It is ironic that the grandest exhibition of Futurism ever to be mounted has opened in Venice, for the Futurists held Venice in particular contempt. On the evening of July 8, 1910, Marinetti, the movement’s commander in chief, together with a group of Futurist painters, placed themselves in a strategic position on the Clock Tower overlooking the Piazza San Marco, armed with eighty thousand copies of their manifesto Contro Venezia Passatista. These they hurled at a crowd of astonished Venetians who had just alighted from the ferry from the Lido and were crossing the square on their way home to supper. The manifesto accused Venice, among other things, of being a “jeweled hip-bath for cosmopolitan courtesans” and “a great sewer of traditionalism.” “Let us fill the stinking little canals with the rubble of the tottering infected old palaces. Let us burn the gondolas, rocking chairs for idiots, and raise to the sky the majestic geometry of metal bridges and smoke-crowned factories, abolishing the sagging curves of ancient buildings.”
Timing was all-important, and Marinetti’s sense of timing was one of his greatest assets. One Sunday in that same year, as the faithful were leaving the Basilica after mass, trumpets blared from the summit of the Campanile, and there was Marinetti, megaphone in hand, to deliver a torrent of anti-Venetian and anticlerical abuse. His lecture at the Teatro La Fenice on August 1 caused a splendid scandal and was punctuated by the “resounding slaps” administered to the audience by the painters Boccioni, Russolo, and Carrà.
On the other hand it is entirely appropriate that Fiat should have chosen this exhibition to inaugurate its new center at the Palazzo Grassi because the Futurists worshiped machines and in particular “the racing automobile…more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.” In the atrium of the palace, and visible from the Grand Canal, are placed a Fiat Model 1 car of 1908–1910, identical with the one owned by Marinetti in which it so pleased him to be photographed, and a Bugatti 13 of 1910–1923. The latter looks brave but vulnerable—a toy for adults. In the light well of the vast central hall are suspended two airplanes, a Blériot X and a Spad VII. Like the automobile the “gliding flight of airplanes with propeller sounds like the flapping of a flag” had been celebrated in the first and founding manifesto of Futurism, which appeared on February 20, 1909.
Automobiles and flight inspired two of Marinetti’s most famous poems, “A l’Automobile” of 1905, which was published three years later as A mon Pégase, and “L’Aviatore Futurista parla con suo Padre, il Vulcano,” which came out in L’Aeroplano del Papa in 1914. Airplanes figure in contemporary poems by his friends Libero Altomare, Paolo Buzzi, and Enrico Cavacchioli. The Futurist painters, who formed a more cohesive group than the Futurist poets, on the whole preferred their machines earthbound. And the entire movement itself was rather like a machine put together by inspired amateurs, at times showing great form and originality, at others collapsing in a shower of flying rivets and exploding mufflers.
The Palazzo Grassi was acquired by Fiat in the spring of 1984. Traditionally regarded as the last of the “great” palaces on the Grand Canal, it was designed by Giorgio Massari in 1740. Despite its undoubted grandeur it has been regarded by the cognoscenti of Venice as something of a white elephant; but it admirably suits its present purpose, which is to act as a place “to emphasize the ongoing interactions between culture and technology, between the economic world and the artistic world, and between entrepreneur and artist as participants in the development of society,” through a succession of exhibitions, conferences, and performances.
The main architectural features of the palace and those of its decorative embellishments still intact have been retained. But in its multiple past incarnations (most recently as a costume museum) much of the original character of the internal design had been destroyed so that it seemed reasonable to build a new curtain of thin walls, standing slightly forward from the old ones, in order to create a partially modern environment. The reconstruction has been done, most skillfully, by Antonio Foscari and the currently ubiquitous (in museum commissions) Gae Aulenti. (She has also designed the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.) This exhibition, entitled Futurismo & Futurismi, is divided into three parts, with an introductory section on the ground floor. Futurism proper occupies the piano nobile and it is not inappropriate to see these works on pristine white panels suspended under heavy, coffered, and painted nineteenth-century ceiling decorations; for although the Futurists flaunted the concept of modernity, their own modernism was at times little more than a veneer laid over their Symbolist origins. They sought to reject the past out of hand, but their attitude to the nineteenth century in particular was ambiguous: they could never make up their minds what, in the interest of the modern, they wanted to keep and what they wanted to reject.
