ITALIAN FUTURISM AND THE FIRST WORLD WAR
By Selena Daly
University of Toronto Press. 265 pages. £44.99. ISBN 978-1-4426-4906-4
Reviewed by Jim Burns
It isn’t true to say that Filipo Tommaso Marinetti single-handedly created the Futurist movement in the early 1900s, but it’s difficult to get away from the idea that, without him, it may never had the impact that it did. He co-ordinated activities, put people in touch with each other, drew up manifestos, helped start magazines and newspapers, wrote novels and critical essays, publicised Futurist events, and generally shaped the direction that it would take. Other artists and writers were present, but it was Marinetti who represented Futurism in the minds of the general public.
It was certainly Marinetti who first drew international attention to Futurism when, in 1909, he published a manifesto on the front page of the Parisian daily newspaper, Le Figaro. It was a manifesto designed to shock the bourgeoisie with its many outrageous statements:
“We want to glorify war – the only cure for the world – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for women. We want to demolish museums, libraries and academies of all kinds, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice”.
There was much more, including an advocacy of “a new beauty: the beauty of speed”, and “great-breasted locomotives, puffing on the rails like enormous steel horses”, and “the gliding flight of aeroplanes”. It was the modern world that Marinetti was celebrating, in order to deliver Italy from “that spineless worshipping of old canvases, old statues and old bric-à-brac”, and to stand “against everything which is filthy and worm-ridden and corroded by time”.
It might be worth noting what Gino Severini, one of the signatories of the manifesto, recalled of its publication when writing his autobiography, The Life of a Painter (Princeton University Press, 1995). Severini, who was living in Paris, claimed that he only signed because his friend, Umberto Boccioni, asked him to lend support to the fledgling Futurist movement. He talked to the Italian artist, Amadeo Modigliani, who advised against participating. When the manifesto appeared in print: “The art world had a good laugh about the whole thing, and I was not spared their jibes. Modigliani was fierce; as for Picasso, with whom I later discussed it, his opinion is easily imagined”.
The demonstrations, performances, and other activities staged by the Futurists in Italy were designed to antagonise. And they succeeded, though sometimes the reactions ranged from mockery to anger. They were, in many ways, precursors of the Dadaists and Surrealists. But the liveliness and inventiveness of Futurist artists shouldn’t be underestimated. Painters such as Gino Severini, Umberto Boccioni, Giacomo Balla, and Cario Carrà were producing fascinating work, with an influence from Cubism, before the First World War. Severini, in particular, had spent time in Paris, knew various painters, and so was familiar with all the latest innovations in art.
When the war broke out in August, 1914, Italy was not initially involved. However, there was a significant surge of anti-German, and particularly anti-Austrian feeling which lent itself to demands for Italy to throw in its lot with France, Britain, and Russia. Marinetti and some other Futurists were active in calling for the country to go to war, as might be expected if one took their manifesto at face value. When Italy did declare war on Germany and Austria in May, 1915, they quickly volunteered. Not all of the Futurists were as keen to be involved in fighting as Marinetti was, and Carrà and Severini distanced themselves from Marinetti. In a way, this early rift in the group perhaps hinted at later differences about the role of the Futurists. Were they artists or political activists, and could the two commitments be productively combined?
It’s interesting that, during the pro-intervention period prior to May, 1915, the figure of Benito Mussolini appeared on the scene, and it is suggested that Marinetti, knowing that Mussolini “was one of the most well-known agitators for intervention on a national scale attempted to attach himself to Mussolini’s name and persona in order to attract maximum attention at the demonstration”. I have to say that, from what I’ve read about Marinetti, he was always an opportunist, even if it seemed to be to further the cause of Futurism rather than himself. Mussolini was also an opportunist, so they had much in common, both personally and politically.
Selena Daly’s well-researched and documented account of the Futurist involvement in the First World War doesn’t spend a lot of time looking into what Futurism was in terms of its artistic aims. Her intention is to focus on how Marinetti and the others responded to the call to arms, and how Futurism fared in a war setting. Marinetti, Boccioni and several others were quick to enlist and joined the Lombard Battalion of the Volunteer Cyclists and Motorists, a unit which attracted writers, artists and, intellectuals, and was not looked on kindly by officers of the regular Italian Army. The volunteers tended to be less amenable to discipline than other soldiers. Artists, writers, and intellectuals frequently have an individual approach to rules and regulations that obviously clashes with military ideas of good order.
After a time, the Volunteer Cyclists and Motorists unit was broken up and its members transferred to various regiments of the Italian Army. Marinetti eventually became an officer and served with an Alpine Battalion. It’s interesting to note how he saw the war in the mountains:
“Marinetti transformed the Alpine landscape so that the experience of mountain combat would conform to Futurist visions of technologically advanced and industrialised modernity. The man-made environment transformed by war, surpassed the traditional religious and nostalgic associations of nature and landscape”.
