by Roderick Conway Morris

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Civico Museo d'Art Contemporanea, Milan
Elasticity by Umberto Boccioni, 1912

100 years after the Futurist Manifesto

By Roderick Conway Morris
MILAN, Italy 9 May 2009


Almost every 20th-century avant-garde movement in the visual arts, theater, music, film and literature owes something to Futurism and it is still difficult to establish new frontiers in the arts without discovering that the Futurists had set foot there before.

The roots of Futurism lay in a rejection, even hatred, of the past, fuelled by centuries of foreign domination of Italy and disappointment in the results of relatively recent independence.

'It is from Italy that we launch into the world our manifesto of overwhelming and incendiary violence with which today we found Futurism, because we wish to free this country from its foul gangrene of teachers, archeologists, tour guides and antique dealers,' as Filippo Tomasso Marinetti declared in the first Futurist Manifesto, published in Italy and on the front page of 'Le Figaro' in France in February 1909.

Indeed, Futurism's founder might well have denounced as backward-looking, or 'passeist', the ultimate Futurist insult, this year's exhibitions in Italy and elsewhere marking the 100th anniversary of its birth - over 30 of them, with the most significant in terms of original material currently taking place in Milan and Rome.

In the second half of the 20th century, Marinetti's later associations with Mussolini and Fascism have tended to obscure his earlier impact - as a poet, freethinker, challenger of received ideas and conjuror-up of anarchic mayhem - and his role, for better or worse, as an outstanding avant-garde figure.

Marinetti has finally got an exhibition to himself at the Fondazione Stelline in Milan. The pictures, manuscripts, books, letters, photographs and plethora of manifestos on display here can only partly evoke the inexaustible bombastic brilliance of the man and the startling effects of his performances.

His 'Futurist Evenings', held in theaters all over Europe typically ended in riots and, if things went really well, with the arrest of Marinetti and his colleagues by the police. (Success was measured by Marinetti not in applause but by the level of abuse and disorder created.)

These performances and the Futurists' endlessly provocative publications reached an amazingly wide audience, from factory workers to the upper echelons of society and the arts. In 1913, for example, Marinetti's solo rendering of his action-poem 'Zang Tumb Tumb', inspired by the bombardment of Adrianople in 1912 during the Balkan Wars (which the author witnessed as a foreign correspondent) at the Poetry Bookshop in London had to be abandoned after the neighbors complained about the noise level. Among those present were Ezra Pound, Jacop Epstein, Wilfred Owen and W.B. Yeats.

Futurism was unique as an avant-garde movement in that it existed entirely on paper (and in Marinetti's mind) some time before any actual works were produced. In 1909, Milan was Italy's only large industrial city and it was there that Marinetti recruited his first artistic shock troops: Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carra, Luigi Russolo, Giacomo Balla and Giovanni Severini (the latter, like Marinetti, was also familiar with the progressive Paris scene).

A shared aim became the representation, by distorting and disarranging images, of the ceasless activity and confusion of modern urban life. It was an age in which intoxicating new forms of transport and communication - bicycles, motorcycles, cars, express trains, planes, ocean liners, the telegraph, the telephone - seemed to be transforming the globe and even the human race. In fact, Marinetti claimed that the central ideas of Futurism had come to him when he crashed his speeding motorcar into a ditch.

The initial Futurist exhibition opened in Paris at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery in February 1912, eliciting a satisfactory level of outraged comment, and then went on a grand tour of northern European capitals, taking in London, Berlin, Amsterdam and Brussels from which news of the movement rapidly spread further afield, soon reaching the U.S., Russia and Japan.

The Scuderie exhibition in Rome, 'Futurism: Avant-garde and Avant-gardes' (which will travel on to London) gathers together an impressive array of these first Futurist works, including Boccioni's classic triptych set at a rail terminus 'States of Mind: The Farewells, Those Who Stay, Those Who Go', 'Simultaneous Visions', and 'The Riot'; Carra's 'What the Tram Told Me', 'The Jolting of a Cab' and 'The Funeral of the Anarchist Galli'; Russolo's 'Memories of the Night' and 'The Revolt'; Balla's 'Girl Running on a Balcony'; and Severini's 'The Boulevard' and 'Pan-Pan at the Monico' (destroyed but recreated by the artist some thirty years later).

The second part of the show juxtaposes contemporary works by Braque, Duchamp, Picasso and other Cubists, and illustrates the effects of Cubism and Futurism on artists of various nationalities.

But Cubism remained a strictly artistic movement, while Futurism sought to transform every aspect of human activity and culture. Where, the devotees of Futurism might ask, were Cubist cocktails, cuisine, couture, comedy and musical cacophony? Futurism proposed its own version of all these, as evidenced by the ambitiously expansive exhibition of around 500 works at the Palazzo Reale in Milan, 'Futurism 1909-2009', which offers examples of the full gamut of Futurist art and design, from household wares, architecture and theater, to advertizing, photography and film.

The opening sections provide a well-chosen survey of the artistic sources absorbed by the Futurists-to-be in the late 19th and early 20th century - among them the seminal sculptures of Medardo Rosso, in which he strove to integrate figures with their surroundings, and a highly suggestive image of a speeding motorcar on a mountain pass, only its ghostly image left on the mind's eye, painted by Giuseppe Pelizza da Volpedo as early as 1904.

As an example of minimalism on the stage, Francesco Cangiullo's 'Detonation' of 1915 is a difficult act to follow: The curtain rises on a stage, empty but for a street lamp. Pause. A shot rings out. Pause. Curtain.

But 'Futurist Synthetic Theater' could be more flamboyant. Giacomo Balla's design for Stravinsky's 'Fireworks' premiered in Rome in 1917, the set for which is recreated at the Palazzo Reale, replaced the dancers with colorful geometric illuminated by 49 different lighting combinations during the five-minute duration of this hymn to the wonders of electricity.

Exhibitions: F.T. Marinetti=Futurism, Fondazione Stelline, Milan (through June 7); Futurism 1909-2009: Speed+Art+Action, Palazzo Reale, Milan (through June 7); Futurism: Avant-garde and Avant-gardes, Scuderie del Quirinale, Rome (through June 7; Tate Modern, London, June-October)

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024