The Futurists sought publicity obsessively; they would have been delighted by the fact that the Italian press is treating the exhibition as the cultural event of the decade, and they would certainly have enjoyed the fanfares which accompanied the opening. The day before the opening Venice awoke to find a brand-new, enormous white boat anchored by the Doge’s Palace. That night on board the presidents of Fiat and United Technologies (who are cosponsors of this particular exhibition) entertained a thousand luminaries from the worlds of politics, society, finance, technology, and the arts; the lagoon was aswarm with security forces disguised as human frogs.
The following morning, in a gigantic and beautiful tentlike structure erected in the Arsenale, the activities of the new Palazzo Grassi were inaugurated by the president of the republic. After the official opening itself there was a gala evening at the Fenice with snippets of Futurist and other modernist dance, music, and mime. Earlier in the day there had been a private presidential visit to the show. Simultaneously, in the nearby Campo San Stefano, the Comitativo per II Dritto alla Casa staged a demonstration against what was happening. People gathered around a black coffin which bore the name of the president of Fiat, Agnelli, sang socialist songs, and waved banners declaring that Italy had no need of new museums while Italians were homeless or inadequately housed.
About this the Futurists would have had more complicated feelings. They wouldn’t have been too bothered about the plight of the homeless; they had strong feelings about how society should be organized, but very little social consciousness. However, section ten of the founding manifesto of 1909 had declared, “We want to demolish museums and libraries.” Still, the movement flourished on paradox and was not averse to bending facts when circumstances called for it; and exposure was all-important. Similarly, while art critics were condemned as useless or dangerous, the Futurists adored to be chronicled. There is a mountain of documentary material in this exhibition, some of it new. Every room has at least one case of it, and it is all absorbing.
The literature on Futurism, and most of the publicity surrounding this exhibition, make much of the fact that Futurism was the first cultural movement of the twentieth century that sought to change not only art but life itself. It is perhaps doubtful if, during the early stages of the movement at least, anyone other than Marinetti saw things in quite this way; many of the artists involved viewed it rather as a platform from which to launch their own talents and careers. Even Marinetti was less interested in reforming life than in dominating and possessing it completely.
In this he was on the whole surprisingly successful. He had great personal charm which he used to considerable effect, but which he was also prepared to sacrifice to a deliberately offensive public persona. He had a quick but coarse and buccaneering mind. He had limitless vitality and his appearances as lecturer, orator, and performer were galvanizing. He was born in Alexandria in Egypt (in 1876) and liked to hint that he had absorbed strange powers through being suckled at the breast of a Sudanese wet nurse. In fact the Alexandrian background was important because, given the family circumstances, it ensured that he grew up bilingual in French, and even more so because it was there that his father, a prominent lawyer, consolidated the family fortune that Marinetti inherited and that enabled him to be not only Futurism’s leader and impresario but also its Maecenas: theaters and galleries could be rented, manifestoes and books published, trips taken and excursions arranged. One of the most interesting exhibits in the show is a recreation of the study in the Milanese flat where Marinetti wrote the first manifesto, surrounded by furnishings from the family home in Alexandria. It tells a tale with its extraordinary profusion of oriental carpets and ceramics and its Islamic lamps and furniture, all clearly expensive but of no aesthetic worth. The effect is opulent but shoddy.
After he had been expelled from his Jesuit school in Alexandria (for reading Zola) Marinetti took his baccalauréat in France before going on to study at the university in Pavia and then in Genoa. Until 1911 most of his writing was in French. His first book, a florid epic poem of Hugoesque pretensions, called La Conquête des étoiles, went straight over the top; and there he was to remain. A play, Le Roi Bombance, performed at Lugné-Poë’s Théatre de l’Oeuvre in 1909, had both Rabelaisian and social pretensions, but is little more than a feeble pastiche of Jarry’s Ubu Roi, which had been seen at the same theater ten years earlier.
Mafarka le Futuriste, a novel of 1909, is regarded by some as his finest prose work and by others, including myself, as almost unreadable. It is set in a mythical Africa—a counterpart and answer to D’Annunzio’s vision of the continent—and is a tale of high adventure and violent physical passion. Mafarka, a supermacho if ever there was one, is one of the most objectionable creations in all fiction. Apart from his general awfulness, Mafarka’s most notable and presumably most noticeable characteristic was his eleven-meter-long penis which he wrapped around himself while asleep; I picture him in this condition as a sort of recumbent Michelin man—but of course less benign.
