The Delaunays, Robert and Sonia, Between the Wars

The Delaunays and Modern Life

Paris Between the Wars,

In 1889, the year that France celebrated the centenary of the Revolution, is best known for the shock of the new tower rising from the Champs de Mars, the Eiffel Tower, but that year was also the year that the first steps were taken to electrify Paris. Today Paris is known as “the city of light,” but as the nation of France approached the twentieth century, it was suddenly realized that the capital city was falling behind other European nations in adopting the latest in lighting technology–electricity. Writing in 1911, A. N. Holcombe noted that not until the Opéra Comique burned down did the officials awaken to continuing danger of using gas for public buildings. The article of 1911, “The Electric Lighting System of Paris,” is as boring and straightforward as the title, detailing the long process of installing a new means of illuminating the city, from putting “underground conduits and wiring” in place to deciding what fixed price should be charged and determining how the private companies undertaking the enterprise should be compensated in relation to the capital investments made by the state. By 1907, the year of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the public had accepted the switch (so to speak) from gas to electric and the demand for installation far exceeded the speed of the companies, which, being private, needed more investment funds. The tangled tale involved how the government should deal with private for-profit companies serving the public and how both entities should deal with labor.

Sonia Delaunay. Electric Prisms (1914)

A. N. Holcombe’s article in the Political Science Quarterly noted that when all the companies were merged into one company, the Paris Electricity Supply Company, capitalized by the city was given an exclusive contract that would begin in 1914 and extend to 1940. The city-owned the plant(s) and the company was given access to “the exclusive use of the property.” What is interesting about this article, now over one hundred years old, is that, in its own dry fashion, illustrates how new and novel public electric lighting would have been in the Paris of Robert Delaunay and Sonia Terk-Delaunay, artists who were dazzled and enchanted by this burst of modernity. In the evenings before the Great War, the newly married couple would stroll down the Boulevard St Michel where the new lights were providing a sharp brilliance, blindingly radiant in comparison to the mellow glow of gas. She remembered, “Halos were making colors and shadows turn and vibrate around us, as if unidentified objects were falling from the sky, friendly and crazy.”

Sonia Delaunay. Electric Prisms (1913)

In her interesting article on the impact of electric lights on artists, Christine Poggi wrote that when the street lights were installed on the Boulevard St. Michel were installed just before 1913 both Delaunays made sketches of the people of Paris, drawn to the novel sight, congregating under the bright lights. “The new arc lights can be viewed as one of the modernizing effects of Haussmannization, in which expansive new boulevards, among them the Boulevard St. Michel, cut through the narrow streets of old Paris, opening them to greater circulation and the production of new forms of visuality and spectacle. As Wolfgang Schivelbusch observes, arc lights were like small sums with a spectrum similar to that of daylight. In contrast to the gas lamps they replaced, they were extraordinarily bright and could not be looked at directly. As a result, they had to be fixed much higher on posts, where they were out of view. For those entering one of the places illuminated by arc lights from a dim, gas-lit side street, the transition could be dramatic. Delaunay’s memoir evoke her experience of the modernity of the site, the brilliant color and disorienting spatial effects created by the arc lights inducing a sense of ‘madness.'”

I liked electricity. Public lighting was a novelty. At night, during our walks, we entered the era of light, arm-in-arm. Rendez-vous at the St. Michel fountain. The municipality had substitued electric lamps for the old gas lights. The “Boul Mich,” highway to a new world fascinated me. We would go and admire the neighborhood show. The halos amde the colors and shadows swirl and vibrate around us as if unidentified objects were falling from the sky, beckoning our madness.

But, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the blossoming of electric street lights, marching from neighborhood to boulevard, was not the only modern innovation that captured their attention. Elsewhere, far away, an extraordinary railway–the Trans-Siberian Railway–was being completed in Eastern Russia. Alarmed by the moves by China to build a railroad up to the Eastern borders of Russia, Tsar Alexander III began the project–intended to protect the Russian Empire from any Chinese incursion–in 1890. The father wrote to his son, “I desire you to lay the first stone at Vladivostok for the construction of the Ussuri line, forming part of the Siberian Railway, which is to be carried at the cost of the state and under direction of the government. Your participation in the achievement of this work will be a testimony to My ardent desire to facilitate the communications between Siberia and the other countries of the empire, and to manifest My extreme anxiety to secure the peaceful prosperity of this country.” His heir Nicholas I finished the “Great Siberian Way”, as it was called, twelve years later, and the completion of this major route of trade and transportation was arguably the finest of his few achievements. The Railway stretched from Moscow to Vladivostok but it was built on the cheap and during the 1903 war with Japan, the rails failed and the system sagged and collapsed with the Empire itself. In a little-known footnote to history, just before the Russian Revolution installed a Soviet system of a worker controlled Communist state, it was the most capitalistic nation in the world, the United States of America that sent in workers and engineers in 1917 to help the fledgling Provisional Government to repair the Railway and re-built all 5,772 miles correctly. Even today, the prospect of riding nearly six thousand miles on a famous railroad is tempting and in the early twentieth century, the journey was a luxurious one–if one had the money. Certainly, the feat of modern engineering fired the imagination of the Russian poet Blaise Cendrars, who wrote Prose on the Trans-Siberian Railway and of Little Jehanne of France, a long folded expanse of text designed and decorated by his friend Sonia Terk-Delaunay. Produced through a combination of Linotype printing and the use of colored stencils (pochoir), this is a truly remarkable poem because its sheer size and length mimics the long railway itself. Because we usually see this “poem” as a small colorful illustration in a book, the explanation of the Tate Museum about the impressive size of this work of art is helpful:

