AMMAN- Futurism is a 20th Century movement which found value in violence, virility, and novelty. It is often divided by historians into two phases: the “heroic” phase and “second-” generational Futurism. The former lasted from 1909 until about the end of the First World War, while the second followed closely after, ending with the death of the movement’s founder, Filippo Tomaso Marinetti, in 1944. While it was only during its second stage that Futurism directly supported the fascist government, it may be said that even before Benito Mussolini came to power, during the “heroic” period, the movement prefigured the ideals central to the fascist dogma: aggressive expansionism and Italian cultural supremacy.

The first and perhaps most crucial hallmark of Futurism is Marinetti’s original The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism, published in the Parisian newspaper Le Figaro in February 1909. Building his piece within a narrative scaffold, he employs figurative language and the tenets of romantic fiction to suspend the reader’s disbelief and establish the foundational values of Futurism within a hypothetical space before suggesting them as a model for real life. Marinetti also aptly uses the pronouns “we” and “us” to covertly invite the reader to partake in his adventure and, ultimately, share his vision. Before enumerating the fundamentals of Futurism, he scatters them in symbols throughout the tale: “forward sentries,” as a description of Marinetti’s clique, acts as a direct allusion to the avant-gardist nature of the movement. Phrases like “Centaur’s birth,” and “first flight of Angels” seem to impregnate the piece with connotations of birth and renewal, especially through violent means. When Marinetti scorns the “deceitful mathematics of [their] perishing eyes,” he is conveying the transhumanism of the Futurists: their belief in the quintessential role technology will play in the evolution of humankind on biological and societal levels. The Rock Drill, though by an Englishman, clearly exemplifies this fusion of humanity and machinery into a crude instrument of industry and maybe even war.

Sir Jacob Epstein, Torso in Metal from ‘The Rock Drill”, Bronze, 70.5 x 58.4 x 44.5 cm, 1913-14, Tate Britain.

It is after his allegory that Marinetti chooses to conceptually construct his movement by listing all its principles: “speed”, “danger” “energy”, “fearlessness”, “aggression”, “action”, and “the punch and the slap.” His ninth clause was likely the most contentious and the most obviously fascist:

We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, [and] beautiful ideas worth dying for.

However, the meaning behind the word “war” is subject to contestation. Critic Marjorie Perloff asserts that the true meaning of “war” in Marinetti’s manifesto is cultural revolution, as is evinced by his contrivance to “destroy the museums, libraries, [and] academies of every kind” rather than some enemy or a government. Yet, this clashes with the fact that Marinetti and other Futurists joined the sole military volunteer group in Italy, the Battalion of Volunteer Cyclists, wherein Umberto Boccioni, an integral figure, would die in a training exercise. Regardless of whether the Futurists fully anticipated the casualties to be incurred in WWI, the imperialistic irredentism they promoted coincides quite neatly with that of the fascists.

Umberto Boccioni, The City Rises, Oil on Canvas, 199.3 x 301 cm, 1910, New York.

While Marinetti writes that the Futurists “will sing of multi-coloured polyphonic tides of revolution in the modern capitals,” his metaphors are reified on canvases by the likes of Boccioni. His painting, The City Rises, seems to perfectly imagine the above statement: technicoloured tumult transpires in a crowded courtyard around which a city literally seems to buoy. His style only amplifies this semblance of chaos, movement, and intensity through the use of bright, saturated colours which shoot across the canvas in almost violent dashes, rendering the image mobile despite the motionless medium. Carlo Carrà’s more politically informed Funeral of the Anarchist Galli similarly depicts “great crowds excited by [the] work” of carrying Galli’s coffin through a funeral which eventually erupted with havoc, the ruckus emphasized by the abstraction.

Carlo Carrà, Funeral of the Anarchist Galli, Oil on Canvas, 198.7 x 259.1 cm, 1910-11, New York.

Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, a sculpture by Boccioni, is often cited as a linchpin of Futurism. It features an armless humanoid taking a large, bombastic, and almost exhausting step forward. The form is ethereal and hard all at once, as if to depict the way it carves its path through space and time. Journalist Jon Mann suggests that the faceless figure forms a parable of Italy’s own pursuit of modernity. The original statue was made of plaster, a material much less durable than bronze, under the pretext that the work should be demolished or left to decay independently when time wears its originality and future generations come to redefine society and culture in the way the Futurists aimed to. It is with this same melodramatically relentless devotion to the Futurist cause that Marinetti ends his manifesto: with an image of his cadre “crouched beside [their] trembling airplanes,” waiting to be thrown “in the wastebasket like useless manuscripts” by the innovators of the future.