Mafarka was the subject of three trials for obscenity, much welcomed by the author for the publicity they brought. In the meantime Marinetti had also been getting on with what he was best at: advertising and promoting himself. Sarah Bernhardt had been persuaded to declaim his verse in her salon; a book on his work had been published, presumably commissioned and paid for by himself. Celebrities such as Rachilde, Apollinaire, Jarry, and Verhaeren, to name but a few, had been bombarded with cajoling and flattering letters. In one of the cases of the exhibition a letter from Bergson, written in 1903, shows the philosopher trying patiently to answer a Marinettian questionnaire. It has been placed, suggestively, next to some of Marinetti’s notes for a lecture on Nietzsche; for Nietzsche and Bergson were to be the two most important intellectual influences on the founding manifesto of Futurism.
The way in which this first manifesto was launched illustrates Marinetti’s genius as a showman; he simply rented the front page of a leading Paris newspaper, Le Figaro. The Italians were naturally enormously impressed, and the French curious, irritated, and outraged. There were already undertones of the fierce nationalism that was to characterize the movement, but in its initial stages it was directed toward and against France. Some years later Marinetti was to say to the musician Francesco Balilla Pratella:
To conquer Paris and appear in the eyes of all as an absolute innovator…I advise you with all my heart to set to work to be the most daring, most advanced, most unexpected and most eccentric emanation of all that has represented music to date. I advise you to make a real nuisance of yourself and not to stop until all around you have declared you to be mad, incomprehensible, grotesque and so forth.
The initial manifesto must be accounted Marinetti’s most important single work. Its aim was to shock and arrest—it ends, “Erect on the summit of the world we hurl our defiance once more at the stars!”—and it still makes exciting and compulsive reading. Marinetti’s writing had hitherto been derivative, and the intellectual content of the manifesto is in turn eclectic. The campaign for the destruction of the past is Nietzschean and the exaltation of violence owes much to Sorel.
Contemporary commentators were quick to point out that there were plenty of different nineteenth-century prototypes for the idea of introducing urban and even mechanistic iconography into the arts. Bergson had for some time been lecturing and writing on the need to understand the properties of speed and motion if man was to evaluate and understand his sensory perceptions and his relationship with the world around him.
What is new is the tone of the manifesto. The previous bombast and hyperbole are still present, but they are now harnessed, even disciplined, and put to the service of a new spirit of urgency and vitality. And by saying what they said more noisily and insistently than anyone else the Futurists were able to persuade not only themselves but also a lot of other people of the novelty of their premises. The manifesto was the literary form that enabled Marinetti to find his true voice. By 1916 over fifty manifestoes, on every aspect of art and life, from architecture and theater to lust and politics, had been published, and Marinetti wrote or had a hand in most of them. The manifesto was to be the Futurists’ ideal vehicle of communication: it could be short, it was cheap and quick to publish and to disseminate, and its adoption marked the movement’s essentially popular aspirations.
The concision and pace of the manifesto style also helped to effect the most important literary innovation of the movement. This involved a move from vers libre to the Futurist parole in libertá, which by 1913–1914 had become a lingua franca of all the movement’s various manifestations. Parole in libertá basically involved taking Mallarmé’s and Bergson’s principle of analogy several stages further: as Marinetti observed, “analogy is no more than the deep love that unites distant, diverse, and seemingly hostile things.” The Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature, which appeared on May 11, 1912, sought to free words from the corset of Latin syntax. Nouns were to explode at random and were more potent when doubled (man-torpedoboat/woman-gulf); the static, bland indicative was to be replaced by the more evocative infinitive; adverbs and adjectives weakened verbal impact and were out. The ideal was Marinetti’s immaginazione senza fili (“imagination without strings”) proclaimed in a manifesto of 1913, which now also abolished syntax and advocated a state of imaginative intoxication in which the original element of an analogy could be suppressed in favor of the second, which could then be linked to an indefinite succession of further dizzying images. “It is not necessary to be understood,” the Futurists declared.
Marinetti’s greatest achievement in this style was his “Zang Tumb Tumb,” a description of the siege of Adrianople, published in 1914, though passages from it were already being declaimed by him a year earlier. Fragments caught on an old recording are still spellbinding, although the voice is surprisingly light and tenorlike and one misses the rolling of the famous white eyeballs. Only the Neapolitan poet Cangiullo, a slightly later recruit to the movement, could match Marinetti’s versatility in parole in libertá, and his Piedigrotta of 1916 is a masterpiece of the genre. Hand in hand with the verbal pyrotechnics came the most daring typographic inventions, some of Futurism’s most influential and enduring contributions to the ethos of our century, although these had been anticipated in Apollinaire’s L’Antitradition futuriste.
