Back to the Futurists: Italy's First Avant-Garde Turns 100

Against Pasta
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
July 2 2009 6:59 AM

Back to the Futurists: Italy's First Avant-Garde Turns 100

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Click here to launch day 4 of the Futurists.

As soon as we depart for Milan for the 400-work "Futurismo 1909-2009: Speed + Art + Action" at the Palazzo Reale, our little journey begins its swift descent from romantic idyll into urban anarchy. Our carrier is the air equivalent of Greyhound, except whereas in America even the lowly bus inspires orderly boarding behavior, here the passengers take the plane by storm, swarming the gate en masse, then surging across the tarmac and up the boarding ramps to claim their seats willy-nilly, survivalist style. We deplane frazzled. At the Palazzo Reale, the show's two curators stand me up—though it takes me nearly an hour to figure this out, given my complete lack of Italian. And then the show itself overturns my already overturned notions about Futurism all over again.

Over an espresso the day before, art historian Ester Coen  had explained that Futurism's second wave (1919-44) is generally regarded as the less artistically significant of the two, as most of the movement's major artists had died in World War I. But after spending several hours examining the enormous Milan exhibit, I come to think otherwise. To my aching eyes, the reinvention of everyday life doesn't start with canvases but with the stuff of quotidian experience—graphic design, fashion, the decorative arts, even food—all of which the Futurists experimented with prodigiously during this later period. At least one-third of the unbelievably exhaustive exhibit showcases Futurist-designed posters, tableware, costumes, lighting fixtures—every inch of it a marvel of ingenuity and novelty.

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Viewed from this angle, the Futurists actually did predict the future: Is not Target-esque "design for all" an outgrowth of the Futurist call for the immersion of art in everyday life? Can't the dizzying success of "fast fashion" a la H&M be traced to the argument for "illusionistic, sarcastic, sonorous, loud, deadly, and explosive attire" made from inexpensive materials issued by the "Futurist Manifesto of Women's Fashion"? ("The reign of silk in the history of female fashion must come to an end.")

So why is this phase overlooked?

Because these were also the years that the Futurists became Fascists. When Italy entered World War I in 1915 and Marinetti's infatuation with violence erupted into reality, his avant-garde started to deteriorate. Futurist paintings became more fragmented and abstracted; the movement's ranks thinned when members enlisted; and in 1916, Umberto Boccioni, its brightest star, died during a cavalry training exercise, age 34. Meanwhile, Marinetti had started to align himself with Benito Mussolini. Playing to their shared faith in brutality, machines, and a vision of an all-new Italy, Marinetti made a risky gamble: If he supported Fascism, he figured, his movement could become the official art of the state. In 1919, he founded the Futurist Political Party—formally separate from the art avant-garde—which was soon absorbed into the Fascist Party, which went national in 1921. So it's true: Marinetti wasn't only a Fascist—he was one of the very first. It was a shaky and vexed alliance. Mussolini couldn't have cared less about art, so Futurism never did attain "official" status. But more important, the very institutions Marinetti longed to destroy were those that Mussolini relied on to maintain his tyranny: tradition, family, religion.

And gastronomy. Ever since Italy's unification in the 1860s, food had played a crucial role in the country's politics. During the 1920s and '30s, in order to build a stable national identity, the Fascist regime actively discouraged exports and imports of non-Italian foods, severely limiting both the quantity and quality of foodstuffs available to the public. It was into this environment of impoverished patriotism that Marinetti issued one of his most radical texts, a lustily anarchic tome initiating a dead-serious slapstick revolt against Italian cuisine: The Futurist Cookbook. With it, he denounced pasta as "an absurd Italian gastronomic religion" that made people sluggish and lethargic and argued for "absolute originality" in food, as well as "a battery of scientific instruments in the kitchen." Goodbye, beloved carbonara and checkered tablecloths; hello, chicken stuffed with ball bearings and carnation scent spritzed from spray bottles.

The cookbook is commonly written off as being anti-hedonist—creating food that tasted good was never a priority, for instance. But looked at another way, it can also be regarded as a deeply sensual shrine to the power and potentials of eating: "A given taste of something can sum up an entire area of life," Marinetti writes, "the history of an amorous passion or an entire voyage to the Far East." In fact, this highly cerebral approach—to think about what you're putting in your mouth—bears an uncanny resemblance to today's consciousness-based food philosophies. On the one hand, we have chefs like Dan Barber, forerunner of what's been dubbed the "farm-to-table" movement, getting us to think about sustainable agriculture by serving dishes as simple as a single, perfect cherry tomato on a plate. ("We've become so removed from food," he told me over tea recently. "I'm just exploiting our longing to get back to nature!") On the other hand, innovators like Ferran Adrià, of the famed Spanish restaurant El Bulli, are commanding our attention by whipping up deconstructed meals that play with our preconceptions of what food should be.

"Certainly the emphasis that Marinetti puts on originality and creativity is what is at the root of this modern movement," said American food writer Harold McGee when I called to ask him about Futurism's ties to the food revolution he has both chronicled and helped shape. In 1992, McGee, Hungarian-born physicist Nicholas Kurti, and French physical chemist Hervé This coined the term molecular and physical gastronomy (shortened to molecular gastronomy after Kurti's death in 1988) to market a series of workshops devoted to kitchen chemistry. Their objective was, and remains, straightforward: to focus on the phenomena that occur during cooking. "When you make a soufflé, it rises in an oven," said This when I called him. "My question is: Why?" The Futurists were artists, not scientists, but by questioning the ways we interact with our food, and even making creative use of nonkitchen technologies, they brought a sort of scientific rigor to the table.

As literature, The Futurist Cookbook, first published in 1932, is highly entertaining. Nourishment, however, was not a concern.

A handful of recipes—or "formulas"—featured:

Drum Roll of Colonial Fish: Poached mullet marinated in milk, liqueur, capers, and red pepper and stuffed with date jam, banana, and pineapple. "It will then be eaten to a continuous rolling of drums."

Words in Liberty Sea Platter: A watermelon half at sail across a sea of endive, with a tiny captain sculpted from Dutch cheese commanding a crew of calves' brains cooked in milk. "The sea and the ship are sprinkled with cinnamon or red pepper."

The Excited Pig: "A whole salami, skinned, is served upright on a dish containing some very hot black coffee mixed with a good deal of eau de Cologne."

Tasty Preface: "A cylinder of butter with a green olive on top. At the base of the cylinder: salami, raisins, pine nuts and tiny sugared sweets." (Yet more phallocentrism!)

White and Black: "A one-man show on the internal walls of the Stomach consisting of free-form arabesques of whipped cream sprinkled with lime-tree charcoal. Contra the blackest indigestion. Pro the whitest teeth."

I want to go on. I want to reprint the book in its entirety, here in this article, because every single entry outdoes itself in delicious absurdity. But space doesn't allow. Instead, tomorrow I'll share my own adventures in gastronomical gee-wizardry: the Futurist banquet Karen and I hosted stateside this spring.

Kate Bolick is a writer in New York. Her first book, a personal exploration of single women in America, will be published next year.

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