This essay is part of an extended and detailed series by Jeanne Willette. You can find other pieces in this series (to date) in the Avant-Garde section of this website.
By Jeanne Willette
For decades Futurism was the wicked stepchild of art history. Traditionally the perspective on this Italian movement was the French point of view, namely the earliest opinions of Parisian art critics, such as Guillaume Apollinaire, who agreed that Futurism was derivative of Cubism. But being a confused copy was just the beginning of the problems of Futurism, which, after all, was Italian, and therefore inherently secondary. Unlike Fauvism and Cubism, which were decorous movements, inhabited by serious artists, the Futurists were a rowdy crowd, prone to their notorious seratas—Futurist evenings of chaos and provocation. Their leader was an energized poet, Filippo Tommaso Marinettti, who threatened the good name of avant-garde art by roaring around European cities in a fast car, tossing leaflets about Futurism to the winds, along with caution. And then there was the association with fascism. The Futurists were famously friends of Mussolini, before he became a totalitarian dictator, and this alliance tainted the art and the artists.
But the actual facts of Futurism set the movement apart from the other avant-garde movements, starting with the fact that, unlike the other movements, Futurism had a future. Out of Futurism came the idea of a strident manifesto, out of Futurism came the idea of performance, out of Futurism came the idea of modern poetry, where words leaped and jumped across the pages. Out of Futurism came the idea that music could be mere sound or ugly noise. Out of Futurism came the idea that a photograph could record and capture movement as a series of sequential actions. Out of Futurism came the idea that modern life had to be totally different, purged of all traces of the old. Futurism was the only avant-garde movement that attempted to remake the traditional world and sweep history aside with new poetry, new buildings, new music, new dance, and new fashions. Today, when we think of contemporary graphic design, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Marina Abramović, Zaha Hadid and iris van Herpen, we think of Futurism. No other avant-garde movement left such a legacy and while all the other avant-garde movements have become history, the ideas jump-started by Futurism continue to be relevant to the present. On the other hand, Futurism, as written in its numerous manifestos, was also deeply offensive to the contemporary mind—sexist, imperialistic, war mongering, and racist. In other words, the Futurist mindset was a reflection of the typical early twentieth century European male attitude, only frankly stated in a literary aesthetic of confrontational provocation out in the open for all to read and condemn.
When the Great War broke out, Italy did not rally to the cause of global conflict and waited to be wooed by both sides. Futurism continued while other avant-garde movements came to a halt. Although Italy finally entered the war in 1916, mainly to seize territory from Austria, Futurism continued until the end of the Second World War or the death of Marinetti in 1944. It was Marinetti who steered an art movement into the dangerous terrain of counter-progressive politics, dragging the entire movement, regardless of the artists’ sensibilities, into fascism.
During the Great War Benito Mussolini, an Italian air ace, was considered a genuine hero, who later developed nefarious political ambitions that led towards a totalitarian dictatorship and a dangerous performance of mob rule. In the beginning, his exploits as a pilot fueled the Futurists’ fascination with mechanical technology, speed and motion, and, his seizure of the government was allied with their penchant for radical political uprisings. Mussolini and Marinetti were friends of a kind; however, there is some question as to the reciprocity of the relationship between the Futurists and Fascism. Artists, in general, are not approved of by any non-democratic regime, and, as the specialist in Italian culture, Günter Berghaus related, Mussolini defined Marinetti as “anti-Fascist” and put the Futurists on a watch list and worked actively against the artists.[i] Nevertheless the Futurist movement was retroactively tainted with political affiliations in ways that the Russian Avant-Garde movement was not—after all the post-war Russian artists enthusiastically donated their creative talents to the Communist regime. Serious scholarship on Futurism began in the 1960s but it was not until 2014 that a comprehensive exhibition of Futurism appeared in an American museum, the Guggenheim, five years after an excellent show was mounted at the Tate Modern, commemorating the centenary of the movement. After one hundred years, we are finally getting a complete picture of Futurism, and long after many of its innovations were absorbed and incorporated into other post-war art movements, such as Dada in Zurich, the Futurists have remained controversial.