(The poem was) produced in Paris in 1913 and published by Cendrars’s own self-financed publishing house, Éditions des Hommes Nouveaux (New Man Publishing). The text and artwork was printed on a single sheet of paper, folded accordion-style to form the twenty-two panels. When unfolded it is two metres tall. The original print run was intended to be 150 copies, which, if laid end to end, would be the same height as the Eiffel Tower, however only sixty editions were printed. Due to its large scale, Prose on the Trans-Siberian Railway only functions as a readable book when it is fully open. Prose on the Trans-Siberian Railway stages the unification of text and image and is a key example of the ‘simultaneisme’ (simultaneous theory) developed by Delaunay with her husband, fellow artist Robert Delaunay…Delaunay’s artwork was not an illustration of Cendrars’s narrative, but a visual equivalent, intended to be seen in unison. She transcribed the poem in colours, as she heard it being read out..

In this wonderful stream of consciousness poem, the narrator travels which his companion, Jehanne, described “a young proletarian,” who keeps asking: “Blaise, tell me, are we far from Montmartre?” And the poet answers: “For pity’s sake, come here and I’ll tell you a story Come into my bed/Come to my heart/I’m going to tell you a story..” In the Delaunay couple, we have two artists who celebrate the modern innovations of the new century with their art. In fact, in this poem, Cendrars, who lived in Paris, wrote of the impact of electric lights. “Is raining electric globes/Montrouge Gare de l’Est Métro Nord-Sud ferries on the Seine world/Everything is halo/Depth.” The text was done in four different typographies with upper and lower case, in four colors–green, blue, red and orange. The design keeps the story unfolding, leading from “page” to “page” as sixteen-year-old Blaise tells the story of his experiences in 1905 on the Railway.

Sonia Delaunay and Blaise Cendrers.

Prose on the Trans-Siberian Railway and of Little Jehanne of France (1913)

In her article, “Mass, Pack, and Mob,” Poggi made the interesting observation that, after the War, “this quasi-abstract approach to depicting the city, and of the masses that inhabit it, would come to seem outdated, even decadent.” Post-war artists, she observed were interested in the “politically organized crowd” in contrast to “modern spectacle and entertainment.” But the Delaunays were not in Paris after the War. They had fled to Spain and from there to Portugal where they lived the war years. The Revolution put an end to Sonia’s Russian income, and she, the practical one in the family, opened a chain of shops, from Bilbao, Madrid and Barcelona, which sold her fabrics and her fashions, all designed by her, using patterns and colors inspired by her paintings. The couple stayed in the Iberian Peninsula for seven years before they returned to Paris. By the mid-twenties, Paris was in the midst of Les Années folles and the pre-war rivalry Robert had felt for Pablo Picasso was long ago and far away, in another time. According to Histoires de Paris,

Dès son arrivée dans la capitale, l’écrivain américain Henry Miller écrira : « La première chose qu’on remarque, à Paris, c’est que le sexe est dans l’air. Où qu’on aille, quoi qu’on fasse, on trouve d’ordinaire une femme à côté de soi. Les femmes sont partout, comme les fleurs.

For Sonia, these flower-like women were her target audience and she began her business anew in a city mad for new fashions. Unlike Robert, who had to reestablish himself, she had a place in the post-war world through her designs. As her biographer, Axel Madsen, wrote,

Sonia’s flair for adventuresome decorating, theater costume and book design, led her to adapt her bold color compositions, geometric designs, and swirling patterns to abstract dress designs. The result was a style that was different, a fashion that was decidedly avant-garde. This kind of haute couture could only be worn–and appreciated–by women who wanted to be noticed. Her clientele, therefore, included women who were known for their character and eccentricity, actresses and rich foreigners. To wear SoniaDelaunay was not, like wearing Chanel, to adopt a “look.” It was to make a statement.

Sonia was the main source of income for the couple who held court in their Paris apartment which was both decorated by painted poems by their friends and visited by the new Surrealist community. But their evenings and their dinner parties were not exclusively French. The Delaunays, in contrast to the rest of Paris, were happy to entertain Germans, including the Bauhaus architects. For Robert, the Bauhaus idea of joining art and industry was simpatico and for Sonia, the poems on the walls made their way into her architectonic dresses. In his book, Sonia Delaunay: Artist of the Lost Generation, Madsen reported on how the couple went from being hounded by bill collectors to being well-to-do, once they were established. They owned a dashing car, a Talbot, and were among the first artists in the 1920s to possess a telephone and own a radio. But this was on her earnings.

Sonia Terk-Delaunay’s designs for cars and clothes

In 1925, Art Deco was introduced to the French and to the world in an exhibition, the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts, from which the new Style Moderne took its name. Art Deco, the preferred name, was introduced later, but in 1925, it became clear that the Cubism that had dominated before the War had become an applied art, incorporated into design after the War. Given the male-dominated character of the group, the fact that Sonia Terk-Delaunay took the heady concepts of Orphism and Simultaneity and made these terms buzz words for fashion. There was a simultaneous car, a simultaneous dress, coat, shoes and so on, popularizing Cubism at its most scientific and most esoteric, making the style into a luxury consumer good.