Not the least remarkable feature of the Futurists’ manifestoes was that they were not written to support or explain existing attitudes or bodies of work, rather they were blueprints for experiments and experiences that were still to come. In the founding manifesto Marinetti had spoken of “we,” but it was a royal “we,” and the document was a challenge and an invitation to others. The first to accept were the painters. The Manifesto of the Futurist Painters came out on February 11, 1910. In his autobiography Carrà tells us that it was drawn up by himself, Boccioni, and Russolo, but it bears Marinetti’s imprint. It was signed by five painters, two of whom (Bonzagni and Romani) withdrew hastily when they realized what they were letting themselves in for; their names were replaced by those of Severini and Balla. A second, technical, manifesto of painting came out two months later and this was almost certainly the work of Boccioni, who for the next three years was to dominate the visual side of the movement.
Boccioni was the most gifted of the Futurists, except possibly for the architect Sant’Elia, who is anyway in many respects a special case. He was also the most ambitious, which is saying a lot. As Marinetti identified increasingly with Futurism as a whole, he transferred his personal aspirations to its larger interests; not so Boccioni. Up the Grand Canal from the Palazzo Grassi at the church of San Stae there is another fine exhibition, Boccioni in Venice,* which traces his career up to his first major one-man show at the Ca’ Pesaro in the summer of 1910, already under the aegis of Marinetti, whom he had met at the beginning of that year. It was while the Ca’ Pesaro exhibition was being shown that Boccioni moved into his first Futurist phase.
The last paintings in San Stae show Boccioni working in his fully developed Divisionist manner, or rather in the Italian variant of the style; for while he applies pure color in short broken touches, there is very little optical science in their separation. Already he is interested not so much in the properties of light observed in nature as in the overall activation of the picture surface through very physical, vigorous, choppy brush strokes. Many of the canvases are views of the Milanese suburb at Porta Romana where Boccioni had gone to live late in 1907, a suitable home for a young painter who had just written of his desire “to paint the new, the fruit of our industrial age.” Oddly enough they are not optimistic paintings and have about them an Antonioni-like air of loneliness and displacement. A residue of this tinges even the most assured of his Futurist pieces; maybe the rejection of the past was not so completely exhilarating after all. The first of his pictures at the Palazzo Grassi are identical in style but show him turning to scenes of night life and violence as, for example, in the Rissa in Galleria, which shows a crowd gathering around two fighting prostitutes in a city arcade flooded by garish electric lights.
The largest and most important work of Boccioni’s first Futurist phase, La Cittá Sale (The City Rises), begun during his Ca’ Pesaro show, is given pride of place in the largest of the rooms in the Palazzo Grassi. It looks impressive but it also serves to underline some of the contradictions inherent in Futurism; it shows an emergent suburb under construction not by men with machines but by pygmy figures trying to control giant workhorses whose enormous blue halters give them unmistakable Pegasus-like qualities. Standing next to the painting is the original plaster of Boccioni’s most important sculpture, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, a striding figure which seems to combine the men and the beasts in the painting into a single image, although there are also suggestions of mechanistic imagery in the straight lines of the head. The armless sculpture, with its rippling muscular dislocations, also conjures up vivid associations with the fluttering wet draperies of the much despised classical Hellenistic past: the speeding automobile and the Victory of Samothrace have come together in unholy wedlock.
The most important room in the exhibition for an understanding of the nature of the earlier and in many respects most weighty phases of Futurism is the one dedicated entirely to Boccioni, and shows the evolution of his most ambitious pictorial cycle, the States of Mind of 1911. It also demonstrates how Futurism was “modernized” through its contacts with Parisian Cubism, and, to a lesser extent, through its adaptation of certain aspects of chronophotography. In May 1911, La Cittá Sale had been shown at the Esposizione Libera in Milan. The exhibition was savaged in La Voce by the Florentine critic Ardengo Soffici. Boccioni and his Milanese friends rushed off to Florence to confront their detractor who in turn rallied supporters of his own; two physical battles ensued.
But Soffici soon became a friend (and a Futurist) and he showed Boccioni an article he had written on the French Cubists and photographs of their work. Severini, who was living in Paris, also visited the Esposizione Libera. He had, of course, by now put his name to the painters’ manifesto and he was appalled to find that the work of his cosigners was shamefully passatista. He persuaded Marinetti to finance a jaunt to Paris for the painters as a prelude to the exhibition they were planning to launch there. Together with their mentor, Boccioni, Carrà, and Russolo arrived in the French capital in November. Then, in an astonishingly short space of time, they reworked earlier canvases and produced new ones for their exhibition which opened at the Bernheim Jeune gallery in February 1912.
