F.T. Marinetti: The Revolutionary Mentor
Umberto Boccioni “Unique Forms of
Continuity in Space” 1913, cast 1972
Photocredit : Tate Photography Copyright: Tate)
By INA COLE
ART TIMES July/August 2009
THIS YEAR SIGNALS the centenary of Futurism — the invention of F.T. Marinetti, writer, media manipulator and master of propaganda. “Futurism is grounded in the complete renewal of human sensibility brought about by the great discoveries of science,” he declared (C. Tisdall and A. Bozzolla, 1996, Futurism). Futurism’s central idea was that the machine had the power to create a new society free from historical constraint. What was new about Futurism was that ideas about violence, nationalism, war, anarchy, the superman, urban life, technology, speed and hatred of past values were brought together and synthesized into documents, which were widely distributed to mass audiences. Modernity, they felt, was all-encompassing, and the movement incorporated painting, sculpture, poetry, music, theatre, architecture, typography and cinema, striving towards a total fusion of life and art, and invading every aspect of cultural, social and political existence. Futurist theory had a tendency to precede Futurist practice, and it had been as a result of Marinetti’s frenetic outburst on the front page of Le Figaro in 1909, that the painters Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carra, Luigi Russolo, Giacomo Balla and Gino Severini decided to join him in his quest.
The problem for the Futurist painters was how to translate their vision into paint. The first possibility was derived from neo-impressionism, breaking light and color down into a field of stippled dots, which offered a means of analyzing energy, eliminating the static immobility of paint on canvas. The key to their painting was the concept of universal dynamism, which was the principle that drew together all objects in time and space. The machine, speed and the city were all seen to represent this principle. Science had brought new knowledge of the world and to continue painting a single object in static isolation would deny this knowledge. To combat the problem of painting movement, the Futurists turned to Cubism. Indeed, Futurism could not have come to its fruition without the Cubist fragmentation of picture space and knowledge of the new technique of x-ray photography, which saw through opaque objects and had a similarity to Cubist transparency and overlap.
In the late 1870s, two pioneers of cinema had studied atomized movement by means of a series of still photographs — Eadweard Muybridge, who made sequential photographic studies of human and animal activity, and E.J. Marey who developed a technique called chronophotography, the photography of time. Some of Balla’s paintings were almost literal transcriptions of these photographs, such as Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash, derived from a photographic close-up. It depicts a dachshund trotting beside its owner; its speed characterized by flapping ears, wagging tail, swinging leash and a multitude of racing legs. In studying the physical phenomenon of movement, objects appear to constantly multiply themselves; therefore a running dog seems not to have only four legs, but an uncountable number. In addition, Thomas Edison had invented the first commercially practical incandescent lamp and had opened the first public electricity supply in New York in 1882. Nothing moved faster than electricity; like blood rushing through veins it raced through channels, powering motors and accelerating activity, its versatility impacting on everyone, in the home, the factory and the street. Balla’s Street Lamp found its inspiration in one of the first electric street lamps installed in Rome. It is a scientific attempt to represent light by separating the colors of which it is composed, with splinters seemingly erupting from its source like an exploding bomb.
Industrialization in Northern Italy had increased rapidly after 1895, with road works and building construction becoming a feature of towns such as Milan and Turin. Boccioni reveled in these monumental social themes and The City Rises vividly depicts this era of change, truly representing the modern epoch. This painting was a celebration of new industrial construction in Milan and a synthesis of labor, light and movement. Its dynamism is due to the great red horse in the foreground, which throws the picture space into turmoil, while in the background a man-made industrial city rises up in frenetic acceleration. It is a violent, almost cinematic image of the city. Through the use of shimmering brushstrokes, the horse appears to be dissolving under the power of its own energy amongst an array of straining and twisting cables. Its organic energy contrasts with the mechanical dynamism of the city, and this battle between organic and man-made can be seen to represent the increasing abyss between old and new. The development of the car industry after 1903 was another important component of industrial expansion in Italy, and of all machines the motorcar was the most poetically charged. In his mission for a total synthesis of elements, much of Balla’s work from 1913 focuses on the speed of cars. In Speeding Automobile, he used the car to experiment with the subject of dynamism, its movement depicted in a series of glinting diagonals. Interestingly, his cars are always seen moving from right to left. As the viewer would generally read the picture from left to right, this cleverly increases the tension between object and the viewers eye, in much the same way as when traveling on a train one is struck by the relative movement of the landscape, but even more so by the movement of another train coming from the opposite direction.
It was Marinetti who ultimately gave the movement its momentum, constantly expanding its scope to keep it in the human consciousness. It was more of a revolution than an art movement, handled like a political campaign through manifestos, demonstrations and public performances. However, Marinetti’s ideal was the entire re-ordering of society, and this search for an impossible utopia could surely only end in disappointment. As he became more overtly political, the other Futurists began to pursue different paths. Although Marinetti had initially exalted in the glory of war, his enthusiasm was drowned by the disintegration of the Futurist core. Boccioni died in the First World War, as did Sant ‘Elia, the futurist architect at the age of only twenty-eight. Russolo and Marinetti himself were both seriously wounded. Interestingly, those Futurists who survived returned to the secluded life of the studio. Only Marinetti saw the movement through as a form of revolution, expecting the war to provide the artistic gratification of a sense of perception that had been changed by technology.
This raises the difficult question of whether, a hundred years ago, the development of this movement helped to propel Italy into two world wars. Although Futurism was not the official art of Fascism as is often led to believe, it did share three definite characteristics; glorification of the machine, the use of violence against opponents, and an infatuation with youth and newness. It is easy to see how the issue becomes confused, as Marinetti and the Italian politician Benito Mussolini were remarkably similar in character, and the war provided platforms for both of them. It was important for Mussolini that his movement was seen to have the support of prominent cultural figures and Marinetti was a worthwhile ally, whom he elected to the Central Committee of the Fascist Movement. Mussolini’s rhetoric owed a debt to Marinetti’s Futurism as he himself recalled, “the innovator poet who gave me the feeling for the ocean and the machine” (C. Tisdall and A. Bozzolla). Marinetti had seen the Fascist State as an extension of the individual, but Mussolini’s Fatherland stifled the power of gifted individuals by delegating creativity and responsibility to those who would maintain the status quo. So, Futurism started to lose its support from the state and Marinetti began to walk the tightrope of compromise. Unfortunately he had no weapon to deal with the aspects of Fascism he disagreed with and a power much greater than his own. Although disillusioned, Marinetti stayed loyal to Mussolini’s then disintegrating Empire, dying in 1944 at Bellagio, the last refuge of the Fascist hierarchy.
(Exhibitions celebrating Futurism are at Tate Modern, London (to 20 September); Museo Correr, Venice (to 4 October); Palazzo Reale, Milan (15 October – 15 January 2010). Paintings referred to in this article are at MoMA, NY and Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY.)