Simultaneous Dresses in 1925

It was the 1925 exhibition that made her reputation while Robert was still trying to find his artistic feet. Apparently, Robert’s first post-war exhibition in 1922 at the Galerie Paul Guillaume was not successful, but he began a new series on the Eiffel Tower. Two years later, Delaunay returned to another pre-war theme, athletics, in his Runner paintings, which were far more conservative than the earlier paintings he did before the War. It seems that Robert, who was never inclined towards hard work, preferred to drive his fancy Talbot and entertain his friends to contributing to the family income. When the Delaunays needed money, he would make or sell art, and the paintings of the twenties and thirties were reiterations on his previous themes.

Robert Delaunay. Runners (1924-26)

However, in 1937, Robert Delaunay, in collaboration with his now famous wife, Sonia, got a chance to shine, one more time. He was invited to do the murals for the Palais des Chemins de Fer and Palais de l’Air at the Paris World’s Fair. Here the preoccupations of decades for the couple–the fast trains, the Trans-Siberian Railway and the glamor of air travel, going back to Louis Blériot–came to fruition. The World’s Fair was a futile gesture of hope in a Europe sinking back into another world war. The next and last post on the partnership between the leading art couple between the wars will concentrate on their murals in the Pavillon de l’aviation in Paris.

Robert Delaunay. Disques reliefs (1936)

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

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The Futurists Go To War, Part Two

Futurism in Transition

From War to Fascism

Although in the histories of the Great War, Italy is usually written of as a “minor power,” or a minor player in the larger structure of the War. The nation was a latecomer to the conflict and had limited goals. Italy had not been invaded and there were no enemies rampaging through Italian fields and towns. Indeed, there seems to be little reason for Italy to enter into a war that, by 1915, was showing signs of being long and bloody and inconclusive. But, from the Italian point of view, there were against to be made. For decades during the nineteenth century, Italy had struggled to become an independent strong united nation and was thwarted at every point by the Austro-Hungarian Empire which had historically dominated and occupied northern Italy. When Italy finally unified–Italian Risorgimento–Italian unification–in 1861, far too much of ethnically Italian territory remained in the hands of the Austrians. The new nation had pried Lombardy from Austria and, eventually, was awarded Venice for siding with Prussia during the Seven Week’s War in 1866. Longing to retrieve the rest of its “lost” territories, Italy joined with Germany in the Triple Alliance on the hope that Austria would stop its attempt to grab land and that it would be protected from the Empire. In 1915, Italy entered into a secret agreement, the Treaty of London, in which it was agreed that it would enter the War on the side of the Entente Cordiale and receive in return Trento and the South Tyrol as far as the Brenner Pass, along with Trieste and the Austrian Littoral as well as northern Dalmatia, the so-called terre irredente (unredeemed lands), after the War was successfully included. The assignment given to Italy was to open an Eastern Front along the southern border of the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The role Italy played in the defeat of Germany (and Austria) is often considered a side bar to the major action of the Western Front, but aside from confronting the enemy directly, one of the most important moves an adversary can make is to attack from the rear and force the enemy to open a new front. This new front, however, was complex. It was necessary for Italy to attack Austria, win quickly, and seize the advantage before Germany could react and come to the aid of its ally. There was another reason to move quickly–Futurists not withstanding most Italians were not entirely enthusiastic about going to war. The government could count on a brief burst or nationalism and patriotism but not on public patience for a long war. But geography in this alpine region was all but impossible. The border, disputed or not, between Italy and Austria, ran through the Dolomites and Carnic Alps, a nearly impassable mountain range unsuitable for modern warfare if one needed to make a quick breakthrough. There was only one place that seemed to be flat enough, the plain around the Isonzo River and it was here that the Italian high command chose to strike. In the early days, the commanders did not believe that their front lines would become stalemated, but they were wrong.

The Italians did not declare war on Germany right away, after all the Austro-Hungarian Empire was the main enemy and the prime goal was territorial. Therefore it was not until 1916 that Germany could intervene when Italy intervened and attacked Austria. From the beginning, Italy was on the offensive and the Austrians on the border were forced on the defensive, waiting for reinforcements. That said, the Austrians were dug in, with fortifications on the high ground, in the mountains above the river plain and the Italians mounted no less that twelve battles, all named the “Battle of Isonzo.” The commander in the region, the Italian Chief of Staff, Luigi Cadorna, initially made some advances but could not capitalize on any gains and the War on this front soon bogged down–literally for there were record rainfalls during those years–into trench warfare. In his book, The Italian Army of World War I, David Nicolle wrote, “Even though Cadorna soon realized that this was going to be a war of attrition, he continued to have faith in massed artillery and massed infantry attacks.” However it was not until the costly Battle of Caporetto (the Twelfth Battle of Isonzo) in 1917, with the loss of 300,000 casualties, that, as Nicolle continued, “The Italians were aware of the shortcomings which had exposed them to defeat at Caporetto, and the first half of 1918 was dedicated to changing the army’s outmoded tactics.” Although obscure today, the total casualties in relation to the many attacks and counter attacks at Isonzo were once legendary. The Italian high command had the supposed advantage of knowing how quickly the Western Front had stalemated due to the combination of old tactics and the defensive capabilities of new weapons against direct assaults, but they leaders did not learn the lessons and, like their counterparts in northern Europe, clung the Napoleonic strategies. John R. Schindler, author of Isonzo: The Forgotten Sacrifice of the Great War, noted of the river, now in Slovenia,