The Futurist Manifesto of 1909, printed in a Parisian newspaper, Le Figaro, announced an event that mainly consisted of Marinetti and his gloriously bombastic writing for a literary movement. Visual art arrived years later. The fact that Marinetti, who was educated in France, printed his Manifesto in Paris is both significant and strategic. It is not often mentioned, but one of the problems that faced Futurism from its inception was that the movement never really had a home base that could support its art and activities. The Futurists congregated in Milan, one of the few industrial centers in Italy, a nation struggling to enter modern life, but it was not an art center. There is little doubt that if the Futurist artists and writers had stayed in Italy, exhibiting in Florence and Rome, they would have been like trees falling in a forest inhabited by no one. But the larger problem was that Italian artists were isolated and immersed in their local world, now dominated by the Italian Impressionists, the Macchiaioli and the Post-Impressionists. It was the activation of the Seurat dot or the Macchiaioli patch or daub of color that established the idea of moving objects depicted by the Futurist artists, such as Umberto Boccioni (a Marxist), who showed The City Rises (1911) in an exhibition in Milan. The paintings, including The Laugh, are interesting because they were done in isolation and in ignorance of Cubist experiments with shifting perspectives. Regardless of the use of a decades old brushstroke, the paintings showed new thought—concern with the dynamism and hectic change in an industrial city and a strong interest in the politics of class. The Futurist Manifesto for Painting, written by Boccioni in 1910 roared confidently:
“The movement that we want to reproduce on the canvas will no longer be a fixed instant of the universal dynamism. It will simply be the dynamic sensation itself. For everything is in motion, everything runs, everything is in rapid transformation..Divisionism, for the modern painter, should be an innate complementarity.”
But, despite the conceptual content, the flurry of belated flying patches of paint irritated the important Italian critic, Ardengo Soffici, who was well acquainted with the Cubists. He unsparingly scorned the Futurists. Writing of their paintings, he said, “They are..stupid and repugnant blusterings by unscrupulous persons who, taking a gloomy view of the world, with no poetic feeling, though the eyes of some thick-skinned American pig farmer, want us to believe they see it flowering and flaming; and they think that by slapping colors madly onto a picture worth of academic janitors, or by dragging back into the limelight the nasty strings of Divisionism..they can put their game across in the eyes of the foolish mob.”[ii] Soffici’s harsh criticism in one of Italy’s leading publications, La Voce—pig famers and janitors not withstanding—alerted the artists that there might be a problem, at least with execution or the manner of paint application. But Boccioni, at least, had a fully realized concept of dynamism, which he explained in 1911 as, “If an object never has a fixed form but varies according to the emotion of whoever contemplates it, why should we not draw, instead of the object, the rhythms aroused in us by that variation in dimensions?” His emphasis on feelings and emotions was expressed in his trilogy, the Farewells, or States of Mind, which were painted in two versions, one showing isolation and the other revealing a new knowledge of Cubism.
Famously, prior to the exhibition in Paris in the winter of 1912, Carlo Carrà and Boccioni visited Paris where Gino Severini escorted them to relevant studios, including the atelier of Picasso. The excursion was a revelation and seeing Cubism forced the Futurist artists to not only update their execution but to also differentiate their work from the French artists. The turn-around in Italian art was swift and it is clear when comparing the works made before and after the trip to Paris that Cubism provided a vocabulary of lines, as opposed to paint patches. The lines became, what Marinetti would term “lines of force,” or lines which fractured, not fragmented, the object, projecting it in a dynamic direction. The changes in Boccioni’s triptych, States of Mind, described by Krzysztof Ziare, “The second version reintroduces some mimetic elements and uses abstract, Cubistlike planes and structures so that, as Boccioni comments, ‘the mingled concrete and abstract are translated into force lines and rhythms in quasi musical harmony.’” [iii] This sudden revelation on the part of the Italian artists upon viewing Cubism and the swift re-paintings demonstrated by Boccioni were the prelude of the exhibition at Bernheim-Jeune Galerie in February of 1912. Whatever differences that might have existed between Cubism and Futurism at the beginning of that year—and there were many—the distinctions were not well understood on either side. How could they be—based on a brief tour of studios and then a month’s exhibition? It mattered not that the Futurists had already honed their concepts, if not their style, well before any visits to Paris. The fact that they had visited Paris, viewed Cubist art and returned to Milan to produce a more up-to-date style (Cubism) for their ideas meant that the Italian artists would be considered belated and imitative. But Marinetti always the promoter would persevere, pushing Futurism throughout Europe.
