Thursday, July 30, 2009

"Time and Space Died Yesterday," Futurism at 100

Russolo, Rivolta, 1911

On February 20, 1909, a new modern art movement announced its birth in a manifesto published on the front page of Le Figaro. It reads in part:

We are on the extreme promontory of the centuries! What is the use of looking behind at the moment when we must open the mysterious shutters of the impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We are already living in the absolute, since we have already created eternal, omnipresent speed.
We want to glorify war - the only cure for the world - militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.
We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.
We will sing of the great crowds agitated by work, pleasure and revolt; the multi-colored and polyphonic surf of revolutions in modern capitals: the nocturnal vibration of the arsenals and the workshops beneath their violent electric moons: the gluttonous railway stations devouring smoking serpents; factories suspended from the clouds by the thread of their smoke; bridges with the leap of gymnasts flung across the diabolic cutlery of sunny rivers: adventurous steamers sniffing the horizon; great-breasted locomotives, puffing on the rails like enormous steel horses with long tubes for bridle, and the gliding flight of aeroplanes whose propeller sounds like the flapping of a flag and the applause of enthusiastic crowds.

It was written by the Italian poet Filippo Marinetti, creator of the movement from a small group of artists and poets gathered around him. Between 1909 and 1914, Futurism was the most adventurous and daring modern art movement in the world, blazing new trails for so many movements to follow in the years after World War I. Unlike those German hippy kids in Dresden who founded Die Bruecke four years earlier, the Futurists were not interested in making an alternative anything to conventional society. They were out to destroy and replace conventional society, not secede from it. They saw themselves as revolutionaries, not dropouts. Futurism was the first 20th century art movement to align itself with radical politics; in this case, the radical right. Marinetti would go on to become a speechwriter for Mussolini. Mussolini took an active interest in the movement in the 1920s and 30s and gave it state patronage and encouragement.

Futurism was an Italian movement. The sense of expectation that was at the heart of modern cultural movements had to labor under the unusually heavy weight of Italy's 4000 year long history and its enormous cultural patrimony. It is small wonder that young Italian modernists felt that weight and dreamed of throwing it off. Marinetti described Italy as covered with "cemeteries" and wrote violent poems urging the museums to be flooded out. The Futurists greeted the disruptions and chaos of the new world of technology, commercialism, and industry with delighted enthusiasm. This new world of noise, speed, and sensationalism was for them the force of life.

Umberto Boccioni, The City Rises, 1910

How to express this new world of speed, noise, and sensation in the given artists' media of paint on canvas? How to make the effect of motion and transformation in an object like a painting that does not move itself? One of the earliest solutions is this magnificent and stirring painting by Boccioni. He takes the painted pixels invented by Seurat, and runs them through a particle accelerator to show a scene of almost chaotic construction, where things seem to dissolve in their own energy.

Giacomo Balla, Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash, 1912

This adorably cute painting by Balla shows another solution based on strobe photography pioneered by Muybridge and Eakins. The parts in motion are shown in a kind of fan of images of their various positions in motion. Poor Balla! This is the painting that gets reproduced in all the textbooks and is his best known work. As we shall see, he was arguably the most accomplished of all the Futurist painters.

Marinetti in his car.

Marinetti was deeply disappointed in these results. They weren't radical and ambitious enough. As stirring as Boccioni's painting is, the dominant image is that of the most ancient of all engines, the horse. So, Marinetti took his artists on a trip to Paris in 1912, where he showed them the new cubist work of a young Spanish painter named Picasso. Picasso's work showed them the revolutionary breakthrough that they were looking for. The whole distinction between figure and ground, mass and volume, is completely conflated. Form, contour, and space itself are broken apart and rearranged as continuous forces on a grid.

The Levassor Monument, Paris, 1907.

The Futurists were the first great artists of the automobile. One of the first works of art to show this new invention is the monument above built to honor a pioneer of auto racing and technology. The focus of this Classical monument, as in all Classical art, is upon the people participating in the race, how its drama and excitement are expressed in human action. The cause of that excitement is the car, and in this monument, it shows the limitations of Classical form when dealing with unprecedented experiences in a new technological age. The sculptor presents us with a marble car. There is no way a stone car is going to adequately express the very modern experience of power and speed in a race car.

Giacomo Balla, Speeding Automobile, 1913

Picasso's cubist work is about very conventional subject matter, nudes, still lives, portraits, etc. Balla took that cubist break up of form and used it to convey the unprecedented experience of a speeding car. The cubist idea of the world as a continuum of forces became for Balla the perfect visual metaphor for the noise and rush of modern speed.
Balla's creation of such stirring paintings is a real triumph of imagination. We have to remember that cars in 1913 looked like the quaint flivver that Marinetti is driving in the picture above. For us, those cars are the stuff of old Mack Senett comedies, going by at top speeds of 40 mph. That he could turn those fendered bug-eyed heaps into something like "eternal omnipresent speed" is nothing short of amazing.

Giacomo Balla, Abstract Speed, 1913

Those bug eyed fendered flivvers were the inspiration for this masterpiece by Balla, a magnificent metaphor in painting for accelerating mechanical speed.

The Futurists also embraced the new world of urban pleasure with its noise, crowds, and bright lights. One of the greatest of all Futurist paintings was by an American associated with the group.

Joseph Stella, Battle of Lights, Coney Island, 1914

Stella uses the new modern form language of cubism to express what no archive photograph can possibly convey, a trip to one of the now lost great amusement parks on Coney Island like Dream Land. This painting was a creation of a time when electric lights were still very much a novelty. Crowds went out to the amusement parks to see the novel sight of the night lit up by thousands of electric lights.

We think of performance art as a creation of the last 40 years. In fact, it was an invention of the Futurists almost a century ago.

Boccioni, Futurist Evening, 1910

The Futurists staged noisy cabarets in which their paintings were displayed on stage, and Marinetti would recite his onomatopoeia laden poetry.

Poem by Marinetti, 1919

Russolo and Piatti and the Futurist noise making machine.

Futurist performances were loud plotless chaotic affairs, and deliberately so. Sometimes 2 different bands would play entirely different pieces of music and were encouraged to compete over who could drown out the other. There were the noises of sirens and car-horns. Once, there was a concert of factory whistles.
Sometimes the performers would deliberately try to provoke the audience and start a riot. They would go onstage and begin insulting the audience. Sometimes, they would disrupt other shows. They were notorious for disrupting opera performances.

Antonio Sant'Elia, Futurist City, 1914

There was one architect associated with the movement, the young Antonio Sant' Elia who built very little in his short life. Ironically, the one thing he designed that was actually built was a cemetery. Sant'Elia made his fame with finished exhibition drawings like the one above of a fictional visionary City of Tomorrow, the first of many in the 20th century, and the prototype for them all. Missing are churches, palaces, monuments, and public buildings. But what exactly these functional looking buildings are supposed to be remains unclear. Like all the visions of the future to come, these imagined marriages of aesthetics and technology have a rhapsodic theatrical quality. It's no accident that Sant'Elia's greatest influence will be on the architecture of science fiction.

Tomorrow, the problematic relationship between Futurism and Italian Fascism.

1 comment:

rick allen said...

I have been reading some Ezra Pound lately, and obviously he shares some of the qualities of the Futurists, both innovative and troubling.