The Isonzo’s tragic recent past has been all but totally forgotten. Earlier in the twentieth century, the name evoked horror and sorrow. Throughout Europe and North America, the name Isonzo stood alongside Verdun and the Somme in the collective memory of needless sacrifice of the First World War. The terrible bloodletting that scarred France and Flanders and shattered the lives of millions did not spare the Isonzo. From May 1915 to October 1817, the Italian Army attempted to break the Austro-Hungarian defensive line on the Isonzo and to advance deep into the Central European heartland..The cost was unprecedented. Twenty-nine months of fighting on the Isonzo cost Italy 1, 100,000 soldiers dead and wounded. The Austrians, desperately holding on to every inch of ground, lost 650,000. The Italians finally crossed the Isonzo in triumph only in November 1918, at the Great War’s end, following Austria-Hungary’s complete political collapse.

It is against this background of “bloodletting” that the paintings of hospital trains by Gino Severini (1883-1966) need to be understood. Unlike the other Futurist artists, Severini was not healthy–he had tuberculosis–enough to serve in the military and spent the War in Paris. While he was watching the unfolding of a disaster, the Futurists in Milan were demonstrating in public, demanding “intervention.” After a particularly spectacular event at the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, during which they shouted “Viva la Francia”and “Viva la Guerra” and were subsequently arrested and sent to the San Vittore prison for a few days to cool off. In writing of this period in Marinetti’s life, Ernest Ialongo, stated that the poet and Futurist leader published “In This Futurist Year” “to court Italy’s university students, who had shown themselves receptive to Futurism and its nationalist message. He wrote that ‘our nationalism, which is ultra-violent, anticlerical, antisocialist and anti-traditionalist, is rooted in the inexhaustible vigor of Italian bold and is at war with the cult of ancestors which, far from welding the race together makes it anemic and causes it to rot away.'” Acting as the leader of the Futurist movement, Marinetti wrote to Severini in Paris on November 20th. By this time, late fall, the Western Front had already stalled and there had already been historic and devastating losses on the French side, and Marinetti was urging Severini, a witness to the actual costs of war, to, as Ialongo put it, “..even if it shaded into propaganda.” In his book, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti: The Artist and His Politics, the author also quoted a passage from this letter:

This war will eventually take in the entire world..the world will be at war (even if there are breaks, armistice, treaties, diplomatic congress) that is, in an aggressive dynamic Futurist state for at least 10 years. Thus is imperative that Futurism no only collaborate directly in the splendor of this conflagration (and many of us have decided to commit our bodies energetically to it) but also become the plastic expression of this Futurist hour. I’m talking about a vast expression, not limited to a small circle of experts, but a truly strong and synthetic expression that affects the imagination and eyes of all or nearly all intelligent people.” Marinetti hoped Ialongo noted, “..we will have a new, bellicose, plastic dynamism..” and predicted that in the time of war, “significant artistic originality is possible.” The letter continued, with him suggesting that the painter should be interested “in the war and its repercussions in Paris pictorially. Try to live the war pictorially, studying it in all its marvelous mechanical forms (military trans, fortifications, the wounded, ambulances, hospitals, funeral processions). You have the fortune of being in Paris right now. Take absolute advantage, abandon yourself to the enormous military, anti-teutonic emotions that agitate France.”

In defense of this sheer cluelessness of this passage, it is unclear the extent to which Marinetti, the Futurists, even Severini could truly understand the actual destructive nature of this very modern war. That Marinetti would include funeral processions in his list of “mechanical forms” is so cold that one can only imagine that, at this point in time, he was uttering meaningless slogans unmoored from actual experience. While it would be anachronistic to call out the Futurist leader for not understanding the nature of the War at hand, it is perfectly legitimate to point out that Severini addressed the La grande guerra from a sanitized distance. In addition the artist was also attentive to his own career during the War. According to the Stieglitz and His Artists. Matisse to O’Keeffe, in 1915 he sent fourteen works to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, where, along with the other Futurist artists, they were shown in a separate gallery and ignored by most critics. In the summer of 1916, Severini negotiated with Walter Pach and Marius de Zayas to arrange an exhibition at the New York gallery of Alfred Stieglitz, 291, an art dealer who disliked Futurism. The exhibition, which would be the last Stieglitz offered to a European artist, opened in March 1917, during which Stieglitz became somewhat mollified towards the style. Due to the War, Severini had to leave the art in New York and did not inquire about his paintings until 1921. It is not clear if they were ever returned and it is possible that they eventually were donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a bequest from Stieglitz and the artist, who was still alive, was delighted to be included in the Museum’s collection. Among the donations were a rare diamond shaped work, entitled Dancer=Propellor=Sea (1915) that is a combination of a spinning dancer, a swirling sea and a rotating propellor.