The States of Mind, a title derived from Bergson, whose thought Boccioni was coming to see as increasingly exploitable for his own ends, was conceived as a triptych set in a railway station and designed to show the physical and psychological sensations of the people who say their goodbyes, depart, or are left behind. The earliest of the versions at the Palazzo Grassi show the influence of Edvard Munch and even, in the caricatural treatment of the heads in some of the preliminary drawings, of Romani, one of the artists who had almost immediately asked to be disassociated from Futurism. Except for a certain roughness of handling, these works could have been executed in the 1890s. In the final post-Parisian version the linear grids of Analytic Cubism have been borrowed as the basis for a rigorous formal organization of the picture surface and played off against the earlier, swirling Munchean rhythms to create a series of spatial elements or cells into which are fitted the protagonists—the humans and the machine that is to be the instrument of their separation. In the central panel the locomotive, seen in cubist multiple viewpoint simultaneously from in front and from the side, presides like a malevolent deity, while the numbers boldly stenciled across it (again derived from Cubist procedures) defiantly proclaim the painting’s true modernity.
The two succeeding rooms at the Palazzo Grassi bring together many of the most famous Futurist images. The first shows the painters’ attitudes to various forms of motion, the second the nature and range of their iconography. It is here that Carrà’s most ambitious and truly Futurist canvas, The Funeral of the Anarchist Galli, hangs next to La Cittá Sale and opposite Severini’s steely and powerful depictions of mechanized war. Many of the pictures still look wonderfully contemporary and put one in mind of the Neoexpressionism of recent years, probably another reason why Pontus Hulten and his fellow organizers of the exhibition felt that a reevaluation of Futurism would look particularly relevant at this time. From the works on view it is possible to reconstruct a large part of the 1912 exhibition, which traveled on from Paris to Britain, Germany, Belgium, and Holland. It created an enormous amount of interest and was accompanied by various lectures, performances, and demonstrations; at the end of the tour Marinetti had a scrapbook of 350 newspaper clippings to commemorate it.
Few of the paintings shown were of the quality of the States of Mind; but it was the exhibition as a whole that caused such a stir. It is an example of the way in which indifferent art can be extremely influential, and this again makes what is on view at the Palazzo Grassi relevant to the situation today. And I wonder if there are any conclusions to be drawn from the fact that in these two rooms which contain so much commotion and violence the two most dominating images are of Boccioni’s mother: the somewhat repellent but commanding Materia, a painting of 1912, and the sculptured head, Antigrazioso, of 1912–1913. In any case she was clearly a formidable woman; and when Boccioni left for the front in 1915 she followed the train in an open carriage, shouting, “Long live the Futurists, long live Italy, long live the volunteers!”
Boccioni was killed in an accident in July 1916 when he was thrown from his horse. Already he had turned his back on Futurism, though he would probably have denied this. In 1912 he had accompanied the exhibition to Munich where he had seen and admired Kandinsky’s work; and under Kandinsky’s influence he became, briefly, a genuinely original colorist and produced some of his most exciting and liberated work. But it is proof of his intelligence that he seems to have realized that even if he had used Picasso’s first fully mature cubism of 1909–1911 to organize and modernize his own work, he didn’t completely understand it.
His pictorial development now showed him going backward in time to investigate Picasso’s “Negroid” or pre-Cubist work and then further back to a study of Cézanne. None of these works is in the exhibition and their exclusion is understandable since they are not, strictly speaking, completely Futurist or possibly not even Futurist at all. But they tell us much about the dilemmas that plagued and vexed the movement, as do many of the works actually on view. In the same way there is no hint in this exhibition of the incipient climate of Fascism, inextricably linked as this was with some of the darker, more shadowy sides of Futurism.
Instead, the organizers have concentrated on a strange phenomenon. Giacomo Balla (born in 1871) was some ten years older than the other painters involved in the movement. Both Boccioni and Severini had studied with him briefly in Rome at a time when Balla was producing thoughtful, socially conscious canvases bathed in a calm, almost surreal light, the result of his very personal approach to Divisionist theories. He seems to have been a father figure to his younger colleagues; and in his character he was the most sympathetic of the painters, strong, gentle, and, in the early phases of his career at least, wise.
