Reevaluating Futurism

Lauren Kaplan
Apr 3, 2014 2:03AM

Italian Futurism is often considered a hawkish movement that was, for many years, in cahoots with Fascism. This impression is not wholly unwarranted, though it does deserve some careful parsing. Futurism lasted for thirty-five years, from 1909-1944, and throughout this long tenure, it passed through many phases, some more bellicose than others. 

In his founding manifesto of 1909, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti--a writer by training, and a brilliant organizer and publicist-- definitively declared: "No work without an aggressive character can be a masterpiece...We will glorify war--the world's only hygiene--militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for...." 

Indeed, much of the movement's early work, made in the years leading up to and during the First World War, had the 'aggressive character' and intensity that Marinetti called for. Boccioni's Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913) shows a steely, ironman-like figure striding forward. He is a perfect soldier, resembling an armored knight rather than a vulnerable man. Similarly, Giacomo Balla's abstract compositions, which show the interpenetration of light and color, answer Marinetti's call to depict speed and the direct sensation of dynamism. In sum, the Futurists initially aimed to "reconstruct the universe" by making it more robust, more energized, and more modern. Never once did their early manifestos--or the art that acted as the visual demonstration of these writings--aim to express emotion or sentimentality.

Then came the war, and for a brief moment, things shifted. Two of the movement's most creative minds, Boccioni and an architect named Antonio Sant'Elia were killed. Marinetti and others survived, temporarily softened by the experience. In 1921, Marinetti announced his First Manifesto of Tactilism. In it, he calls for artists to heal the "illness of the post-war period, giving humanity new and nutritious joys. ... Destroy the distances and the barriers that separate [humanity] in love and friendship." 

In an effort to strengthen human connections and empathy, Marinetti invented portable panels covered with variously textured materials meant to be felt with open hands and impotent eyes (either covered with a blindfold of blinded by bright light). Only a handful of these panels remain. The most famous one, titled Sudan-Paris, is comprised of rough sandpaper, sponges, wire brushes, and slick oil paint, all of which Marinetti felt to be suggestive of one locale or the other. The "viewer" was meant to experience those places by touching the panel.  

Why this sudden concern for "love and friendship," and more specifically, for tactile awareness? How can we square this sensitive experiment with Marinetti's earlier truculence? The reasons are multiple. As Emily Braun recently explained in a talk at the Guggenheim Museum, perhaps this shift can be attributed to Marinetti's recent encounter with Benedetta Cappa, a woman twenty years his junior, who had won his heart and collaborated with him on Sudan-Paris. Or perhaps it is linked to the then (and still) popular teachings of Maria Montessori, who used touch exercises as a way to teach mentally disabled children. But most likely, it can be traced back to Marinetti's time in the army. "It was precisely with giving myself over to this exercise [of touching] in the underground darkness of a trench in Gorizia, in 1917, that I made my first tactile experiments," he claims in the 1921 manifesto. During the war, Marinetti was faced with temporary blindness, while also seeing others become permanently sightless. As a way to rehabilitate these wounded Italian men, he generated a form of art that did not depend upon vision. 

Herein lies the thread of continuity. Marinetti's goal in 1909 was to strengthen Italy and make its men more virile; his goal remained the same in 1921, though he adapted his methods to meet the needs of a maimed populace. When, only three years later, Marinetti rejoined the Fascist party (he briefly defected in 1921) and wrote a new manifesto, "Futurism and Fascism," he returned to his prewar rhetoric, arguing once again for man to be a fighting machine ready for another military encounter. Unfortunately, this is the Marinetti--and the version of Futurism--that history remembers. 

To unpack the myriad phases of this multifaceted movement, join my class at the Guggenheim, based on the ongoing exhibition Italian Futurism 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe. Learn more here.  


Lauren Kaplan