Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916). Dinamismo di un ciclista [Dynamism of a cyclist] (1913). Courtesy of the Estorick Collection, London, UK.
At the Estorick Collection
by Anna Leung
Except in struggle there is no beauty. No work without an aggressive character can be a masterpiece. Poetry must be conceived as a violent attack on unknown forces, to reduce them and prostrate them before man.
We will glorify war – the world’s only hygiene – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn of women.
Art, in fact, can be nothing but violence, cruelty and injustice.
-F. T. Marinetti, The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism, February 1909
It is exactly a hundred years since Marinetti’s Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism was published on the front page, then the arts page, of the Paris newspaper Le Figaro. Though obviously targeting the Italian ex patriot intellectuals and artists who had been drawn to Paris in the first decade of the century, it was also aimed at the Parisian intelligentsia. Publishing the Manifesto in Paris gave it instant avant-garde credibility. Although the Manifesto was Italian in provenance and orientation, this extraordinary editorial coup proclaimed its international status, thus ensuring that Futurism was taken seriously and not rejected out of hand as a provincial movement. (The Manifesto was in fact published simultaneously in Italian in Poesia, a literary magazine but significantly was also printed in broadsheet form and sent to well known public figures all over Italy. Marinetti is said to have received more than ten thousand letters in response to this publication, many positive.)
The manner in which Marinetti proposes the main elements of a Futurist aesthetic, and the way he perceives the role of the artist and the function of art within society, have lost none of their capacity to shock. Futurism dealt a double blow to the art world; it was aimed principally at the complacency of the Bourgeoisie but, as the first of the self-consciously avant-garde movements to emerge in the course of the 20th century, it dealt an equally vicious blow not just to the art institution but to the avant-garde per se. However, unlike Dada, which borrowed many of its ideas and techniques from the Futurists, including their bruitism (noise performances that were likely to include all manner of noise makers), nonsense syllabic poetry and provocative performances, Futurism was not explicitly anti-art. Rather, it was for an art which was no longer clogged up with symbolist nostalgia, an art which looked not back to the past for reassurance but ostentatiously to the future. Tradition had to be ruthlessly extirpated - it had held Italy back for too long, making it a cultural backwater of Europe. Futurism presented itself, therefore, as a challenge to academism and its outmoded cultural values, based for far too long on the dead weight of the Italian Renaissance, but it was also a xenophobic project in praise of war and military adventurism with war celebrated as the loudest most chaotic of all futurist performances. This is the link between Futurism and Fascism that this exhibition, with its one room devoted to the Futurist Umberto Boccioni and another devoted to the contemporary Italian artist Luca Buvoli, seeks to address.
The 19th century avant-garde had been seen as a leftist project. Its utopian credentials, whether associated with the Arts and Crafts movement in England under Ruskin and Morris or with the anarchist movement in Paris with which Georges Seurat had an association, were premised on the necessity for equality and justice for the workingman whose livelihood was endangered by modernity and the tyranny of the machine. The Futurist artist, on the other hand, was to become an activist whose individual future and whose country’s future were to be intimately bound up with the machine as the main agent of change that could redress the political status of Italy. This was in fact no empty talk. For whereas Italy had lagged behind other industrial nations in the first phase of the industrial revolution that was primarily coal based, and consequently suffered from a serious inferiority complex in its inability to compete as an equal with the other industrialised countries, especially Germany which like Italy had only just become a nation state, by the 1900’s it began to catch up with the second phase based on electricity and the internal combustion engine. The development of hydro-electric power was especially important because of Italy’s lack of coal. In the early 20th century, Italy effectively lived through two industrial revolutions at the same time, leading to many cultural incongruities as the old established Italy was juxtaposed with the new pragmatic realities of the industrial age.
For the Futurist artist, the machine was therefore the symbol neither of servitude, as in Britain, nor of rational design, as it was in Germany, but rather of uncontainable vitality. The car was admirably suited to Marinetti’s aesthetic, a romanticised vision of technology that celebrated man’s victory over Nature. Significantly, conversion and baptism into this new religion of Futurism was recounted in the Manifesto in a highly stylised, theatrical narrative of an automobile accident in which Marinetti and friends out on a midnight rampage were flung from their automobile into a “maternal ditch”. Marinetti then proclaims, “when I came up – torn, filthy and stinking- from under the capsized car I felt the white –hot iron of joy deliciously pass through my heart.” Futurism, as defined by the eleven-point program outlined in the Manifesto that provided the theoretical basis for all aspects of Futurist art making, was born of that moment. As we shall see when we focus on Boccioni, however, the theory far preceded actual art practice.
