Sunday, April 6, 2014

Futurism's Pasts

"[A] roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace."  So proclaims F.T. Marinetti in the 1909 manifesto that launched futurism as a major force in the artworld.  Outside Italy, art history texts imply that futurism came to an end just a few years later, with the death of Umberto Boccioni, who was thrown from a horse during a WWI training exercise in 1916.  No one doubts futurism's enduring international influence, but, as a movement, it is said to have been short lived.  This history is being rewritten by the Guggenheim Museum, which has mounted an exhibit tracing Italian futurism's history from 1909-1944.  Well-known masterpieces from the early years are on display, along with three decades of later work less known in the United States.  Futurism's forgotten years deserve this high profile revisitation, but one can also see why the later work has been ignored--the answer is partly political.

Marinetti published his manifesto in a 1909 french newspaper, Le Figaro, which would soon feature frequently in cubist collages.  Futurism and cubism appear at the same moment of history, and they develop in parallel, borrowing from each other, but also in mutual contempt.  Picasso began experimenting with cubist techniques in 1907 in Les Demoiselles D'Avignon, which was not exhibited until 1916.  Futurism began as a literary movement, but takes graphic form in 1910, with Boccioni's monumental The City Rises (above), on display at the exhibition.  In that year, both cubism and futurism realized their canonical visual forms.  Cubists, tradition has it, were concerned with space, and futurists were concerned with time.  This way of drawing the distinction is a bit artificial, however, since cubists had an interest in the temporal construct of spontaneity: presenting a subject from multiple positions at once.  Futurists, for their part, relied on space to depict time.  The real difference is that futurists were preoccupied with dynamism.

The interest in dynamic painting predates Boccioni's 1910 canvas.  For example, Giacomo Balla had painted an electric street lamp in 1909 that seems to resonate with dynamic light, and a year earlier he painted a realist canvas of a spiral staircase (Stairwell of Farewells), which foreshadows his interest in depicting movement through repetitive forms (both above).  Balla was no doubt familiar with chronophotography, which has been around since Victorian times.  Eadweard Muybridge developed a chronophotophic technique in 1878, followed shortly by Etienne-Jules Marey in 1882 (below).  

Marey also created highly abstracted geometric chronophotogrpahs by photographing a model in a black suit with white lines running down his limbs (below). 

Such images inspired visual artists to move beyond that static image, and create spatial representations of the passage of time.  By 1910, Balla was drawing on Marey's techniques.  His Young Girl Running on a Balcony (below) predates Duchamp's Nude Descending a Stair by two years.  Here he combines futurism with pointillism like the early experiments by Boccioni, but he later combined this technique with realism and abstraction (also below).  The last example, of birds in flight, shows Marey's influence most directly.

Another early star on the futurist scene was Carlos Carrà.  His imposing Funeral for the Anarchist Galli is on display at the Guggenheim (note the red coffin in the reproduction bellow).  Carrà later went on to join Giorgio de Chirico in a movement called metaphysical art, which emphasized dreamy stillness rather than dynamism.  An example for contrast is reproduced here.

The exhibit also profiles the superb stylist, Gino Severini.  Severini's paintings often hover on the border between cubism and futurism.  Unlike many cubists, however, he uses a strong palette.  Both aspects of his work can be seen in his painting, War Train (below), one of many excellent works on loan from the Museum of Modern Art.  I've paired it with another war-themed work: Soldiers in the Fog, by Luigi Russolo, who was also a composer, known mostly for inventing futurist "noise boxes."


War is a central preoccupation in futurist art, and a key source of futurist notoriety.  Carrà began as an anarchist, but soon adopted fascism as his utopian vision, following the lead of Marinetti.  Likewise for Boccioni, Severini and many others.  Marinetti saw fascism as a way to usher in a new society, based on the power of technology.  He was an early supporter of Mussolini, who welcomed enthusiasm from the artworld, but later distanced himself from the movement, having no taste for the avant garde.  Below is a portrait of Mussolini by futurist, Alfredo Ambrosini.

