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.