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Bodies In Motion

Review: Italian Futurism at the Guggenheim

The City Rises by Umberto Boccioni
The City Rises by Umberto Boccioni / Wikimedia Commons
• July 27, 2014 5:00 am

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In 1909, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti was talented, on the cusp of middle age, and ambitious. He was also full of thoughts about the future of European literature and art. Naturally, he wrote a manifesto, which appeared on the front page of Paris’ Le Figaro. Describing a recent automobile accident during which he had driven his car into a ditch ("O maternal ditch, almost full of muddy water! Fair factory drain! I gulped down your nourishing sludge …") Marinetti claimed that he had emerged from his mishap with a new vision. He wrote:

[T]oday, we establish Futurism, because we want to free this land from its smelly gangrene of professors, archaeologists, ciceroni, and antiquarians. For too long has Italy been a dealer in second-hand clothes. We mean to free her from the numberless museums that cover her like so many graveyards. Museums: cemeteries!… Identical, surely, in the sinister promiscuity of so many bodies unknown to one another. Museums: public dormitories where one lies forever beside hated or unknown beings. Museums: absurd abattoirs of painters and sculptors ferociously slaughtering each other with color-blows and line-blows, the length of the fought-over walls!

Futurism, the manifesto explained, would be about danger, aggressiveness, "the slap and the punch," and the "beauty of speed." And about cars: "A racing car … is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace … We intend to hymn man at the steering wheel, the ideal axis of which intersects the earth."

More darkly—keep in mind, this is shortly before the onset of the First World War—Marinetti noted that, "We intend to glorify war—the only hygiene of the world—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of anarchists, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and contempt for woman." This somewhat eclectic combination of artistic principles caught on, and what the organizers of the Guggenheim’s fascinating exhibit Italian Futurism 1909-1944 call a "programmatic avant-garde" was born.

Among Futurism’s principal legacies—and indeed, one of the most frequent activities of its many practitioners in literature and the arts—was the writing of artistic manifestos. The exhibit preserves dozens of them in their first editions: manifestos wholly or in part describing the principles of Futurist painting (of course), Futurist Literature (makes sense), Futurist Dance (what now?), Futurist Photography, Futurist Ceramics, Futurist Furniture, and—this is for real—Futurist Cooking. Considering the sheer number of these publications, it is remarkable that the Futurists actually had any time left to make art.

If the notion of a bunch of militant proto-fascists publishing dueling manifestos on, say, the proper character of Futurist end-tables strikes you as something that belongs in a Woody Allen period piece, you are not wrong. There is something undeniably goofy about Italian Futurism.

In addition to debating one another, the Futurists were devoted to shaking bourgeois society from its complacency. To this end, they established the practice of seratas—what people in the 1960s would call ‘happenings’—in public places, where the public would be exposed to the future. Manifestos were distributed. Dance was not unheard of. Fistfights were common.

Once, 800,000 copies of Marinetti’s manifesto calling for the destruction of Venice ("Let us fill the stinking little canals with the rubble of the tottering infected old palaces…") were distributed by throwing them from a tower overlooking St. Mark’s Plaza. On at least one occasion, manifestos were thrown to the masses from a biplane.

In addition to being a little bit goofy and a little bit sinister, the Futurists produced a substantial amount of striking and occasionally quite beautiful work, an extensive collection of which the Guggenheim has put on display. Related to both Cubism and Divisionism (the most well-known example of which is Seurat’s Pointillism) Futurist painting sought to establish a new visual language that could better depict motion and energy. Some of the experiments are underwhelming, but some are justifiably famous and on view. Paintings by Giancomo Balla and Umberto Boccioni are especially worth seeing, as are Boccioni’s swooping, whirling sculptures. Second generation Futurists established, between the wars, a school of Aeropittura—depictions of the phenomenon of human flight. They are innovative and quite literally dizzying. What they are not, anymore, is shocking.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim, spiraling upwards in its own hymn to the Modern, is aesthetically well suited to these works, most of which—especially in the early years—capture both the anger and the optimism of the prewar Italian Right. Many of the early Futurists fought in World War One (Marinetti enlisted in the "Lombard Battalion of Volunteer Cyclists and Automobilists" and was wounded by a grenade in 1917) and several were killed. After the war, Marinetti and various strands of the movement sought to ingratiate themselves with Mussolini’s fascists.

The problem here was that Il Duce’s artistic tastes, and consequently those of most of his henchmen, ran in the neo-classical direction. The revival of old Roman modes—consistent with the political program of fascism—was of course precisely the opposite of Marinetti’s vision. In an irony that is equal parts pathetic, cruel, and funny, the Futurists were frequently shut out of the public art of the 1930s, despite their eager ambition to participate. In one sense, they were lucky: In Germany, the Nazis turned violently on what they considered to be "decadent" art. In Italy, the Fascists just didn’t care.

As fine an achievement as this exhibit is, one has the impression, while standing in what is, after all, a museum, that Marinetti would have hated it. The revolt against the bourgeois has come and gone, and we—the Western, solid, wage-earning middle class—are still very much here, filing past, un-shocked, the work of the Futurists. Standing before Boccioni’s ‘The City Rises,’ I overheard a mother call to her daughter to come see "the one with the horse in it." There it was: almost everything that Marinetti claimed to hate in one little moment!

Then again—much as with the legacy of the cultural revolutions of the 1960s—perhaps Futurism’s real legacy is precisely our un-shockability at what was, in the early part of the Twentieth Century, genuinely discomforting art. The avant-garde doesn’t shock us anymore because it has been so successful.

Published under: Art Reviews