FUTURISM AS THE AVANT-GARDE
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.