FUTURISM AND THE MACHINE
Futurism was an Italian art movement, mostly centered in the larger Italian cities, principally in the northern city of Milan, the most industrialized city in Italy at that time. “Announced” as a phenomenon and as a state of mind by Fillippo Tommaso Marinetti in 1909, Futurism was, at first, a literary movement, the brain-child of this poet, who was called “the Caffeine of Europe.” Over the next few years, Futurism gathered followers and produced divergent artistic expressions, from painting to sculpture to photography to theatrical performances to architectural utopias. It was ironic that “futurism” as an artistic movement originated in Italy, the nation of museums and buried civilizations. A short walk through Rome could traverse centuries between the Roman Empire to Medieval Rome to the Renaissance to Victor Emmanuele. The past was what the Futurists wanted to eradicate in favor of a new modern life. There was little of this modern world available in Italy itself. Indeed, America was the most modern nation. Futurism was a utopian dream, inspired by science fiction, as much as it was a response to actual lived experience.
The year 1909 was an inspirational one for all those interested in the future, for the illustrious Wilber Wright put on a demonstration of flying for a rapt audience in Rome. Marientti was enthralled and issued his second Manifesto stating, “
We cut out our Futurist airplanes from the buff-colored sailcloth of boats…And we’re off, intoxicated by our skillful maneuvers, in exhilarating flight, sputtering, weightless, and pitched like a song inviting drinking and dancing…”
The Futurist artists varied in their ideas about the “future.” The poets, especially Marinette and his “Words in Freedom” were the most daring in their re-reading of Stephane Mallarmé’s concrete poetry. And Marinetti was decades ahead of later poets who would come to understand that poetry was not only concrete words but also a collection of sounds. The visual artists were mostly followers of various strands of Post-Impressionism. They were in a position similar to the other early Twentieth Century artists, going through a kind of apprenticeship and trying to move past Art nouveau. Artists who worked in traditional media, such as painting and sculpture, had a more difficult task, compared to photographers, such as the brothers, Anton and Arturo Bragaglia, who worked with a mechanical tool.
Futurism was characterized not only by its unusual variety of expressions but also by the numerous manifestoes issued by its adherents. Futurism was the first modern art movement, which took such a publicly strident stance with the intent to stir up and shock a complacent public, reinstating the old cry of the Nineteenth Century avant-garde: “Epeter le bourgeoisie.” (“Shock the middle class.”) Futurism was a movement, which deliberately sought to propagate its ideas aggressively through propaganda techniques. This movement ended, like the other pre-War movements, when the First World War broke out. Like all other avant-garde artists, the Futurists were scattered across the military theater; and when those that were left alive after the war were reunited, Futurism took a rather conservative turn artistically and a rather fascist direction politically.
Fillippo Thommaso Marinetti was a poet and leader of the Futurist movement, who, understanding the power of art, in a phrase often used by art historians “handled culture like a political campaign.” He saw Futurism as nothing less than a total revolution, aimed at awakening Italy from its museum orientation and propelling the backwards country into the Twentieth Century. The means to that end was the new industries that produced the new machines built for speed. Because of the fascination with science in Italy, the poet was enthralled with the mechanistic world of automobiles, airplanes, battleships, and every machine that could move. Marinetti called the mechanistic world a world of “geometric splendor.” In his book, Futurism and the Scientific Imagination, Günter Berghaus made the connection between technology, which fuses science and the imagination at the level of metaphysics.
According to Berghaus,
The aesthetic principle that represents the desire to merge with the vibrancy of the universe was articulated chiefly as consciousness of what the Futurists, following the lead of Umberton Boccioni, called the force-lines of objects, fictional lines that represent an invisible extension of the essence of objects, projected beyond their material finitude and permeating the surrounding space.
In addition to the impact of technology, Marinetti was interested in the connection between vision and touch, which he understood to be co-extensive. The machine was the aesthetic and psychological model for the Futurists, for it was the machine that had created a new civilization and the artists had the task of responding to this new force. Writing after the Great War, Marinetti still insisted on the aesthetic qualities of the machine which had lessons of “order, discipline, force, precision, optimism, and continuity” to teach. But the Futurist involvement in the cult of the machine should not be confused with the “machine aesthetic” of the post-War period or what Berghaus calls Materialästhetik, aesthetics of the material. Note that that what Marinetti referred to as “the aesthetics of the machine” had more to do with modes of perception than a visual style. Marinetti was very perceptive in understand the profound impact that a machine based culture would have on the human mind.
Futurism, he wrote, is based on the complete renewal of human sensibility brought about by the great discoveries made by science..” The impact of the machines, he insisted those who interact with the mechanical world will “have a far-reaching effect on their psyche.” Today we know that our interaction with computers has changed the way our minds work, and Marinettti envisioned human being identifying with machines to the extent that there is a “metallization of the human body…seizing hold of the spirit of life as a driving force.” He imagined that a human could “externalize his will….” And “rule supreme”…as a “non-human, mechanical species…” to help him realize his visionary mechanical utopian dream, Marinetti gathered around him the following artists: the Painters: Umberto Boccioni, Luigi Russolo, Carlo Carra, Giacomo Balla, and Gino Severini, the Architect: Antonio Sant’Elia, the Photographer: Anton Giulio Bragaglia, the Musician: Francesco Batella Pratella, and for support, the Critic, Ardengo Scoffici, who wrote in La Voce and then in Lacerba.
“The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism,” by Marinetti, appeared in Le Figaro, 20 Feb. 1909, Paris.
“Manifesto of Futurist Musicians,” written by Francesco Pratella, 10 Oct., 1910.
“Manifesto of Futurist Painters,” written 11 February, 1910 by Umberto Boccioni, and performed and delivered for the first time at the Chiarella Theater, 8 March 1910.
“Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture,” was written on 11 April 1912, by Umberto Boccioni.
“The Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature,” appeared on 12 May 1912
“Fotodiamanica Futurista,” was written in 1912 and the “Manifesto of Futurist Fotodynamism,” was written in 1913.
“Manifesto of Futurist Woman” and “Manifesto of Lust,” were written by Valentine Saint-Point, Jan. 1913
“Painting of Sounds, Noises and Smells,” was written in 1913, by Carlo Carra.
“Manifesto of Futurist Architecture,” written in August, 1914 for the New Tendencies exhibition by Antonio Sant’Elia
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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.