It is hard to imagine a more fraught and futile invasion than that of the Futurist incursion into Paris. Their target was Cubism, an art movement exactly as old as Futurism, two years old. But Futurism possessed one advantage Cubism did not have: it was a united movement with a strong and strident leader and defender in the hyper active poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. Cubism was fragmented into two dissonant groups: one pubic, one private, one using color, one dedicated to monochrome, one involved in a prolonged homage to Cézanne and the other quietly following the logical ends of the implications buried suggestively in the late artist’s paintings. When the Futurists arrived in Paris in the winter of 1912, a third element of Cubism, Orphism, had emerged, causing tensions within the Salon group. Indeed, the Cubists were surrounded by a cacophony of voices, some defending, some attacking, all hampered by the radical division in the ranks which rendered some artists visible and some invisible. The Futurists wrote in a single voce, in a unified tone, but unlike the intellectual and decorous Cubists, who followed the rules, the Italian artists shouted and yelled and made public spectacle a team sport. The Cubist painters themselves were nationalistic but not political and steered clear of internal controversies, while the Futurists believed strongly in revolution and the uprising of the lower classes and dreamed of the power of the mob. As long as they stayed in Milan and showed occasionally in Florence or Rome, the Futurists were local artists of little note.
It was up to Marinetti to make sure that his followers and colleagues made noise in the right place and to force the Parisian art world to take notice. Futurism was a multi-media, inter-disciplinary movement, starting as a literary phenomenon. Writing can be published and widely distributed by mail if by no other means, but art needs a gallery space. In the early twentieth century, if one was a visual artist, one did not “exist” unless one manifested oneself in Paris. Given that Milan was not on the international circuit of art galleries and art dealers, the debut of Futurist painting had to be in Paris, where it would get the proper audience. Through Marinetti, the new group of painters were able to secure an exhibition at the prestigious Berheim-Jeune Galerie. Upon the exhibition, the French art critics actually heard the Futurist shouting and replied.
The news of the Futurist exhibition in Florence in 1911 and of the critic Ardengo Soffici’s reaction to the art reached Paris, probably because of the violent outcome. Learning that the leader of the visual artists, Umberto Boccioni, had slapped Scoffici, who hit back, Guillaume Apollinaire, the resident defender of Cubism in Paris, was lying in wait for the Futurists. Already he had written for Mercure, “In May 1912 the Futurists will exhibit in Paris. No doubt, if they want to resort to the same arguments, they will have their hands full at that time.” Apollinaire had long viewed the antics of the Futurist artists for the past year, writing of a Futurist serata in 1910: “Together they read their manifesto, which according to their press release, ‘it is a great cry of revolt against academic art, against museums, against the domination of professors, archaeologists, second-hand merchants and antique dealers.’ At that point a great uproar broke out in the theater. There were fist fights, duels with canes, the police were called, etc.” Apollinaire was attracted to Futurism, especially to Marinetti’s experiments in poetry, but, within the context of Cubism itself, the movement was problematic.
The reputation for rowdy behavior, including Marinetti’s love of dueling, preceded the coming of the Futurists, who did not temper their activities of provocation and confrontation to please the Parisians. The Futurists arrived at Bernheim-Jeune Galerie in February of 1912 accompanied by a catalogue with an essay, “The Exhibitors to the Public” (Les exposants au public), signed by Gino Severini, Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Giacomo Balla, and Luigi Russolo. The catalogue essay, written by their spokesperson, Boccioni, was nothing short of a bomb, assaulting Cubism in no uncertain terms. Given the previous (and humbling) Futurist visits to Paris, the attack on Cubism could have been preemptive. It was absolutely necessary for the Futurists to define their own ground and to stand firmly upon it. Declaring themselves as “young” and stating that “our art is violently revolutionary,“ which meant that they were “placed at the heart of the European movement in painting, by a road different from the Cubists of France, led by their masters Picasso, Braque, Derain, Metzinger, Le Fauconnier, Gleizes, Léger, Lhote, etc.” The essay complimented the aforementioned artists then attacked: “we declare ourselves to be absolutely opposed to their art. They obstinately continue to paint object motionless, frozen, and all the static aspects of Nature; they worship the traditionalism of Poussin of Ingres, of Corot, ageing and petrifying their art with an obstinate attachment to the past, which to our eyes remains totally incomprehensible, to our mind the evidence of a traditional and academic mentality.”