Gino Severini. Dancer=Propellor=Sea (1915)

The more interesting work is a charcoal drawing, Flying over Reims (1915), probably a response to the German bombing of the Medieval cathedral in an action that would be termed a war crime today. The artist himself mentioned his limitations in saying, “I could not express my ideas of ‘war’ by painting battlefields littered with slaughtered bodies, streams of blood, and other such atrocities. My modern idea-image of war came from the concentration of a few objects or forms taken from reality and compressed into ‘essences’ into ‘pure notion.'” As shall be discussed presently, in order to create the idea-image, or a composite, Severini would have to move away from Futurism and move towards a Salon Cubism. The Reims drawing was a rare Futurist work during the War, showing movement and dramatic lines of force, foreshadowing the post-war Futurist fascination for all things aviation.


Gino Severini. Flying over Reims (1915)

Severini’s references to “slaughtered bodies” and “streams of blood” suggest that he did understand what the actual fighting was like, and it is known that he read the Parisian newspapers and used their imagery for his paintings. For example, the painting, Armored Train in Action (1915), was from an aerial photograph that appeared in a newspaper. In Inventing Futurism: The Art and Politics of Artificial Optimism, Christine Poggi explained that the image was

..a Belgium armored train, published in the bimonthly Album de la Guerre on 1 October 1915. In transforming the photographic source, Severini centered and righted the overhead view of the train, giving it a distinctly phallic shape. He also eliminated two soldiers observing the action, so that in the painting all five depicted men point rifles toward an unseen enemy at the left..If in the photograph the varied posters and individual features of the soldiers were visible, in the painting the logic of standardization takes over..the glowing red forms of the entire car at the top of the canvas intensify the erotic charge of the armored train, investing this instrument of death with simulacra life.


Gino Severini. Armored Train in Action (1915)

The next post on Futurism during the War will further examine the Futurists reaction to an actual War.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

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Cubism, Futurism and the Great War, Part One

Creating a Modern Visual Vocabulary of War

Part One

In 1911, the Futurist artist Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916) organized an exhibition of fifty Futurist paintings for the working class. Called Esposizione d’ate libera, the show featured Carlo Carrà (1881-1966) and Luigi Russolo (1885-1947). This spring showing of Futurist art attracted at least one detractor who defaced the organizer’s work, Laughter (1911). Although Boccioni was routinely lecturing on the topic of dynamism, a major Futurist concept connected to modernity, apparently the artists had yet to find the ideal vehicle for their ideas of speed and movement through space. It was Gino Severini (1883-1966), who lived in Montmartre and who was familiar with the new styles emerging in Paris suggested that the Futurists of Milan visit certain ateliers in his adopted city. It is this fateful fall visit to Paris at the end of 1911, that sealed the fate of the Futurists in the eyes of the French. Immediately the Futurist paintings and sculptures showed the impact of the venture to Paris–Balla painted the childish Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash and Boccioni fashioned Development of a Bottle in Space both early in 1912. What is particularly interesting about the works of 1912 is the abandonment of the visualization of social theories compared to the works of the previous year.


Futurists Luigi Russolo, Carlo Carrà, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Umberto Boccioni and Gino Severini in front of Le Figaro, Paris, February 9, 1912

Something had happened to Futurism–its visual and conceptual language became less political and more directed to an abstracted modernity. In her book, Inventing Futurism: The Art and Politics of Artificial Optimism (2009), Christine Poggi discussed Boccioini’s struggle to reconcile politics, class concerns, style and symbolism with the concepts of modern machine propelled dynamics. The Futurist artists were fascinated with technology and were witnesses to the changing relationship between humans and the mechanics of labor but while it was relatively straightforward to write of the abrupt change from traditional to modern, the precise visual language eluded them. Clearly, the geometrics of Cubism compared to the dappled brushwork of neoimpressionism suggested a more compatible and more expressionistic approach to dynamism. One could say that the Futurists were freed from illustrating and could now express movement formally and neutrally. To get a sense of how quickly the Futurists had to scramble, adjusting their style from post-Impressionism to what seemed to the Parisians to be a style inspired by their visits to Parisian studios, it needs to be stressed that the Futurist exhibition in Paris opened a mere few months later.

Understandably, the Futurists were very sensitive about being understood in terms of their own context, which would be the writings of their leader, Filippo Tomasso Marinetti (1876-1944). Enamored by speed and enchanted with the force of rapid change, their philosophy was directed towards modernity not only towards modern art but this distinction was lost to the French who saw the stylistic debt owed to the Cubists. Ever since their debut in Paris, February 1912 at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery, the Futurists had been slighted by the French critics who initially denounced the interlopers as being derivative of Cubism. To be fair, the French were merely striking back. The catalogue essay, written by Umberto Boccioni, was impolitic at best and extremely combative towards Cubism. Futurism and Cubism had developed during the same time, but in different places, and, while the two movements seemed superficially stylistically similar, the goals and aims were quite distinct. Rather than making the concept of Futurism clear and instead of outlining its differences plain in a cool and dispassionate manner, Boccioni took it upon himself to confront the French artists in the famously provocative Futurist manner.