He had been persuaded to sign the manifestoes, and he was to have been included in the Bernheim Jeune exhibition although his single entry (Street Light of 1909, on view in the current exhibition) was in the event not shown, possibly because it didn’t look sufficiently modern. It was only in 1912 that he began to be completely absorbed into the movement, producing some delightful paintings of figures and animals in motion, based on the photographs and diagrams of Etienne-Jules Marey. Of his early Futurist years he was to write:
Little by little acquaintances vanished, the same thing happened to his income, and the public labeled him mad. At home his mother begged the Madonna for help, his wife was in despair, his children perplexed…but without further ado he put all his passéiste works up for auction, writing on a sign between two black crosses: FOR SALE—THE WORKS OF THE LATE BALLA.
As Balla in turn became more familiar with Cubist procedures his work grew in sophistication. In 1913 he produced a large series of virtually abstract canvases, often in black and white or monochrome, composed of tightly controlled linear rhythms around which are suspended complexes of transparent interacting planes: these bear titles like Speeding Automobiles and Lights, Abstract Speed, and so forth. Between 1911 and 1914 he also executed some extraordinary coloristic abstractions which, if I interpret them correctly, are to do with the diagrammatic movement of light, and which almost look as if they might have been done in the 1960s.
But changes were taking place within him. In 1914, as part of his contribution to the cause of Italian intervention in the war, he published a remarkably silly manifesto on clothing called Il vestito anti-neutrale. (Futurist shoes will be dynamic, different one from the other in shape and color, ready to joyfully kick all the neutralists.) It was around this time that he shaved off his patriarchal beard. Next, with a much younger colleague, Fortunato Depero, in 1915 he published La ricostruzione futurista dell’universo. His own painting was going seriously off the rails, but he seems not to have noticed or minded. He began to decorate everything in sight in bright and often tasteless color schemes. He just couldn’t stop himself. From shoes, handbags, plates, and teacups he turned to trays, chairs, letter racks, wastepaper baskets. On and on he went. Finally he was reduced to producing wooden Futurist flowers, some angular and spiky, some lumpy and curvaceous. To this day his two elderly daughters, suitably named Luce and Elica (Light and Propeller) preserve the Futurist wonderland that was his Roman home. Many of its contents are on show at the Palazzo Grassi.
From the start the Futurists had glorified war; and the period when they were campaigning in favor of Italian intervention in the First World War was an exciting one for them and produced some good art. Then the war took its toll. Other members of the movement besides Boccioni, including the visionary Sant’Elia, were killed. Many were wounded: Marinetti’s old enemy and rival D’Annunzio sent red roses to his hospital bed. But even before they were separated by the war the artists had begun to drift apart and the movement had begun to lose much of its bite and momentum. Although throughout the war years and well into the 1920s Futurism continued to gain new recruits, their activity became increasingly diversified and diffuse; many of the figures involved in the movement devoted a considerable part of their energy to furthering the Fascist cause.
Yet for those of a Futurist persuasion there was certainly much to enjoy. There were Balla’s own sets for Stravinsky’s Fireworks (1917), in which the movement of colored lights over and inside the décor replaced human performers in a genuinely imaginative and inventive way. There were Prampolini’s mechanistic theatrical spectacles and Depero’s puppets performing in his Balli Plastici to music by Alfredo Casella. (The Balli are among the many spectacles and events being reconstructed and revived in Venice this summer.) In Rome there was dancing at the Tic Tac, décor by Balla, and drinking in Depero’s Cabaret del Diavolo (his two important restaurants in New York, created between 1929 and 1931, have unfortunately vanished). There was Virgilio Montari’s Fox Trot Sorpresa and Aldo Giuntini’s fox trot, The India Rubber Man.
With the exception of Sant’Elia, whose bearing was aristocratic and who was a dandy (he was provided with free clothes by the grandest Milanese tailor, so good a clotheshorse and advertisement was he), the Futurists were inexorably bourgeois in appearance, but there was nothing like a waistcoat or a necktie from Depero’s thriving workshop in Rovereto to enliven habitual attire. And then there was Futurist food. Already in the early Twenties there was talk of reforming the Italian diet, but it was not until the end of 1930 that Marinetti got around to issuing a manifesto on the subject, with all the authority of someone who was now a member of the Italian Academy and secretary of the Fascist Writers’ Union.