Central to the Manifesto was the creation of a new ideology that in Marinetti’s symbolist rhetoric was raised to the level of a new post Nietzschean godless religion based on speed. Marinetti argued that speed, whose essence was the “the intuitive synthesis of all forces in movement,” was by nature pure. Futurism effectively replaced the binary values of good and evil with “a new good: speed, and a new evil; slowness.” This binary opposition should be kept in mind when we come to Buvoli’s installation. Translating modernism into Bergsonian terms of dynamic change, speed comes to incarnate the Absolute in this life by guaranteeing man’s, and an essentially masculinist, victory over time and space. Pictorially as well as verbally what this first called for was the destruction of the autonomous art form, art for art’s sake, upon which most modernism was based. In Futurist performances, the poem was enunciated with the maximum of disturbance, becoming a parody of itself; in the pictorial arts, the composition was no longer a balanced composition but a collage of events that entailed the loss of a dominant image just as in the poem what was lost was the authorial “I.”
A central ordering system was replaced in both cases by incidents, accidents and the possibilities of discourses, all of which were not intrinsic to art but related to the life taking place around us. What is obliterated is the difference between the real world and the pictorial or poetic field of activity. What is focused on is the coming into being of things and the importance of improvisation. What results is the breakdown of all barriers and the fusion of the environment with the object and of the subject with the world. There is an interesting remnant of romanticism here in the scattering of the self in the universe and its resurrection in the creation of a super “I,” revealed to twentieth century consciousness in the image of the fearless pilot in his heroic airplane, images that Luca Buvoli uses in his videos. These, however, are not the images that we see in Boccioni’s drawings, which represent an earlier attempt to translate Futurist ideas. It is only gradually and through the implementation of Cubist strategies that Futurist painters and sculptors were able to approach, and eventually realise, Marinetti’s radical ideas.
Umberto Boccioni: Unique Forms
Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916) was born in Reggio Calabria. His father was a mining engineer employed by the government, which meant that the family was continuously on the move during his childhood. From 1899, after studying at local art schools, he moved to Rome where he met the painter Gino Severini and studied divisionism in Giacomo Balla’s studio. In 1906, he left Rome for Paris and, in the summer of the same year, travelled to Russia, returning to Italy by the end of the year, where he settled in Milan. It was here that Marinetti made contact with some of the painters in Boccioni’s circle and, in February of 1910, they published a Manifesto of Futurist Painters. This manifesto, probably edited by Marinetti, demanded a return to a tabula rasa in order to destroy the old conventions based on the cult of the past and that painters give all their combined energies to “our day-to-day world, a world which is going to be continually and splendidly transformed by victorious Science.” It ended with a vow to ‘make room for youth, for violence, for daring.” Ironically Boccioni, who enlisted with the Lombard Volunteer Cyclist Battalion, which was disbanded in 1915, died on the front in the following year having been thrown off his horse,
The drawings that make up Boccioni’s "unique forms" represent an attempt to create art works that do not merely reproduce aspects of contemporary life but also demonstrate how seemingly solid objects are actually defined by the interplay between solid mass and its environment. In Boccioni’s words: “We proclaim the absolute and complete abolition of definite lines and closed sculpture: We break open the figure and enclose it in environment.” Boccioni’s images may at first glance seem unambitious and overly dependent on Cubist syntax. Precisely because the whole concept of linear dynamics as lines of force that interpenetrate all things, breaking down what was assumed to be solid corporeal mass, is so demanding, especially when confined to 2D, Boccioni was wise to limit his first undertakings in the direction of a Futurist aesthetic to the image of the human body. He was attempting to unite interior and exterior, past with present and future, the actual and the remembered within a single image. Indeed in another series of paintings entitled collectively States of Mind, Boccioni explored not just the interaction of solid mass and space but also the fusing of elements in interior landscapes through the narrative of the train station and psychological and emotional responses to travel. In many ways, however, this radical revision of what we see is in fact better served by sculpture whose solid forms could be opened in both active and passive modes to simultaneously enclose and be penetrated by the environment. But even more radical and far seeing was Boccioni’s realisation that traditional sculptural materials needed to be replaced by the introduction of common use materials such as glass, metal, leather, mirrors, electric lights etc., a practice that he may well have appropriated from Vladimir Tatlin’s relief sculptures, seen during his stay in Russia.
It is curious that despite his encouragement to radical artists to “only use very modern and up-to-date subjects in order to arrive at the discovery of NEW PLASTIC IDEAS” Boccioni’s own sculptural works continued to be based on such traditional genres as the human figure or still life object and were cast in bronze rather than making explicit use of new materials (thought it is true that some of his more experimental works are lost). The two sculptures on show are very forceful and far from merely representational. Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913), possibly derived from Rodin’s The Walking Man (1877) but fired with a completely different sense of optimism and resolve, is based on the idea of contending force fields that exert their impact on a body striding forward into space, while his still life Development of a Bottle in Space (1912) is his first successful sculpture in the round.