According to the standard narrative, futurists flirted with fascism and militantism, and then disappeared or disbanded after the devastation of WWI.  But that is a myth.  Futurism continued after WWI and continued through the next world war, with a more or less unflinching support for fascist ideals.  The Guggenheim exhibition downplays Marinetti's role (strangely), and draws attention to some political diversity, but it also italicizes that ways in which militant iconography remain central to futurist art.  For example, the show includes a fascinating series of aeropittura--paintings inspired by flight.  In an era of air raids, these are unsettling.  Like much futurist work, they aestheticism domination.  Examples by Tullio Crali, Guglielmo, and Gerardo Dottori are presented here (dates range from 1931-42).

Gerardo Dottori was a revelation for me.  An early member of the group, he fought in WWII and continued to paint for decades after.  Some fine examples are included below, including this Tryptic of Speed, 1927. 

Another revelation was Benedetta Cappa Marinetti.  A student of Balla, she married F.T. Marinetti in 1923.  Futurism was less welcoming to women than some other avant garde movement of the time (especially dada and surrealism, which were male dominated but not exclusively male).  F.T. Marinetti was overtly misogynist in some of this writing.   Despite these obstacles, Bernadetta Marinetti earned a place in the futurist movement.  In terms of graphic impact, her contributions compare with the best futurist painters, and the Guggenheim exhibition concludes with a group of monumental canvases that she created for the post office in Polermo, 1933-4 (below).

In addition to establishing futurism's longevity, the exhibition does much to show how futurism pervaded Italian arts.  On display are futurist housewares, set designs for the theater, book illustrations, children's toys, liquor advertisements, and clothing.  The show also presents of the two known futurist films: Thaïs by Anton Bragaglia (on youtube below). 

In addition, the Guggenheim has included a generous sampling of futurist architectural designs, which hold up well against the paintings in the show.  I reproduce examples by Antonio Sant'Elia and Mario Chiattone.  Interestingly, Frank Lloyd Wright's museum begins to look decidedly futurist with these works on display, making it a rare case where that museum complements the art, rather than competing with it.

The architectural designs show an Italy bursting with optimism.  Long associated with its glorious past (Ancient Rome and the Renaissance), Italy entered the 20th century by looking forward.  In place of amphitheaters and basilicas, Italian modernists imagined vaulting skyscrapers that would better express values of the machine age.  These hopeful sentiments may reveal why the Italians were so vulnerable to the rhetoric of fascism.  The futurists were not the only fascist modernists (think of Wyndham Lewis, Emil Nolde, Ezra Pound, Le Corbusier, or the young Philip Johnson).  But no other modernist movement made fascism as central to its aesthetic philosophy.  In the image below (owned by MoMA, but not in the exhibit), Marinetti depicts a dirigible dropping bombs.  "War is beautiful," Marinetti declared, "because it enriches a flowering meadow with the fiery orchids of machine guns."
In the first decade of futurism, the enthusiasm for fascism seems excusable, if dangerously naive.  But many futurists remained dedicated to the cause long after these early years, and that, no doubt, plays a role in the obscurity of futurism's second wave.  One might say that futurism has two pasts.  At first, it was a revolutionary movement that challenged prevailing aesthetic and cultural norms. Then it became part of mainstream Italian visual culture, and, in this capacity, it served as an instrument of nationalism and the far right.  It is the latter history that we'd like to forget.  The work, however, holds up and leaves us with questions about whether we should bracket off politics when evaluating art.  With this in mind, I end with an image of Vittorio Emanuele III, Italy's fascist king, at a 1939 futurist exhibition (source).  Note the Ambrosini portrait of Mussolini in the background.  4 years later, the Italian dictator would be killed.  That same year futurism came to a grinding halt.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Armory Show 101

Last year marked the centennial of the infamous Armory Show, which shocked Americans into modernity.  This year marks the 101st anniversary, and, for one more week, you can catch a commemorative exhibition at the New York Historical Society.  It's well worth a trip.  If you are outside of New York, there's a giant catalogue of the show and an impressive web site.  Of course, countless tomes have been written about the exhibition, and there are web resources aplenty.  Particularly useful is a virtual reconstruction at the American Studies program, at the University of Virginia.  The Historical Society is a special treat, though, because one can see a choice sampling of the original works assembled together.  This gives a welcome opportunity to reflect on why the show served as such a watershed.  It also puts on display works that have been erased by memory, and seeing these allows one to do a bit of revisionary history.

