Speed in Life and Death

Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource
Umberto Boccioni: Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913 (cast 1949)

An enormous exhibition of the Italian Futurist movement occupies the snail-shell of the Guggenheim Museum this spring and summer. The Futurists were dedicated to motion—but not the meditative pace that Frank Lloyd Wright’s ramp imposes on the viewer; more the revving of a Lamborghini, or better yet a Ducati motorcycle, relentlessly powering up, up, up and away, its engine knocking, spewing exhaust, mowing down everything in its path. The Futurists believed in the machine, in making a great big fuss, in being young. For a brief moment, they were arguably the most influential aesthetic provocateurs in the world.

The show starts with the movement’s most familiar work, Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913), a spirally torqued image of a striding bronze figure trailed by planar extrusions that indicate the pathways of its forward progress like sails or scarves. Boccioni’s dinamismo plastico aspired “to fix human forms in movement” and was interested in vigor, not grace (a squashed, bulbous self-portrait head of the same period is titled Antigrazioso, “Antigraceful”). Even so, Unique Forms is one of the most arresting and beautiful figures in modernist art.

The representation of speed, figured and abstract, was one of the Futurists’ prime aesthetic projects, underpinned by a philosophy of creative destruction that owed its expression to one man, the poet and publicist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, its guru and pope, around whom the entire enterprise pivoted and whose death brought it to an end in 1944. Marinetti was born in 1876 and brought up in Alexandria, Egypt, where he received a French education. As a young poet he was a standard-issue symbolist until an encounter with an engine, mythologized in his “Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism,” published in Le Figaro in 1909, changed everything:

My friends and I had stayed up all night, sitting beneath the lamps of a mosque, whose star-studded, filigreed brass domes resembled our souls,…listening to the tedious mumbled prayers of an ancient canal and the creaking bones of dilapidated palaces.

Their Orientalist idyll is disturbed by “the sudden roar of ravening motorcars,” and Marinetti and friends leave the mosque in hot pursuit (“all the myths and mystical ideals are behind us. We’re about to witness the birth of a Centaur”). “Like young lions,” they go chasing “after Death” and end up in a ditch. Marinetti apostrophized:

O mother of a ditch, brimful with muddy water!… How I relished your strength-giving sludge that reminded me so much of the saintly black breast of my Sudanese nurse…. When I got myself up—soaked, filthy, foul-smelling rag that I was—from beneath my overturned car, I had a wonderful sense of my heart being pierced by the red-hot sword of joy!1

Marinetti had found his way out of the cul-de-sac of too much…

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