Writing in manifesto-style, the artist stated, among other things that the Cubists “continued to paint objects motionless, frozen, and all the static aspects of Nature; they worship the traditionalism of Poussin, of Ingres, of Camille Corot, ageing and petrifying their art with an obstinate attachment to the past, which to our eyes remains totally incomprehensible.” He asked, referring to the Cubists, “is it indisputable that several aesthetic declarations of our French comrades display a sort of masked academicism? Is it not, indeed, a return to the Academy to declare that the subject, in painting, has a perfectly insignificant value? Boccioni seemed to find the Cubist adherence to tradition particularly worthy of contempt. “..To paint from the posing model as an absurdity, and an act of mental cowardice, even if the model be translated upon the picture in linear, spherical and cubic forms..”

Having read this diatribe, it is no wonder that the art critics and the Cubist artists struck back. Cubist supporter, poet and art critic, Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) took aim at Boccioni’s paintings. ‘This is the most dangerous kind of painting imaginable. It will inevitably lead the Futurist painters to become mere illustrators.” True, the triptych States of Mind (1911) by Boccioni, had been repainted in response to Cubism, but its meaning, as explained in the catalogue stated, “We thus create a sort of emotive ambience, seeking by intuition the sympathies and the links which exist between the exterior (concrete) scene and the interior (abstract) emotion.” To be accused of being “mere illustrators” meant that Futurism would have to fight for its rightful place in avant-garde art as innovators, and, more than that, as true modernists, more modern than staid Cubism. For decades, the Futurists were still considered to be “derivative” of Cubism, but this judgment was based upon a morphological similarity and such a formalist comparison can be very misleading.

First, the word “Cubism” was not a specific term at that time and, second, in the pre-war period, there were many manifestations of “Cubism” in Paris, from Albert Gleizes to Robert Delaunay and Pablo Picasso, all of which looked to Paul Cézanne as the founding father or the fountainhead of the Parisian avant-garde. As late as 1978 Georges Édouard Lemaître, writing of modern literature, said bluntly, “Futurism may be considered as a derivation of Cubism.” And this was a very French perspective, lingering long after Apollinaire. But today, contemporary scholarship stresses that which is Italian about Futurism and the 2014 exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, Italian Futurism 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe, attempted to restore the original Futurism, a decades long movement that, regardless of its “derivative” status, inspired numerous movements by simply evoking the word “futurism.” In fact, although the Futurists did not exhibit in the notorious Armory Exhibition in New York in 1913, the words “futurist” or “futurism” were evoked as a synonym for “modern art,” which itself meant “the future.”


Regardless of what “futurism” would mean in other contexts, the Italian Futurists were aware of the trends in French art and had been exposed to Cubism in its many Parisian manifestations and were well aware that Cubism was advertised as being on a historical line, part of a traditional sequence that extended back to Courbet and linked to Cézanne, who inspired the present avant-garde. The artists certainly had some idea of Cubist philosophy, the aims of the movement, and its historical lineage as put forward by Gleizes and Metzinger in Du Cubisme of 1912. Once the Futurists moved beyond the Paris-Milan trajectory, the chain of mutual awareness was broken and the distinctions between the two movements were lost in translation. The catalogue essay, which followed Marinetti’s famous 1909 Manifesto, spend three or four pages discussing Impressionism and Cubism in order to separate Futurism from French movements. It is unclear how the opening duel with Parisian artists played in other cities, the various Futurist exhibitions in Europe.

This exhibition of thirty-six paintings traveled to London, horrifying the British, an event to which I will return, then landed in Berlin, where it fell into the hands of Herwarth Walden’s Galerie Der Stürm. Here, in Berlin, where French chronology did not matter, Futurism suffered its cruelest fate as it careened from being misunderstood to being misrepresented. From the standpoint of the international art market, Berlin was, like Paris, a place of exhibition and selling and buying, and to show well in Berlin was extremely important, because here, unlike parochial Paris, people would buy art from many nations. The marketplace of Berlin was truly international and the artists there were receptive to outside influences. However, the Italian artists were distinctly unhappy with the presentation of Futurism in Berlin. They had reason to be perturbed.

The exhibition which was a month long was accompanied by the catalogue that was traveling with the Futurism art, Zweite Ausstellung : Die Futuristen : Umberto Boccioni, Carlo D. Carra, Luigi Russolo, Gino Severini : Berlin, Königin Augusta-Strasse 51 vom 12. April bis 31. Mii 1912, clearly stating the stance of these artists. The best discussion of the Berlin excursion comes from Günther Berghaus in International Futurism in Arts and Literature (2000). In this book edited by Berghaus, John White, in “Futurism and German Expressionism,” noted that by the time the Futurists reached Berlin, the larger movement was already spreading to literature. The visual artists preferred to not confuse the movement of their international début in the Spring of 1912 and arrived in Berlin as a unified group, minus Balla, represented by Boccioni, and absent a presentation of one of the famous Futurist evenings. White attributed the low key presence of Futurism in Berlin to the minor role the city played in constructing the avant-garde, but Berlin was an important regional depot for modern art, a gathering place as it were for eastern Europe.

It is in this context that Boccioni’s displeasure with the exhibition at the Der Stürm Galerie can be understood. Given the gallery’s significance as a seller of avant-garde art, the lack of publicity on the part of Walden would have seemed odd to the Italian artist, but, then, this exhibition space hardly needed to advertise. Most importantly, Futurism could not be hung here–installed on the gallery walls–as a movement in its own right, properly distinguished from other artists of other nations. After all Der Stürm was a sales room, not a place where a group of artists could establish their historical role in art. The prothelyzing goals of Futurism was thwarted in Berlin.