The biggest Futurist banquet took place at the Taverna Futurista Santolopato in Turin on March 8, 1931: fourteen dishes were dreamed up by five artists and the two resident cooks, and although few of the guests got beyond the first course, it was clearly a serata to be remembered. Marinetta’s Cucina Futurista, written in collaboration with the painter and writer Fillia, which came out in 1932, makes entertaining reading and should be reissued and translated. Basically the book is an extension of what came to be known as “tactilism,” a concept which preoccupied Marinetti throughout the Twenties and which involved combining contradictory or opposed sensations and experiences. In cookery pasta was of course out, but there were many exciting innovations such as salami in a hot sauce of coffee flavored with eau de Cologne. Futurist diners were also asked to stroke samples of velvet, silk, or emery paper with their left hands, depending on what was being forked up with the right, while warmed perfume was sprayed over the heads of the bald. Bliss it was…yes, indeed.
The organizers of this exhibition chose to take a wholly optimistic view of the movement and to give perhaps excessive prominence to the decorative and often somewhat childish paintings and projects of Balla and his artistic grandchildren. But it is hard to see how the first parts of the show could have been better done. The introductory section has been most thoughtfully and sensitively chosen and in the rooms above it almost all the major visual landmarks are on show, a very high percentage of them from America, which has been outstandingly generous in its loans; many of the paintings are fragile and will never travel again. Inevitably, it is the Futurismi, the vast display of international art on the top floor of the Palazzo Grassi, chosen even if only unconsciously to assert Italian dominance and supremacy in the field of twentieth-century modernism—works from sixteen countries are shown—that gives rise to many doubts.
Pride of place is given to the Russians, quite rightly because many Russian artists called themselves Futurist (or Cubo-Futurist) and there was a genuine and fruitful dialogue between Russia and Italy. Marinetti’s visit to Russia in 1914 was not the success he made it out to be; he offended some people while there and subsequently many more when he airily took the entire Russian Revolution and its art under his wing by proclaiming, “I am delighted to learn that the Russian Futurists are all Bolsheviks and that for a while Futurism was the official Russian art.”
But in many ways the Russians were the Italian Futurists’ true heirs. During the war years and in the period immediately succeeding 1917 theirs was the most genuinely experimental art in the world; they put their faith wholeheartedly in a technological revolution which the Italians had proclaimed but with which they had rather toyed and flirted; the Russians produced art that was environmental in a wider sense and on a larger scale than the Italians had envisaged. For a while at least the Russians truly lived their art in a way in which ultimately the Italians did not. And yet although the Russians quite understandably came to resent Marinetti’s claims to primacy, the Italian movement had undoubtedly been for them an example and a catalyst. The Russian manifesto A Slap in the Face of Public Taste of 1912, for example, signed by Mayakovsky, Burliuk, Khlebnikov, and Kruchenykh, bears the unmistakable imprint of its Italian forerunners. Rayonism, the pictorial movement launched by Larionov in 1913 with a manifesto that borrows ideas and terminology from the Italians, admitted that “Rayonism is a synthesis of Cubism, Futurism and Orphism.”
The first Russian room at the Palazzo Grassi assembles work by Larionov, Goncharova, and others, which demonstrates that for a while advanced Russian painters had much in common with their Italian counterparts. The succeeding rooms, however, fail to make a central point: whereas the Italian Futurists were genuine revolutionaries for a relatively short time (Boccioni, the most brilliant of them, executed a virtual short circuit in less than five years), the Russian avantgarde was only just getting going when the Italians had passed their peak. It was at The Futurist Exhibition Tramway V held in Petrograd in February 1915 that Kazimir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin emerged as the two rival personalities and artistic forces who were to change the face of Russian art. Both had reached their artistic conclusions through their experience of Cubism and most particularly through a study of the Synthetic Cubism achieved by Picasso and Braque during 1912 and 1913. The first major “analytic” phase of Cubism involved, and was the result of, its initiators looking at the external world in a new way. So to a certain extent did the Futurists, and they adapted certain features of Cubism to express this vision more forcefully and dynamically.
Although Synthetic Cubism did not in any way turn its back on the original premises, it was above all now concerned with new ways of making art, assembling abstract forms and shapes into meaningful configurations which did not resemble objects in the external world but rather paralleled or re-created them in an independent pictorial or sculptural form. Having analyzed and fragmented their subjects almost to the point of complete dissolution, they now proceeded to put them back together in a totally new form. This the Russians realized and seized upon at once (in a way the Italians failed or refused to do), although they undoubtedly saw Cubism as being more abstract than it in fact was; and it was this that enabled them to start drawing startling and unexpected conclusions of their own.
Russian artists had had the advantage of following the evolution of Cubism at first hand and from its earliest formative stages. Many of Picasso’s finest Negroid works had found their way to Russia and they struck a chord in the eyes and the hearts of artists like Goncharova and Malevich, partly at least because there was in Russia a strong indigenous tradition of popular folk art. Subsequently, through exhibitions but above all through the collection of Sergei Tschoukine, they were able to follow the evolution of Cubism (Tatlin also visited Picasso’s studio in Paris) and by doing so they evolved their own independent languages.