Marinetti also used his military service as an opportunity to promote the Futurist cause, giving talks and encouraging soldiers to read Futurist texts. It’s not easy to know what kind of responses he received when he spoke of the wonders of war, and warned against the duplicity of women who might get up to all sorts of mischief while their men were in the trenches. Daly more than once says that: “Futurist testimonies are often unreliable sources of evidence”, so we have to be careful when reading their accounts of success in persuading people to be interested in the Futurist programme. Marinetti may have convinced a few officers, who perhaps already knew about Futurism from its pre-war antics, but there appears to be little or no records of how the rank-and-file reacted. I’d guess that most ordinary soldiers, especially conscripts, might have come up with a fairly robust reaction when told about the glory to be gained from losing a leg or being killed.
To be fair to Marinetti, he wasn’t just a behind-the-lines propagandist, encouraging others to do what he would never do himself, and he served with distinction at the front. His military involvements worked in his favour after the war, as did those of some other Futurists. People were more-inclined to look favourably on Futurist art and performances, though it helped that there had been a general toning down of the anti-bourgeois rhetoric that had characterised Futurist activities before 1914. There was a turn towards what was termed, “moderate Futurism”.
For obvious reasons, Futurist painting had taken something of a back-seat during the war, but there were several publications which, in one way or another, continued to further the interests of the Futurists. The immediate post-war period found Marinetti forming a Futurist Political Party. And in 1919 he stood for election as a Fascist candidate. There was a strong Futurist presence when Mussolini formed his Fasci di Combattimento. The Futurist Political Party was never popular in the sense of attracting a wide membership, or achieving substantial votes at elections, though it did have some support among the Arditi, the elite troops (and proto-Fascists) that Marinetti favoured. But he soon dissolved the Party, and began to announce that he had no interest in politics.
He returned to the artistic side of Futurism and saw potential for advancing its interests through theatrical performances and the new-medium of film. And he continued to write.
Futurism didn’t fizzle out after its brief moment of fame during and just after the war. It’s not within Daly’s remit to tell us what happened to the Futurists, but it’s worth making a few observations on the later activities of one or two of the leading lights of the movement. As noted earlier, Carrà and Severini had drifted away from Marinetti, and Daly points to Carràs “conversion to metaphysical painting”. Boccioni had died during the war, as had Sant’Elia. Balla moved towards designing furniture and clothing which took the Futurist idea in a decorative direction. Fortunato Depero did a variety of things, including interior decoration, furniture design, and tapestries. Gino Severini, who had moved to France at the start of Italy’s venture into war, came back to Italy and turned to religious paintings later in life. Although the Futurists were still producing manifestos (Marinetti, Balla, Depero, and some younger artists, were behind one in 1929), I very much have the feeling that people were operating more as individuals, rather than as members of a functioning and influential movement.
It needs to be acknowledged that the Futurists links to Italian Fascism can be disturbing. Marinetti’s pronouncements on the virtues, as he saw them, of violence, war, emphatic modernisation, and similar topics, may appear foolish now, but at the time they certainly seemed to correspond to some of the aims of the Fascists. They wanted to turn Italy into a more modern country, though their methods might not have appealed to everyone. Economically, they thought that a corporate state, with labour and business combining to boost production and eliminate class differences, could lead to modernisation. So, in some ways, the interests of the Futurists in wanting to use all the elements of modernism – mechanisation, speed, etc. – did, on the surface, seem to have a relationship of sorts to Fascism. And, of course, the Fascists’ militarism would have appealed to Marinetti, at least, as would the Fascist desire to create a new Italian Empire. I’m simply trying to suggest why some impressionable young men might have been inclined to see certain virtues in Fascist theories.
Selena Daly’s account is, as stated in the title of her book, essentially about Futurist fortunes around the time of the First World War. And, from that point, of view, it is highly successful. With a multitude of notes, and a large bibliography (the two total over one hundred pages) it will surely become a standard work on the subject.
Before leaving the Futurists, it occurs to me to point out that, however one feels about Marinetti’s views on war, the art work produced by several of the Futurist painters is still worth looking at. In fact, I’d go as far to say that the best of it can stand comparison with most of the work by Cubists, Surrealists, and others from the same period. We perhaps don’t get too many opportunities to see Futurist work in Britain, though I recall an excellent Fortunato Depero exhibition at the Lowry in Salford in 2001. And a visit to the small, but fascinating Estorick Collection in North London is always a pleasure. It specialises in 20th century Italian art and has some good examples of Futurist paintings. Later this year, there will be an exhibition of work entitled Giacomo Balla: Designing the Future. Marinetti’s shrill and often silly demands for blood and thunder are now just a matter of historical record, and can be treated as such, but the paintings of the Futurists continue to intrigue.