Apollinaire struck back with condescension, “The young Futurist painters can compete with some of our avant-garde artists, but they are still weak pupils of a Picasso or a Derain […] they are nothing more than their imitators.” While he damned Futurism as “a kind of art of fragmentation, a popular, flashy art.” A month later, based on critical disapproval of Futurism, expressed by Apollinaire and Maurice Raynal, Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912) was rejected from the Salon des Indépendants. The rejection was based, in part, upon Apollinaire’s rejection of subject matter. He presented the rather odd proposition that “The subject no longer counts, or if it counts it counts for very little” and applied it to Cubism, which was actually as packed with subject matter, as was Futurism. But at that moment, the winter of 1912, Apollinaire was distressed by the content so aggressively presented in Futurist works. However, one of the early and very influential writings on Futurism by Marianne Martin noted that, regardless of the poet’s attack on the Futurists, the Salon Cubists themselves took careful note on how the Futurists had translated Cubism. According to Martin, “…these Cubists had been unable so far to translate their aims into equally bold plastic terms. The chief obstacle was, it seems, the spell of Cézanne’s art and its underlying classicism, as well as the painters’ concomitant submission to, if relative ignorance of, Picasso’s and Braque’s efforts.” Martin discussed “the important role played by Futurist art and theory especially in the work of the Cubists around Gleizes and Metzinger.” She continued that the 1912 Futurist exhibition had a profoundly liberating and challenging effect on these Parisian artists. Not only has the subject matter become more “modern’ but with the help of Futurist ‘force lines,’ these works have gained much in formal cogency. Evidently, the Futurists’ imaginative exploration of the Cubist vocabulary enabled artists like Gleizes and Metzinger to make similarly appropriate use of some of Picasso’s and Braque’s important discoveries.[i]
But after a combative month, having left a stealth legacy behind, the Futurists pulled up stakes and moved on to their next venue. The Futurists had a very different experience while showing at London’s Sackville Galleries in March. According to Barbara Pezzini, in her article, “The 1912 Futurist exhibition at the Sackville Gallery, London: an Avant-Garde Show within the Old-Master Trade,” the appearance of the Futurists, by now famously belligerent, at a gallery that specialized in high-class old master art was an odd event. Perhaps in deference to their surroundings, the London version of the catalogue was both respectful and bombastic. “We may declare, without boasting, that the first exhibition of Italian Futurist Painting, recently held in Paris and now brought to London, is the most important exhibition of Italian painting which has hitherto been offered for the judgment of Europe.” The contents of the exhibition catalogue for the Sackville Gallery (a translation into English) are well expressed and well thought out, and was written a full year before the supposedly definitive books on Cubism that would soon after appear in Paris.
Written by Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger, Du ‘cubisme” was published later in the year. The words, “In order to make the spectator live in the center of the picture, as we express it in our manifesto, the picture must be the synthesis of what one remembers and of what one sees” do not come from that book, although they are an excellent summation of Cubism. They come from the Sackville catalogue. In 1913, the second book on Cubism, The Cubist Painters, Aesthetic Meditations by Apollinaire, was published. However, Boccioni made the basic idea behind Futurism very clear and quite different from Cubism by writing:
Every object reveals by its lines how it would resolve itself were it to follow the tendencies of its forces. This decomposition is not governed by fixed laws but it varies according to the characteristic personality of the object and the emotions of the onlooker..With the desire to intensify the aesthetic emotions by blending, so to speak, the painted canvas with the soul of the spectator, we have declared that the latter “must in future be placed in the center of the picture.” He shall not be present at, but participate in the action. If we paint the phases of a riot, the crowd bursting with uplifted fists and the noisy onslaughts of cavalry are translated upon the canvas in sheaves of lines corresponding with all the conflicting forces, following the general law of violence in the picture. 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.
Pezzini noted that the London exhibition of the Futurist exhibition received as much attention as the epochal exhibition mounted by Roger Fry at the Grafton Galleries on Manet and the Impressionists in 1910. The Sackville Galleries were small but they were devoted, like the Berheim-Jeune Galerie, to the Futurists. This respectful concentration is a small but important point. When the Futurists travelled to the Der Sturm Galerie in Berlin, the paintings were jumbled in with other avant-garde artists, thus diluting the impact of the visual intentions of the artists. But even though this small and elite gallery used the “scandal” of Futurist ideas and paintings to advertise themselves, British artists took notice. Because of the Francophilic emphasis of art history, English art in the twentieth century, before Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, is not given much attention. But the centenary of the Great War has brought new attention to a neglected art movement greatly inspired by Futurism, Vorticism. During the Great War, artists groped for visual language to express the horrors and, while many tried, many also failed to find the appropriate semiotics for an unprecedented war. The English poets excelled at writing the war through poetry, the German novelists through books, and, unexpectedly, the British artists cracked the code of how to paint the “war to end all wars.” Using a thoroughly modern language, the English artists took Futurism and transformed it into Vorticism, translating the vocabulary of a movement that wanted war into paintings that campaigned against war.
Notes and references
[i] Günter Berghaus. Futurism and Politics: Between Anarchist Rebellion and Fascist Reaction, 1909-1944 (Berghahn Books, 1996)
[ii] Ester Coen. Umberto Boccioni (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1988)
[iii] Krzysztof Ziare. The Force of Art (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2004)
[iv] Marianne W. Martin. “Futurism, Unanimism and Apollinaire.” Art Journal (Vol. 28, No. 3. Spring, 1969)
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