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

Down With History
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
July 1 2009 9:29 AM

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

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Click here to launch day 3 on the Futurists.

If there's one place the Futurists couldn't stand, it was Rome. You can't go a block in this city without stumbling over yet another ghastly ruin, yet another dreary museum with its "reservoirs of boredom and nausea." (That's from the "Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture.") One minute you might pass a lingerie shop with purple bras in the window; the next, you round a corner and run straight into the Pantheon. A 2,000-year-old temple right there in the middle of it all, en route to the gelato place and across the street from an ATM. Magic.

We'd spent the morning at the Villa Borghese museum, marveling over the cultural legacy that Marinetti loved to loathe: lush Caravaggio portraits, Bernini's transfixing marble sculptures. I kept circling back to Bernini's 17th-century masterwork "Rape of Proserpina." The indentations Pluto's fingers make in the back of Proserpina's thighs as she struggles from his grasp are almost unbearably lifelike. With a flash of sympathy, I wondered if this was how Marinetti felt—frozen in an eternal struggle to shake free of history, fearing, deep down, that he never would.

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As we make the obligatory walk across town to the Coliseum, I ask Rattawut what he thinks about my epiphany. He's a novelist and short-story writer; he knows how difficult it is to strive for originality. Can he imagine what it must have been like to come of age at the dawn of a new century, mired in a poor and backward-looking country, watching longingly from the sidelines as the rest of the world raced to embrace modernity? Maybe, I venture, Marinetti's bluster wasn't all arrogance—maybe it was also an inescapable sense of his own impotence, an unshakeable knowledge that the antiquated piles crowding his days would far outlast anything his puny, mortal self could ever accomplish.

"Yeah," Rattawut says. "If I were a teenager here, I can see lashing out at all these persistent reminders of needing to live in and extol a civilization that's clearly not around anymore."

We're leaning against a railing overlooking the Roman Forum. Below us, towering columns dwarf the meandering crowds. If you squint, you can almost pretend it's market day in the year 600 B.C.

"It's like we're at the very center of some kitschy epic," he adds.

When we finally reach the Coliseum, I'm fleeced by a pair of guys in ancient garb looking to make a fast euro off sightseers with cameras. They descend out of nowhere, grasp me in their clutches, and when Michael almost involuntarily snaps his shutter—how could he resist such a perfect photo-op?—hit me up for an ungodly amount of cash. Score one for history.

The next afternoon, art historian Ester Coen sneaks us into the exhibition she's curated at the Scuderie del Quirinale, an imposing 18th-century complex built on top of the Roman Temple of Serapide. It's the day before the opening, and assistant curators and lighting technicians scurry around nervously, making last-minute changes, as Coen, a serene, curly-haired Buddha, leads us through the galleries providing a thumbnail art history lesson. (Many of the pieces have since been absorbed into the recently opened Futurist exhibit at the Tate Modern, curated by Matthew Gale and on view through September 2009.)

After Marinetti's death in 1944, Coen explains, scholars avoided Futurism, nervous about its Fascistic involvements. There was a tiny posthumous blip in 1949, when Alfred H. Barr, the first director of New York's Museum of Modern Art, included Futurist works in his show "Twentieth-Century Italian Art"—his archives contain correspondence with various Futurists dating back to 1933—and then another in 1961, this time when MoMA devoted an entire exhibit to Futurism, but it took until the late 1980s for the toxicity to abate and interest to revive.

Futurism has since been divided by scholars into two phases. The first, 1909-14, is considered its creative flowering: Marinetti's founding manifesto immediately attracted Milanese painters Umberto Boccioni and Carlo Carra, who, combining elements of Neo-Impressionism and Cubism, flung themselves into demolishing Italy's long tradition of Romantic portraiture and landscapes by rendering the dynamism of modern life in paint. As they wrote the next year in their "Manifesto of the Futurist Painters":    

Our forebears drew their artistic inspiration from a religious atmosphere which fed their souls; in the same way we must breathe in the tangible miracles of contemporary life—the iron network of speedy communications which envelops the earth, the transatlantic liners, the dreadnoughts, those marvelous flights which furrow our skies, the profound courage of our submarine navigators and the spasmodic struggle to conquer the unknown. How can we remain insensible to the frenetic life of our great cities and to the exciting new psychology of night-life? … We will also play our part in this crucial revival of aesthetic expression: we will declare war on all artists and all institutions which insist on hiding behind a façade of false modernity, while they are actually ensnared by tradition, academicism and, above all, a nauseating cerebral laziness.

Their call to arms in turn attracted more artists, as well as musicians, architects, filmmakers, photographers—all of whom generated their own manifestos, from the "Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe" to the "Futurist Manifesto of Lust" to the "Manifesto of Futurist Architecture."

Coen has edited her show, which is concerned with this first phase, to illustrate the Futurists' relationship to Cubism. She hangs Marcel Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase" (1912), for instance, in the same room as Umberto Boccioni's "Dynamism of a Human Body" (1913). The conversation between the two paintings is remarkable: Where Duchamp captures the body's downward progress by breaking it into a stop-motion sequence of continuous shapes, Boccioni uses the same fractured geometry to evoke a collage of movements—running, stretching, turning—occurring simultaneously. Explicitly viewing the connections between the mostly obscure Futurist painters and big guns like Duchamp and Picasso is fascinating and makes it easier, frankly, to appreciate Futurism's legitimacy as an art movement. Many are large, colorful action scenes—a man riding a bicycle, farewells at a train station, soldiers marching, a woman walking a dog—splintered into countless shards meant to embody the essence of motion. Others feature landscapes seen from an aerial view, as if from an airplane.

Some of the paintings I love. But not many. And that's in part because of their context: To consider a Picasso, and then a work by a Futurist artist such as Gino Severini, is to understand why I've never heard of Severini before—he just wasn't as good. Art historian George Heard Hamilton (an early champion of Duchamp's) once summed up Futurist painting as "an unstable combination of Neo-Impressionist brushwork, harsh Expressionist color, and Cubist drawing." Indeed, by the time I hit my fourth and final Futurist exhibit at the end of the week, I'll actually sprint through the last five rooms, corneas itching, head throbbing, and collapse beside a bored and irritated Michael on a bench, hopeful that I'll never have to look at one of their busy, muddied canvases again.

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