Friday, July 31, 2009

"The Beautiful Ideas Which Kill," Futurism and Fascism

RA Bertelli, Mussolini, 1933

We usually associate modern art, and modernism in general, with left wing politics. It is still something of a surprise to discover a fully modern movement with strong ties to right wing politics. Futurism had right wing political sympathies from the beginning, and its creators developed ties with Italian Fascism in the years following the First World War. Mussolini, unlike almost all the other ideological dictators of the 20th century, took an active interest in modernism and, for a while, cultivated it.

The links between Futurism and Fascism are a huge embarrassment for Italians. Futurism is a source of national pride, a brief moment when once again Italy led the world in art and culture. Critics of modernism used these connections with Fascism as an excuse to pounce on modernism in general. The formalist critics who dominated discussion in the 1960s and 70s used these embarrassing ties as further evidence for their view that Futurism was nothing more than a crude provincial variation of cubism, a view not shared by other artists at the time.

Futurism, like Italian Fascism itself, was ideologically a mess. It was a hodge-podge of anarchism, the aesthetics of violence, and nationalism. Italian Fascism was likewise a stew of nationalism, anarchism, syndicalism, opportunism, machismo, and plain thuggery. The brutally pious reactionism of the Spanish Falange under Franco was much more consistent and coherent as a right wing ideology than Italian Fascism. The racism and conflation of the party movement with the state by the Nazis were far more radical. Mussolini never fully understood the meaning or importance of Hitler's racism and antisemitism. Italians have never had much of a taste for ideology or for religious fanaticism. Savonarola is famous precisely because he is so exceptional. Italian Communists in the 1950s and 60s would name their sons after Lenin and take them to church to be baptized. To my mind, this indifference to rational consistency in political and religious matters is a strength and not a weakness. Italy has outlasted both political ideologies and religious dogmas.

Surprisingly, the most enthusiastic admirers of Futurism were all from the far left. Futurism had a decisive impact on those vaguely leftish anarchists that hung out at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich and created Dada. Those card carrying Communists who made the Berlin Dada, and those true believing Communists who made the short-lived Russian avant-garde were also deeply influenced by Italian Futurism. The Soviet Union's first cultural minister Anatoly Lunacharsky enthusiastically admired Futurism and publicly praised Marinetti at a party congress. The Italian Communist leader Antonio Gramsci also was a fan of Futurism and of Marinetti.

The misogyny and technocratic machismo of the Futurists were shocking, even by the standards of the time, but they were not so exceptional. The far left had its own machismo. The embrace of early feminism by many far left movements was at best only superficial. Genuine progress in gender equality was only made in decadent bourgeois democracies.

I think these ties between Futurism and Fascism say less about Italy and its art, and much more about the relation between modernism and ideological politics. That the far left should so enthusiastically admire Futurism should not be all that surprising. Both far left and far right have a common enemy, liberal bourgeois democracy. Both despise it for largely the same reasons, the smallness of its vision and its ambitions, its cosmopolitanism and rootlessness. Greed and pragmatic tolerance were no substitute for imperial ambition or for fulfilling history through revolution. The ideological conflation of greed with imperial adventure would be a later American invention during the Cold War. The early modernists shared this contempt for the bourgeoisie. But, they were themselves children of the bourgeoisie, and the modernism they created was a bourgeois movement for a bourgeois audience. Modernism was created out of those bourgeois virtues of independence, skepticism, and initiative. They aimed their scorn at those bourgeois vices of greed, hypocrisy, and conformity. The Futurist artists and their followers were all sons of that despised bourgeoisie. They had a bourgeois independence and skepticism that put them at odds with their leaders who were not from bourgeois backgrounds. Marinetti was the son of a wealthy aristocratic family. Mussolini was a blacksmith's son.

Sant'Elia, Boccioni, and Marinetti in uniform, 1914.

The Futurists with their belief in the "hygiene" of war and violence greeted the outbreak of the First World War with delighted enthusiasm. In this they were hardly alone. People across the political spectrum welcomed the war. Europe, in their view, was growing too fat and lazy from 40 years of too much damn peace. The far left greeted the war as the beginning of the end of bourgeois capitalism. Theosophic mystics like Kandinsky believed that the war was the beginning of the spiritual apocalypse. Theodore Roosevelt, with many others, believed that the war was a necessary and welcome purification of Western manhood.
Between August 1914 and November 1918 the world did end, though not quite in the way that people expected. Sant'Elia and Boccioni pictured above both died in the war.