The Italian Futurists encountered Cubism at a moment when it had reached a first climax of complexity and sophistication. It was this sophistication that so excited them; but they were also in a hurry and sought to devour what they had seen, so to speak, whole. Until Boccioni’s later investigations, they showed virtually no knowledge of the movement’s father, Cézanne (the Russians did). And Boccioni, at least, despised primitive art, so that when in his own sculpture the devices and principles of modernism failed him, he was forced ultimately to look for help and prototypes in a despised Renaissance and classical past. Italian Futurism was one of the very few modern movements to turn its back on what tribal and ethnic art had to offer and teach, and these lessons were as important for the second major phase of Cubism as they had been for the first.
Severini, resident in Paris, produced Synthetic Cubist works, but the Italians, although they used the term “synthetic” (as in their “Synthetic Theater”) never produced their variant of Synthetic Cubism, although in an indirect way it touched the decorative creations of artists such as Balla, Depero, and Prampolini. Collage and papier collé, so inextricably bound up in the formulation of Synthetic Cubism, were used by the Italians in a purely literary way, as a means of incorporating words and typography into painting. Boccioni’s use of collage in the Charge of the Lancers of 1915 shows a total misunderstanding of the principles Picasso and others had been following. Only in his Dynamism of a Racing Horse + House (1914–1915), a multimedia construction unlike any other sculpture he executed, does he seem to have felt the necessity of facing the challenge of looking at some of Cubism’s later manifestations and, as Angelica Zander Rudenstine suggests in her catalog entry, the artist probably saw this piece as unfinished.
The works in the last Russian rooms don’t look all that different from the ones in the first and give very little indication that deep changes had taken place in Russian art. Many of these works have very little to do with what Futurism stood for. They appear to have been chosen simply because they resemble in a very superficial way some of the paintings on the floor below in that they are fragmented, make use of transparent planes, have implications of movement, and are for the most part brightly colored. And this is true of a large proportion of the works in the sections that follow. Many of them could have existed without any knowledge of Futurism (although it is certainly true that as a movement it had been well advertised) and simply with a second- or third-hand appreciation of some of the properties of Cubism that the Futurists themselves had found so useful and stimulating. As a friend with whom I visited the Futurismi observed, “Futurism is everything that is bright and goes zigzag.”
In the Futurismi rooms there is a certain amount of good art on view, much that is indifferent, and some that is bad. A tiny Cubist section contains a couple of beautiful pictures; these are tucked in after a room given to Belgium, and come, of course, chronologically out of sequence. One can, however, appreciate that the organizers faced a dilemma. To have placed the Cubists among the Futurists’ antecedents would have implied a closer connection than the purely visual one which so clearly existed. It is certainly true that the works on the piano nobile feel closer to the works on the ground floor than to the handful of Cubist paintings above them. Of all the Cubists, Léger was the most attracted to Futurism; he felt its impact and in his city pieces executed immediately after the war many aspects of Futurism’s visual program of incorporating the dynamics of the machine age into art found their finest and most exhilarating expression. A work by Léger of 1912–1913, admittedly one much admired by Marinetti, is on view, but nothing later.
Of the various other Futurismi, the one that makes the greatest impact is British Vorticism, partly because the intellectual astringency of Pound and Wyndham Lewis seems to permeate all the works on view, and partly because Vorticist artists became interested more or less simultaneously in Futurism and both major phases of Cubism; so that their art, together with many of the works in the Russian section, appears more forward-looking than much of what surrounds it. In the American room Joseph Stella shines forth as one of nature’s Futurists because he obviously found the modern urban scene so full of wonder, and so to a certain extent did John Marin and Max Weber. Here one is led on to the final sections on the decorative arts, which are dominated by Balla but which are sufficiently catholic to include a couple of very un-Futurist pieces from the Bloomsbury group’s Omega Workshops.
Still, this enormous, restless, and febrile exhibition generates great energy and excitement, as did Futurism itself, and its like will not be seen again. It is accompanied by a lavish publication illustrating works on view (and some that are not), and containing a dictionary of Futurism which will be very useful to those who are strong enough to pick it up.
August 14, 1986
Boccioni en Venezia: Dogli anni romani alla mostra d’estate a Ca’ Pesaro (Milan: Mazzotta, 1985). ↩