Italian Futurism, Avant-Garde Spasm, Predicted Fascism

Italian Futurism-the Futurism now on display in the Guggenheim’s oddly organized Boccioni’s Materia: A Futurist Masterpiece and the Avant-Garde in Milan and Paris -was one of the shortest-lived avant-garde movements of the 20th century. Less than a decade elapsed between Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s publication of the first Futurist manifesto in Le Figaro in Paris in 1909 and the demise of the movement in 1916, in the midst of World War I’s carnage. Yet owing to the incendiary character of its rhetoric, the violence of its actions and the radicalism of its politics, Futurism commanded the kind of attention that art by itself can rarely muster. It bought to a somnolent public the provocations of a counterculture that promised to unburden Italy, and possibly all of Europe, of the suffocating constrictions of antiquated tradition, and it did so in the name of a modernity that for much of the public-but especially the entrenched cultural hierarchies-was barely distinguishable from programmatic barbarism.

“We wish to glorify war-the only health giver of the world,” Marinetti declared, and went on to amplify his belligerent program with war cries designed to cause panic: “We will destroy the museums, the libraries, to fight against moralism, feminism and all opportunistic and utilitarian mean-nesses.” Or this: “Come then, the good incendiaries, with their charred fingers! … Here they come! Here they come! … Set fire to the shelves of the libraries! Deviate the course of canals to flood cellars of the museums! Oh may the glorious canvasses drift helplessly! Seize pickaxes and hammers! Sap the foundations of the venerable cities!”

At the same time, Marinetti announced a new aesthetic-the aesthetic of mechanization and speed: “We declare that the world’s splendor has been enriched by a new beauty; the beauty of speed. A racing motor car, its frame adorned with great pipes, like snakes with explosive breath … a roaring motor car, which looks as though running on shrapnel, is more beautiful than The Victory of Samothrace .”

The Futurists did manage to provoke some riotous response, but more often in theaters-where they staged what would later be called “happenings”-than in the streets. In the end, of course, nobody set fire to the libraries, and the museums weren’t flooded, either. And the single greatest sculpture produced by the Futurists-Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913)-is as benign a work of art as The Victory of Samothrace , and may even be said to bear a certain resemblance to it.

As for the notion that war is “the only health giver of the world,” it was the real-life horror of the First World War that wrote finis to the Futurist fantasy of salvation by violence. And the political fallout from Futurism was anything but benign. As the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce wrote in 1924: “For anyone who has a sense of historical connections, the ideological origins of Fascism can be found in Futurism, in the determination to go down into the streets, to impose their own opinions, to stop the mouths of those who disagree, not to fear riots or fights, in this eagerness to break with all tradition, in this exaltation of youth which was characteristic of Futurism.” Marinetti was, in fact, a devoted supporter of Mussolini.

Viewers familiar with this historical background, especially the movement’s anti-feminist rhetoric, may find the exhibition Boccioni’s Materia to be something of a conundrum, for the show includes many affectionate images of Boccioni’s mother, his sister and an unidentified seamstress. Indeed, The Story of a Seamstress (1908) is one of the best paintings in the exhibition, and so is The Triptych: We Venerate the Mother (1907-8). Neither of these conforms to the Futurist style or its anti-feminist cant. At best, they might be described as “pre-Futurist.”

As for the show’s vaunted “masterpiece,” the Boccioni portrait of his mother called Materia (1912), it’s only a masterpiece by Futurist standards, and it’s certainly less interesting than Boccioni’s The Street Enters the House (1911), which attempts to do something more than give Parisian Cubism an Italian accent. Materia is a painstakingly overworked canvas; so much effort is made to disguise its Cubist origins that it collapses under the weight of its own incoherence. Imagine a cemetery where myriad Cubist skeletons have come back to haunt the Futurist gravediggers.

Fortunately, there’s much to enjoy in the show’s non-Futurist paintings by members of the Paris avant-garde. In this section of the Materia exhibition, there are real masterpieces by Picasso, Braque, Juan Gris, Fernand Léger, Robert Delaunay and-a surprise to me-Albert Gleizes, whose Portrait of Jacques Nayral (1911) is a knockout.

The catalog of the Materia show provides one of the most extensive examinations of the relation of Futurist painting to Parisian Cubism that has lately been attempted. I think it’s silly to stigmatize Cubism as “Salon” art, as one contributor attempts to do, but otherwise the catalog is a very accomplished work. Which is more than can be said for the exhibition itself.

Boccioni’s Materia: A Futurist Masterpiece and the Avant-Garde in Milan and Paris remains on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through May 9.