White analyzed the way in which Waldern, a master salesperson, marketed the Futurists in ways that were apparently confusing for an artist, like Boccioni, who was on a mission.

It is worth bearing in mind that the main reason for the Italian Futurists’ decision to exhibit in Berlin, the heartland of Expressionism, was the presence of Herwarth Walden, a genius of an impresario with enviable contacts to a whole galaxy of modernist painters sculptors, writers, and musicians. Walden’s copious network of artistic connections, both within Germany and beyond in most of Western Europe,was probably unparalleled. Here was someone through whom Marinetti hoped to establish a bridgehead into German Expressionism.

Whether or not Boccioni was dismayed at the way in which the paintings were arrayed–adjacent to inhospitable neighbors–becomes less important than the impact of Futurism on Expressionism and upon Expressionist artists. On the eve of the Great War, Futurism was caught up in a battle of styles and of attribution, fighting for its place in the emerging twentieth century avant-garde. The catalogue essay written by Boccioni had words of interest to the Expressionists: “We thus arrive at what we call the painting of states of mind.” He wrote of “force-lines.” And a few lines down, the artist presents what seems to be a prediction of the state of war: “Confused and treipdating lines, either straight or curved, mingle with the outlined hurried gestures of people calling one another, will express a sensation of chaotic excitement. On the other hand, horizontal lines, fleeing rapid and jerky, brutally cutting into half lost profiles of faces or crumbling and rebounding fragments of landscape, will give the tumultuous feelings of the persons going away.” Once the war broke out, the position of Futurism as a style suddenly changed. As shall be seen in the next posts, these descriptions will resonate in pre-war paintings of Franz Marc and the most eloquent artists of the Great War, the British painters.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

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Defining Futurism


Futurism was the first movement to aim directly and deliberately at a mass audience, principally an urban audience. In its concern with equating art with life, Futurism aimed at no less than transforming the political mentality of society. This is quite different from the Orphist intention of depicting the flux of consciousness. Similar to the Orphists and to other avant-garde movements, Futurism was a movement aware of the effects of modern life and the key to understanding Futurism is the idea of a complete renewal of human sensibility brought about by modern science. Addressing a public audience, in contrast to the hermetic privacy of Picasso and Braque, the Futurists sought to involve the public in an instant reaction to social provocation, rather than in a slow and gentile contemplation of art forms.

Futurist Evenings became legendary. The first Futurist evening took place in Trieste in modern day Austrian, under the watchful eyes of the local police, disparagingly called “pissoirs,” or public urinals. As would be any politically provocative event in the Austro-Hungarian Empire at that time, the “Evening” of 12 January, 1910 earned the Italian invaders a bad reputation. The Futurists did not forget their experiences in Trieste and in a later Evening in Milan in 1914, they burned the flag of Austria, a nation that had appropriated Italian territories. In his manifesto, “War, the Only Hygiene,” Fillippo Thommaso Marinetti, the leader of the Futurists, wrote of the “pleasure of getting booed.” To a certain extent, the Futurists sounded proto-Brechtian in their desire to disrupt the complacency of the audience, but, on the other hand, Marinetti in advising his colleagues to put glue on the theater seats, sounds like an immature teenager. Certainly the “irrational exuberance” of the Futurists borrowed something from the European cult for youth.

It would be a mistake to assume that because the Futurists were utopian, that they were also progressive in their political ideas. In many ways they were very regressive and had pro-military, anti-female notions that would eventually lead many of them into Fascism. Marinetti supported a colonialist war in Libya, “Let the Tedious memory of Roman greatness be cancelled by an Italian greatness one hundred times more powerful,” he wrote. Ignorant of the destructive power of the machines they worshiped, the artists yearned for a war they hoped would rid them of the yoke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Futurists preached violence and believed in the virtue of destruction for the purpose of sweeping away the old and the worn out and the useless, with the hope of bringing industrialization about, dragging Italy into the modern world. They wrote polemics against women and museums, everything that was tried tradition and wrote hymns to the God of Speed and worshiped the new idol, the fast motorcar. For the most part, the Futurists were all male and quite masculine, but there was one Futurist woman involved in the movement, but rarely mentioned by historians, Valentine de Saint-Pointe, a dancer, who was a brave future feminist before her time.

The artists saw no difference between their art and the performances that served to publicize their exhibitions. The first major exhibition of Futurist painting took place in Milan, 30 April 1911 and the artists still relied upon Divisionism or Neo-Impressionism. At first, Divisionism united these painters in a common style. For the Futurists, the Divisionists brushstroke was the visual form, which allowed them to paint their obsession: things that moved. With this stroke, they could demonstrate the disintegration of objects due to the action of light and color. This swirling activity, this excitement of the surface of the canvas through nervous brushwork and brilliant and pure color was intended to put the spectator in the center of the canvas. Umberto Boccioni’s The City Rises of 1910 was a case in point, capturing the danger and the excitement of the agitated crowd with swirls of slashing colors.