Umberto Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, bronze, 121.3 x 88.9 x 40 cm, 1913 (cast 1950), Milan.

However, as art critic Morgan Meis claims, the Futurists were among the many victims of the “trap of newness.” He casts shame on their work by exposing their artistic practices as hypocritical, drawing inspiration from avant-garde movements around them instead of developing their own unique and, more pertinently, new style. Boccioni’s The City Rises betrays a strong Neo-Impressionist influence, while Carrà’s piece is blatantly a cubist one –some sources reveal that after visiting an exhibition of Picasso and Braque’s work in the Salon d’Automne in 1912, he reworked his preliminary sketches of the work, incorporating elements of geometrical abstraction epitomic of the Cubists. To add to the complicated context of Funeral of the Anarchist Galli, its subject matter is banal and recalls medieval battle paintings.

The irony is even crueler for Unique Forms: at odds with his Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture, Boccioni’s artwork mostly comprises organic, curvy lines and portrays a nude, which is a traditional subject. Long after the artist’s death in 1916, his plaster testament to the ephemerality of culture was cast in bronze and featured on the 20-cent Euro, officially immortalizing it. Meis even goes so far as to disinter the parallels between this sculpture and the Hellenistic Victory of Samothrace which Marinetti derides in his manifesto. However, despite Meis’ libels, the Futurists still managed to challenge and shake the very spiritual basis which the public believed to constitute civilization. To add, although the Futurists utilized the stylistic conventions innovated by Cezanne, the cubists, and the impressionists, they turned to more dynamic subject matter and made velocity their primary focus, rejecting the typically static subject matter of previous art.

The Winged Victory of Samothrace, Marble, 244 cm, 200-190 B.C., Paris.

Most educators tend to define Futurism as an art movement. However, the truth is far more intricate. Although Marinetti started the movement as a literary one, upon attracting the attention and cooperation of artists such as Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, and Luigi Russolo, it gradually extended its borders into the visual arts, birthing more manifestos to commemorate this. When one recognizes that Giacomo Balla and Fortunato Depero would incorporate the Futurist spirit into fashion design and that Marinetti and Luigi Colombo would write The Manifesto of Futurist Cooking in 1930, it becomes clear that Futurism was intended as a lifestyle and not merely as a style of art-making as other modernist movements like Impressionism were. Anne Bowler, in her 1991 essay, Politics as Art: Italian Futurism and Fascism, describes this as the “sublation of art into a new revolutionary praxis that would transform the organizational fabric of everyday life.”

Sketches by Giacomo Balla for his Neutral Suit

For one, Marinetti held “Serata Futurista” (Futurist evenings): vivacious happenings combining performance art, lectures, and poetry recitals aiming to provoke the viewer enough to instigate a response, obliging them to become “a part of the artwork.” Aiding the Futurist campaign to integrate art into all aspects of life and to politicize it, many of these early performances promoted Mussolini‘s Fascio d’Azione Rivoluzionaria. A significant reason behind holding these events was Marinetti’s awareness that writing books and manifestos was not enough to garner a wide enough audience, and so he turned to variety theatre and elaborate media campaigns to propagate his Futurist ideology, which Boris Groys sees as “kind of nostalgic re-enactment of nineteenth-century terrorism.” Even as a soldier, Marinetti was given a prerogative which allowed him to travel across Italy, disseminating his creed through theatre and lecture. This demonstrates what Maria Popova described as Marinetti’s “shrewdness as a publicist.”

Moreover, The Futurist Cookbook, published in 1932 by Marinetti, is what historian Lesley Chamberlain deemed “a provocative work of art disguised as an easy-to-read cookbook.” Indeed, the cookbook was less of a nutritional treatise and more an act of cultural electrification, razing the rudiments of classical cuisine in favour of new, bizarre ones –an allegory of the aggression, radicalism, and obsession with novelty at the heart of Futurism. It presented a new methodology of eating which embraced originality, creativity, sensory intensity, diversity, velocity, technology, and an optimism which countered the WWI pessimism pervading Europe. As part of his countercultural gastronomy, Marinetti launched an ambush against the most sacrosanct of Italian foods: pasta.

Marinetti’s justification was that pasta rendered one lethargic, inactive, and neutral, and thus unaccommodated to the haste of the modern world. Coincidentally enough, his defamation of the Italian staple was in line with Mussolini’s own economic stratagems. Mussolini’s motives for changing the Italian diet were based on the fact that pasta was derived from wheat, which was not sufficiently produced by the 20th Century Italian agricultural sector. Therefore, in order to achieve autarky and economic growth, he was beholden to encourage the consumption of such products as rice, citrus, and grapes; he launched his Battle of the Grain, held official “rice days” wherein free samples and recipes were distributed, founded a National Rice Board, and incentivized wheat producers.