Marinetti in 1933 before a portrait of himself with his family.

Marinetti always had the ambition to turn Futurism into a populist movement, contrary to the wishes of the artists who valued their independence. He saw the rise of Mussolini as the perfect opportunity to fulfill this ambition. That nebulously aggressive aesthetic of Futurism would be wedded to that nebulously supremacist right wing movement called Fascism. For a quite a long time, it was a largely happy marriage. Il Duce loved the Futurists precisely because they were so modern, so aggressive, and so daring. He had his own origins in anarchism, and that anarchist aesthetic probably genuinely appealed to him, even as his politics became more nationalist and reactionary.

Casa del Fascismo, Como, 1924

The modernism sponsored by Mussolini could be quite bold, even by today's standards. Above is not some posh post-modern condo building, but the Fascist party headquarters in Como. The big picture of Il Duce, and the flivver parked outside give away its true age.

The most ambitious showpiece of the marriage of Fascism and modernism was the Mostra della Rivoluzione Fascista held in Rome in 1933, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the coup that made Mussolini absolute ruler of Italy.

In the words of the catalogue, the exhibition aimed to to express
... the atmosphere of the times, all fire and fever, tumultuous, lyrical, glittering. It could only take place in a style matching the artistic adventures of our time, in a strictly contemporary mode. The artists had from Il Duce a clear and precise order; to make something MODERN, full of daring. And they have faithfully obeyed his commands.

The exhibit was a series of thematically decorated rooms rather than a display of artifacts, anticipating a lot of now current exhibition design. Some of them could be very striking.

A gallery from the Mostra.

"Hall of the Fallen"

Perhaps the most striking design was for the "Hall of the Fallen," commemorating the movement's "martyrs." A tall black monolithic cross is surrounded by a ring covered with the repeated answer to a military roll call, "Presente, Presente, Presente, Presente..."

Enrico Prampolini, The Blackshirts, April 15, 1919, a mural in the Mostra

These designs were built when Hitler, Speer, and Troost were just beginning to create their brand of brutal hyper-inflated neo-classicism, when Stalin was just beginning to order huge buildings in that spikey neo-classical wedding cake style unique to his Soviet Union, and when the USA was still building public buildings, like the Supreme Court designed by Cass Gilbert, in a very conservative classical style.

Eventually, Mussolini would come under the spell of inflated grandiose dictator classicism himself when he built a huge New Rome called EUR. It would be after World War II that modernism would fully replace neo-classicism as the power style of preference for everyone from international corporate plutocrats to ideological dictators.

As the Fascists of the 1920s and early 30s embraced a modern aesthetic in architecture, so they embraced a similar aesthetic in graphic design in their posters.

"Only One Heart! Only One Will! Only One Decision!"

These 2 posters make brilliant use of photomontage to combine Il Duce with the Italian masses. In their directness and memorable simplicity, they are way ahead of graphic design anywhere else in the world at the time. Ironically, they were influenced by early Soviet graphic design.

Here's something that is illegal in Italy. Sing along with Il Duce.

Just so we don't give the Black Shirts the last word, let's salute modern Italy in all its generous messy splendor with Fratelli d'Italia.

Viva Italia!


Rick+ said...

     What a fascinating glimpse into the connection between politics and art! Thank you. Aren't I supposed to be paying tuition for this kind of a fine education?

     I keep looking for cocktail parties I can go to where I can drop this new knowledge into polite conversation and impress my peers.

James said...

Good grief! I always learn something when I read your blog. This one was fascinating for this student of history.

June Butler said...

Hagiography by another name is still hagiography.

To think of the events of world history that happened just in my lifetime.

The Hall of the Fallen is striking. It brings to mind the Vietnam Wall, but the single word "Presente" repeated over and over seems more what...? I can't think of a word to describe what I want to say. Maybe more heart-wrenching than the names on the Vietnam wall. That's not quite it, either, but it will have to do for now.

Admire the art, but mind the idealogies!

Thanks, Doug. I'm with Rick. We should be paying for this kind of quality teaching.

rick allen said...

"We usually associate modern art, and modernism in general, with left wing politics."

Indeed. I remember, many years ago, in a senior English survey course, the professor identifying the four great names of modern poetry: Hopkins, Yeats, Eliot and Pound. One could of course quibble with that list. What's interesting is that none could conceivably be identified as a "man of the left."

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