Officially called The International Exhibition of Modern Art, the Armory show got its nickname from its first U.S. stop: the 69th Regiment Armory space on Lexington Avenue and 26th St. in New York.  It then moved on to Chicago, and, between those two venues, it had some 250,000 visitors.  Mabel Dodge, a salon organizer, wrote to Gertrude Stein describing it as the most important event since the Declaration of Independence (cited by Jerry Saltz).  For many Americans, it was the first view of modern art, and it set the Nation on course to be a major player in the art world for decades to come.

The scope of the show was more inclusive than we sometimes remember.  There were works by Delacroix and Daumier, as well as post-impressionists, like Van Gogh (above left) and Gauguin (above top).  Sophisticates would have known these names, and their influence was already apparent in American art.  More surprising to viewers were proto-modernists like Munch (middle) and Redon (right).  The Redon was particularly bewildering, since its figurative elements are almost hidden among the fields of otherworldly colors including a murky central cloud, which looks more like a stain than a deliberate application of paint.

Of course, these fin de siécle masters were not the stars of the show.  More newsworthy were the vanguard of modernist movements, such as fauvism, expressionism, and cubism.  (Futurists were not on display, because Marinetti didn't want to mix with the cubists.)  Expressionism was best represented by Kirchner (above), and this was his first public showing.  Even more shocking was a fauve named Matisse.  His "Red Studio" remains a work of extreme audacity, which flattens "reality" into a startling red field, and gives articulation and full pigmentation only to unreal entities, namely works of art.

Historical memory, however, focuses not on Matisse, but on the cubists in the show, especially Marcel Duchamp, whose "Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2" was help up for public ridicule and fascination.  It's reproduced here with a famous parody, which still rings true for New York commuters.

The commemorative exhibition and other anniversary events serve to remind us that Duchamp's masterpiece was not the only painting of its kind on display.  Indeed, there were two other impressive Duchamps (below, top row), a paintings by Duchamp's oldest brother Jacques Villon, another beauty by his friend Picabia, and an imposing portrait by Gleizes (bottom row).

 None of the artists comes screaming to mind when we think of cubism today.  Duchamp and Picabia were soon inventing dada styles, Duchamp's brothers got lost in Marcel's shadow, and Gleizes, then central to the movement, is nearly forgotten.  One might wonder where cubism's most famous pioneer was in the exhibition--the arch-modernist, Picasso.  He was some how less visible in the set of works on view.  His major contribution was a portrait bust of his first first love, Fernande Oliver, pictured here along with a photo from one of her erotic modeling shoots -- observe the likeness.

Picasso's near invisibility may have resulted from the fact that his bust was just one of many impressive modernist sculptures.  There were works by Lehmbruck, Duchamp-Villon, and Brancusi, among many others.  The sculpture that got most attention may have been a large cubist work by Archipenko, placed conspicuously next to the cubist paintings, which were drawing all the crowds.  A newspaper misspelled his name and misattributed a Gleizes to Duchamp.

One can easily imagine how these artworks would have been seen as an assault on prevailing sensibilities.  Reviewers went wild.  My favorite expositor of the period is the conservative art critic, Royal Cortizzos.  I can't resist a long quotation:
[T]he Cubist wants to eat his cake and have it, too. He paints you his riddle of line and color, and then, as in the case of M. Marcel Duchamp, calls it “Nude Descending a Staircase.” In other words, he has the effrontery to assert that his “picture” bears some relation to human life. Who shall argue with him? For my part I flatly refuse to offer him the flattery of argument. According to the Spanish proverb it is a waste of lather to shave an ass, and that criticism of the Cubists is thrown away which does not deny at the outset their right to serious consideration... It requires no profound initiation to see the wisdom of passing on and leaving the crowd to waste its time. I cannot too often repeat the statement that there is really nothing grand, gloomy and peculiar about these freak pictures. Conscientiously I examined them all, and, frankly, could not even find reason for distinguishing between one exemplar of the new “movement” and another. Why, indeed, should we pay M. Duchamp the compliment of detaching him from the company of M. Paul Picasso? 
With such reactions engrained into the narrative of the Armory Show, we tend to think of it as an assault of European modernists on an innocent and ill-prepared America.  That is only half true.  This telling leaves out the crucial fact that of the exhibit's 300 artists, half were working in the United States. Though less avant garde than some of the Europeans, these American artists were clearly interested in breaking rules and making new art.  Some examples will illustrate.

