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The Futurist Artists: Was their art worthy of their theories?



So begins one of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s poems. That’s not Italian, if the reader hadn’t noticed, but rather, it seems like a battle-hungry child’s verse rendition of Marinetti and his fellow Futurists’ first encounter with the art critic Ardengo Soffici. It was the Spring of 1911 and the Futurist painters had just exhibited at La Mostra d’Arte Libera. Soffici reviewed it in La Voce; he damned the exhibition, arguing that the Futurists had failed to prove that their movement was anything more than coarse vociferation and theory. Immediately, the leading futurists (Marinetti, Umberto Boccioni, and Carlo Carra) boarded a train to Florence and played fisticuffs with Soffici and his colleagues. He was brought over to their side. But his criticism of the Futurists pervades: did they ever make an art worthy of their theories? 

Firstly, what did they believe?

In 1909 the notoriously conservative French daily Le Figaro published an unexpected article: Marinetti’s Manifesto del Futurismo. The introduction is intensely poetic in its exaltation of the modern, the mechanical — evident in the remark, ‘a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace’. Yet, behind this veneer of poetry and the avant-garde, there lurked some pretty unsavoury principles: 

‘Principle 9: We will glorify war — the world’s only hygiene — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for women. 

Principle 10: We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, every oppurtunistic or utilitarian cowardice.’ 

The difficulty with Futurism is that it was a movement beyond art. However horrible a Cubist or a Post-Impressionist might have been as a person, their groups did not necessarily function politically. Futurism, however, helped sow a destructive seed in Europe: Fascismo. One of the great representations of Futurist theory occurs, of all places, in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited: 

‘We were joined by a Belgian futurist, who lived under the, I think, assumed name of Jean de Brissac la Motte, and claimed the right to bear arms in any battle anywhere against the lower classes’. 

It is difficult to represent such ideas artistically. But then again, as Marinetti writes, ‘Art, in fact, can be nothing but violence, cruelty and injustice’. So how do the paintings compare to this? Not too favourably — since, despite their strong ambitions, their art was incapable of shaking off the influences of the Parisian Avant-Garde and also that of the past. 

Umberto Boccioni’s 1910 painting The City Rises shows this. It’s considered a seminal work in the Futurist canon — and it’s also painted by Futurism’s most important artist. It’s a wonderful painting: consider how excellently movement is rendered with a simple palette, which in turn makes each object, animal and man synthesise with each other. Past moments don’t echo – instead they resound in the white, ghost-like forms behind each figure. The painting exalts the construction of a modern town or suburb. One gets a sense of the dynamism of the moment, in all its high velocity. Yet stylistically it’s not revolutionary; it’s heavily reliant on the previous thirty years of Art History. It relies on a divisionist technique and depicts its subject in a realistic manner. Likewise, Giacomo Balla’s 1910 Dynamism of a Dog on a Lead displays such an overreliance on recent artistic styles and techniques. It’s an excellent analysis of movement in the way that it approaches the spatial displacement of an object in motion. It captures the wagging of the dog’s tail extremely well, as well as the waving dress of the walker. Yet it’s much the same as The City Rises — its bourgeois subject matter is recognisable and naturalistic. And does it assault the presiding order of artistic representation and theory? Not really… 

It’s only really the late work of Umberto Boccioni which comes close to realising the Futurist ideals — if we can call such cynical theories ‘ideals’. There are two instances that I’ll focus on: the 1911 triptych States of Mind and the 1913 sculpture Unique Forms of Continuity in Space. The former is concerned with the more psychological dimension of modernity: how the increased efficiency of transport has made life and relationships more transient. The subject matter is a train’s departure from a station: each picture depicts a separate angle or aspect of this occasion. Picture No. 1, The Farewells, is a confused and chaotic rendering of a train’s approach to the platform. The style here, perhaps most reminiscent of the Parisian avant-garde and the contemporary vogue of Synthetic Cubism, makes it seem as if the train is consuming everything. It becomes a symbol not too dissimilar from that of the demonic machine Moloch in Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis. Strangely, this seems to contradict some Futurist values — it’s as if the interminable march of technology and industrialisation is destroying human relationships and feeling. The Farwells seems an almost ironic title — here there is so much dissociation that it’s hard to see, if not to believe, in the human and its presence here. Picture No. 2 is titled Those Who Go. Here the viewer sees faces, seemingly reflected in the dim light by the train window, as they sullenly look out the window. The train’s extreme speed is emphasised by the driving rain, which slants across the picture and is painted in quick brushstrokes. There is an anguish here — but an unusual one, which seems particularly reflective of the modern predicament: each figure seems disillusioned, almost alienated by machinery. And in Picture No. 3, the viewer sees Those Who Stay: their most identifiable feature is their stasis. There is a certain heaviness in the picture, which seems to evoke the weight of departure — as W.H. Auden would remark in his poem the Sea and the Mirror, ‘every time some dear flesh disappears, what is real is the arriving grief’. One can see this feeling expressed in their faces. The Futurist style is realised in this triptych — but in a much more nuanced way than Marinetti wrote in his Manifesto. It’s a unique style, one which powerfully evokes movement and machinery in a way unimaginable in the previous year’s The City Rises, but it also highlights the alienation caused by the machine and the modern city. 

The sculpture Unique Forms of Continuity in Space is perhaps the most recognisable Futurist work. It even appears on the 20 cent Euro coin. The sculpture’s forms — and Boccioni’s depiction of movement — is not too dissimilar from what we saw in the previous triptych. It’s full of exciting and forceful movement; through its velocity, the body seems to merge into its surrounding environment. Its armlessness seems to hint at a Classical influence — those old, antique fragments of sculpture — and to one sculpture in particular, The Winged Victory of Samothrace. This is ironic, yes, given Marinetti’s aforementioned criticism of said sculpture. But it shows a dramatic reinvention and reconception of that work. And in doing so, this seems to become the Victory of Boccioni’s period — a triumphal celebration of modernity. 

The Great War came in 1914: and the Futurists were ravenous with excitement. The greatest Futurist painter, Boccioni was trampled in a cavalry exercise in 1916 — that he should be cut down by an instrument of traditional militarism, the horse, suggests that there’s an intrinsic irony to this world. The others lasted longer — and saw the rise of Fascism, to whom they had served as precedents, and the later fall of this hateful ideology. Most of them, ironically, compromised their artistic ideals — Mussolini’s Fascism relied on the symbolism of Imperial Rome and Italy’s Renaissance heritage to evoke his country’s supremacy. Thus the Futurists died — but regrettably, their values did not die with them.

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