As with Futurist theater, spectator involvement was essential in Futurist painting. Although viewers of the paintings did not throw objects at the art as they would at the performers, the goal of the painters was to create the opportunity for participation inside the painting, by moving the viewer’s eyes into and around and through the composition. The key to the Futurist painting was their idea of universal dynamism, which, as has been noted, was a prevalent preoccupation of this time in Europe. The Futurists endeavored to express the essence of dynamic sensation itself and saw the world as a place of flux, of movement, and of interpenetration. All objects in space and time were drawn together in a universal dynamism, pushed by the speed of the machine. Christine Poggi’s survey of Marinetti’s writings during the first decade of the Twentieth Century, in Inventing Futurism: The Art and Politics of Artificial Optimism, traces his conflicting attitudes about the machine. He goes from fear to awe to admiration. It is necessary to remember that people were new at mastering an entire series of newly invented machines, from the automobile to the airplane, most of which could be dangerous and deadly.

The Futurists’ ideas were more advanced than their painting, and at Gino Severini’s urging they visited Paris and saw Cubist works. Gino Severini lived in Montmartre and was well aware of the avant-garde artists, Picasso and Braque and the exhibitions of the Salon Cubists. To Severini, Divisionism was now old-fashioned and he was alarmed that his fellow countrymen were planning to exhibit in Paris as the “Futurists” with an outdated style. The Futurists realized that the vocabulary of Cubism could be translated and transformed to yet another purpos. The idea of multiple perspectives became codes for dynamic movement. The Futurists sliced through their objects with straight lines—“lines of force”—that expressed the impact of the machine upon the modern culture. The lines represented many things, the excitement of life in the city, the severe straight lines of the machines so admired by the Futurists, and the fracturing of objects by light and by movement. As Boccioni stated:

Everything moves, everything runs, everything turns rapidly. A figure in never stationary before us but appears and disappears incessantly. Through the persistence of images on the retina, things in movement multiply and are distorted, succeeding each other like vibrations in the space through which they pass. Thus a galloping horse has not got four legs; it has twenty and their motion is triangular…Our bodies enter into the sofas on which we sit, and the sofas enter into us, as also the tram that runs between the houses enters into them, and they in turn hurl themselves on to it and fuse with it…

Upon learning of Cubism, the Futurists realized there was a more up to date language, and, most importantly, this language was geometric. For Marinetti, geometry was equivalent to the mechanical spirit of the machine. The Paris Debut of the Futurists was at the Galérie Bernheim-Jeune on 5 February, 1912. The paintings featured the prevailing ideas of the Futurists, dynamism, speed, and movement and used “lines of force” to thrust the viewer into the center of the painting. Giacomo Balla’s painting of Abstract Speed—The Car has Passed By of 1913 forces the eye to move from right to left, following the direction of the spinning wheels. In other words, their work was nothing like the static version of shifting perspectives found in Cubism, but the Futurists were doomed to be labeled as “derivitive” of Cubism by the French critics. But Cubism and Futurism were very different.

The Difference between Cubism and Futurism


Futurism was the prototype of avant-garde—-the artists and poets deliberately provoked unsuspecting art audiences, scandalized the conservative middle class, and lived out any government’s worst nightmare: the artist as a political activist. With the cultural memory of audiences laughing at Impressionism, insulting Fauvism fresh in their memories, Cubist art and artists were quiet, intellectual, and cerebral, dedicated to furthering a revolution about art. They worked in isolation (Picasso and Braque) or in small groups and showed their art in conventional arenas, whether in galleries or in exhibitions (the Salon Cubists). The Futurists, on the other hand, were strident, noisy, confrontational, and political. They directed their art and efforts to a mass audience, in contrast to Cubism’s out-reach to elite art-educated audiences. Beginning as a literary movement, the Futurists moved into performance and wrote manifestos in exaggerated language, while the Cubist writers maintained an intellectual role, legitimating their movement by associating themselves with French classical art and the latest scientific ideas.

Cubism was “defined” on two fronts: the private and gallery situation for the art of Picasso and Braque and the public and exhibition setting for the Salon Cubists and was thus “defined” only in terms of art. Futurism was a movement about the impact of social conditions and cultural conditions upon the human mind. With its constant provocative interactions with the authorities and against the status quo, Futurist artists aligned themselves with violent change and with violent methods. It could be said that Futurism was also a political movement that employed art as a weapon against tradition, and that Cubism was an art movement that employed art as a weapon against art. In contrast to the divisions within Cubism, Futurism showed in exhibitions and galleries and the artists presented a united front, instead of splitting into splinter groups. Essentially a movement concerned with the modern world, Futurism took up the Cubist innovation of collage and used it in preference to painting from about 1914 on. Many of these collages, like the earlier paintings, sought to put the spectator visually and physically in the center of the art.

Futurist art is optical and not intellectual, always related to things that move, that are directional and dynamic, colorful and fragmented. Ironically, Futurism as a style was uniquely appropriate to illustrate the Great War. Only the “lines of force” could convey the destruction of a world gone mad, blowing itself up, tearing itself apart into fragments. Like many other young men, the Futurist artists marched enthusiastically off to war. Sadly, Gino Serverini painted a hospital train, carrying the wounded to safety. They were the lucky ones. Running to the bright future they were sure that the War would bring, Umberto Boccioni and Antonio Sant’ella were killed.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]