In many ways, the post-Impressionist Italian sculptor Medardo Rosso (1858-1928), whose work can be seen in the Estorick’s permanent collection, prefigured Futurist thinking on sculpture. He rejected the concept of sculpture as statuary and saw it as the impact of space on mass; Boccioni acknowledged his debt to Rosso in the Technical Manifest of Futurist Sculpture. The other great influence was, of course Picasso, especially his cubist heads. However, Boccioni’s own resolution to the problem of capturing the way an object interacts with its environment is best understood in his still life Development of a Bottle in Space. The sculpture is premised on an interplay between solid and void. The bottle in question, with its core of emptiness, arises from a nest of volumes that can either represent the opening up of the object or its enclosure within space. An object in the round, it presents different facets to each viewer, Boccioni giving us the illusion of the spiralling form of the bottle expanding into space while trying to make space itself “palpable, systematic and plastic.” Boccioni treats the space around the bottle as if it were a material substance made up of arabesque curves, so that form no longer takes up space but is generated by it, and in so doing suggests the familiar shape of the bottle.
Luca Buvoli: Velocity Zero
Luca Buvoli’s (b. 1963) installation in Room 2 questions the relationship between the aesthetic and the political in terms of our modern faith in technological progress. A mural painting dominates the gallery space, pulsing with the energy of a very fast moving car, Marinetti’s preferred symbol of progress and modern beauty. This issues from a Rodchenko inspired, larger than life sized drawn head speaking into a megaphone. The speeding car, which threatens at any moment to jump off the surface of the wall, represents both power and loss of control, giving rise to a discourse on the relationship between heroism, vulnerability, and masculinity and the way these are interrelated not just in Italian history but globally when it comes to totalitarian and authoritarian regimes. This image, which stretches across the breadth of the wall, is broken up by a series of propaganda posters and two videos that are equipped with headphones. A Very Beautiful Day After Tomorrow is based on a saying that Marinetti passed on to his daughter Vittoria when the Fascist regime he still supported was close to collapse.
The video, made up principally of an interview with Vittoria, is spliced through with a Fascist patriotic song, “The Aviator’s Song,” sung by a children’s choir. The other video, Excerpts from Velocity Zero on the opposing wall, is made up of excerpts from Marinetti’s 1909 Manifesto but read out by a group of American sufferers from aphasia, a condition that affects speech patterns. In this way the bombastic self promoting rhetoric of the Manifesto is rendered redundant, its triumphalist ideologies made slow and awkward so that they are compromised from within by this performance of painfully laboured, weakly articulated theses that ostensibly celebrate speed and violence and promote the contempt of women. The recorded voices are fragmented, as are the images of the speakers which are captured by fine line drawings, filmed frame by frame, their indeterminacy underlining the basic aim of the Futurists to capture the intersection of subject and the world in a seemingly never ending flux of lines that express their responses to the spoken word.
Patriotism and the cult of violence were not limited to the right wing in Italy. Politically, both the revolutionary left wing syndicalists who were influenced by the writings of Sorel and right wing nationalists rejected reformist Socialism and parliamentary democracy, and both factions supported the Italian claim to Libya to demonstrate to the world Italy’s progression from nationhood to imperialist power. It was this same matrix of activist ideas based on the primacy of Nietzschean affirmation and of intuition over reason and argument that enthused Marinetti’s Futurism. As a group, the Futurists were trenchant in their support of Italy’s intervention in the First World War on the side of Britain and France, seeing this as a continuation of their country’s unification. This hectoring call for military glory anticipated Fascist ideology under Mussolini, modernization and patriotism becoming the two main articles of faith embraced by the Futurists. Some qualifications are in order, however.
First, we should realize that it is all too easy to take Marinetti’s imagery of destruction and renewal too literally. It is important to be aware that he was a poet, and that his language was metaphoric. His imagery of cities in a state of febrile agitation defined not a political but an aesthetic coup d’état.
Second, Futurism was an avant-garde project that was not predominantly rightwing, despite Marinetti’s attempt to make it into a political party in its own right and its subsequent entanglement with Mussolini. Mussolini originally co-opted it, not despite, but because of its leftist leanings. Futurism was however, unquestionably nationalistic in its orientation, which led to its engagement with proto-fascist ideologies that have caused much discomfort in the art world, where avant-garde movements are axiomatically categorised as leftwing and internationalist in spirit. Futurism threatens to turn this alliance between politics and aesthetics inside out.
Futurism 100! brings this paradox out into the open and asks us to consider the relationship between the self-aggrandisement so characteristic of the Futurist artist and the subsequent proponents of Fascism, among whom Marinetti counted himself as one of the most faithful, staying till the bitter end in Mussolini’s short lived republic of Salo. However, it would be as simplistic to equate Fascism and Futurism, especially in the light of Futurism’s natural hostility to the discipline and hierarchy demanded by the Fascist regime as well as its ever more restrictive bureaucracy, as it would be to see Futurism as representing the Fascist state in terms of its artistic production, especially in the light of fascism’s emulation of the past glory of Rome, which could not have been more at variance with its own futuristic dynamic. Complicity there was, and affinities too. These continue to subsist in our own culture but more at a deeper cultural and even psychological level than a specifically political substratum of ideas.
The exhibition Futurism 100! runs from 14 January - 19 April 2009 at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art in London, UK.
Anna Leung is a London-based artist and educator now semi-retired from teaching at Birkbeck College but taking occasional informal groups to current art exhibitions.
Text © Anna Leung, 2009.