Among the most famous Americans on display, was George Bellows.  The impressive picture above, is  essentially a realist genre painting, but a close look reveals details that put Bellows in league with the emerging expressionists (see especially the figures in the upper right, which I reproduced as a detail).

Even more forward looking is the abstract landscape (above, left) by Albert Pinkham Ryder.  Or consider the landscape below, an example of pure modernism by Manierre Dawson (above, right).

The Armory show also included another abstract landscape by an American painter, this one in a cubist style.  The artist is German-born Oscar Bluemner, who lived in Chicago, then New York, where be befriended Alfred Stieglitz, the czar of all things modern.  The New York Historical society repruded one of Bluemner's sketches, next to his painting. indicating that he moved, while working, from a more impressionist style to the bold geometry of the painting above.

Another interesting example is the animal painting by Robert Chandler (left).  At the time, Chandler was one of the most famous Americans in the show.  He was an early advocate of modernism, but he regarded Matisse as a charlatan, as evidenced by the painting below, on display at the Historical Society, where he presents the Frenchman as an ape surrounded by adoring accolades (above).

The armory show also included some excellent, if illustrational, works by Stuart Davis.  Davis's "The Front Page" (above) exhibits the kind of cinematic boldness that we would latter see in Hopper and other architects of American art.  Davis would go on to be an early champion of  American abstraction, and a proto-pop-art pioneer.  The examples below were painted in the decade after the Armory.

In a vein similar to Davis's earlier work, the Armory show included an accomplished canvas by John Sloan (below), showing women drying their hair on a rooftop.  Though not modernist in the conventional sense, Sloan was an organizer of the Armory show and founder of the Ashcan Movement, one of America's first attempts to develop a distinctive form of modern painting.  Neither bourgeois nor bohemian, we see the emerging aesthetic of common working-class folk, engaged in mundane activities against the backdrop of an urban skyline that could only exist in the new world.

One cannot mention America's emerging artists without discussing Joseph Stella, who was also in the exhibition.  Stella's contribution was a tame still life (below, left), but one can certainly detect continuities with the modernist painting he would soon be creating (below, right).

Art history has recorded names like Stella, Davis, and Sloan.  Forgotten now are the many talented women who appeared in the Armory Show.  20 percent of the American artists were women, in fact, and seeing their work now is a revelation.  For example, the show included a shocker called "White Slavery" by Abastenia St. Leger Eberle (below, left). There were also charming sculptural caricatures by Ethyl Meyrs, who was raised as an orphan on the Lower East Side (below, right).  The Myers is a miniature, incidentally, while the Eberle several feet high.

There were also works by an American Fauve named Marguerite Zorach, and an accomplished painter named Mary Foote who later became an assistant to Carl Jung.  The examples below are representative of these two talents, though neither painting was in the original exhibition.

This is just a small sampling of the women artists whose works were intermingled with some of the most influential painters of the 20th century.  Seeing these, we can pause to wonder whether the Armory Show had many possible futures.  Cubism certainly captured the headlines, and influenced Americans such as Arthur Dove, Charles Demuth, and Masden Hatley (who was in the show).  But there were many styles on display.  Most, admittedly, already looked old fashioned by 1913, but some still have potential to inspire.

Let me end with one example, which is, at once, backward looking and ahead of its time.  The painting is called "Way Down to the Sea" by Welsh artist, Augustus John (above).  Though ostensibly a work on conventional realism, there is something prescient about this canvas.  The monumental figures forecast the return to classicism, which took place after the First World War, and the androgynous child, with long hair and male genitals, forecasts Henry Darger, as well as many contemporary gender benders.  There is also a post-modern sensibility -- David Salle and Eric Fischl come to mind.  One can't help, too, seeing a feminist subtext here, with a self-assured women proudly holding the forbidden fruit over the ambiguously gendered child.  Seeing this painting, one wonders whether the cubist works in the Armory show were just a passing fancy.  They helped catapult America into an era of artistic experimentation, but the styles that followed soon progressed beyond their cubist roots.  The Armory show contained works that seem to peer beyond high modernism and catch a glimpse of further horizons.   In revisiting the show, 101 years later, perhaps we can find new sources of inspiration.