor Futurism (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1961) 14
(25) Fred S. Kleiner and Christin J. Mamiya Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: Western Perspective 12th Ed. vol. 2 (Toronto: Thompson-Wadsworth, 2006) 752.
(26) William C. Wees Vorticism and the English Avant-Garde. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972.) 104.
(27) William C. Wees Vorticism and the English Avant-Garde. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972.) 105.
(28) Umbro Apollonio Ed. Futurist Manifestos (Boston: MFA Publications, 2001) 8.