In any case, when Mussolini ruled over Italy, he was not as stylistically scrupulous as he was thematically restrictive, and so long as “second” Futurism served the fascist state, it was permitted to carry on, though it did so in a feeble manner. In a discourse about the significance of Futurism in fascist Italy, whether the art produced by its proponents was original or not is only relevant insofar as it discloses the seemingly paradoxical habit both Futurists and Fascists had of shunning the past whilst yearning for its glory. Additionally, the opportunistic way in which the Futurists borrowed from various other avant-gardists allowed the movement an extended lifetime –more time to serve Mussolini’s machine. This allowed Futurism to imbue the populace with a proto-Fascist sentiment, making them more willing to accept and even extol Mussolini upon his rise and during his rule. It would also hone Marinetti’s skills as a propagandist during Mussolini’s reign.

Towards the end of the 19th Century, Europe was preoccupied with the ideological implications of a judicial scandal in France having to do with the false conviction of the Jewish general Alfred Dreyfus. The case embodied the essential struggle of modernity: that between individual liberties and the Reason of State. It may be suggested that the rise of fascism was largely due to some misinterpretation of French scandal by Italians. I propose this because, on one hand, Fascism is a movement of reactionary, totalitarian politics: it advertises the subordination of the individual to the state, and this principle is evident in the lack of individuality and identity in the human figures depicted in all the Futurist works cited above. Such a system may have appealed to Italians who were distraught due to the failures of their own government’s venture into liberal democracy. On the other hand, Fascism and Futurism also exalted a revolution such as the one they had seen in France, one that would overturn all the corrupt debacles of Italian governance to erect a new, unifying structure. What may have made this desirable to the Italian petty bourgeois was its incidence in other European states which happened to be more economically successful. The Dreyfus case distempered the Italian spirit by inspiring in it a neo-classicist nostalgia for the glory of the Holy Roman Empire which was simultaneously contradictory and complementary to a disdain for all traditionalism.

Italy in the early 20th Century –and today- rested on an immense amount of cultural heritage since it had been one of the artistic centres of the Renaissance and had also nurtured renowned figures of the Baroque and Romantic periods. These artefacts were venerated by the public and protected in museums by seemingly sanctimonious cultural establishments that revered traditionalism in all aspects of life. Considering that the Impressionists were creating a spectacle in Paris and even Germany fell under its own Expressionists, a certain middle class stratum of Italian youths may have come to associate their country’s socio-economic backwardness with its lack of a modernist art movement. This made them more prone to support the Futurists, who preached a total annihilation of all convention such that a new mode of society, a modern one, was established. As Meis summarises: “Futurism and fascism were both about restoring order in a disordered world.”

Moving on, one might also benefit from studying the biographies of Marinetti and Mussolini. The leaders of the two movements allegedly befriended each other after being arrested together following a pro-war demonstration before WWI’s outbreak. The casual encounter exposes a deep truth about their mindsets: a passion for belligerence and war as a means of achieving glory. More formally, in 1918, Marinetti helped create the Futurist Political Party, which would form a coalition with the Fascists the next year to form the Fascist Party, to which’s central committee he would be elected. What is more, the two also shared common childhood experiences, both having grown up in a context of anarchist bombing and political assassination, such as those of Alexander II and Umberto I. When Italy had declared neutrality at the beginning of WWI, both Marinetti and Mussolini had rallied forth with interventionist enterprises, the former hosting provocative performances in spaces the latter would soon cast his orations in. Nonetheless, Bowler describes Futurism as doomed from the moment of its inception due to the innate incongruence between its aesthetics and politics, which in turn caused an eventual rift with Fascism when Mussolini would routinize his ideology as El Duce and seek out politically practical compromises rather than anarchically Futurist aesthetic ideals.

In 1920, Marinetti resigned as the Futurist party began to crumble due to the tension between its socialist members and Mussolini’s increasingly anti-socialist policies. He would go on to revive Futurism after its wartime abeyance by focusing his energies on Artecrazia, a Futurist newspaper that would eventually terminated by the Fascist government in 1939. Mussolini would also refuse to make Futurism the “official state-approved art of Italy.” These actions seem to contrast Marinetti’s 1923 profession of his allegiance to the Fascist regime in the Manifesto to the Fascist Government, his 1929 appointment in the Academia d’Italia by Mussolini, as well as the dictator’s boycotting the Nazi’s exhibition of Futurist art as “degenerate art.” Mussolini and Marinetti’s relationship does not seem to have been a simple one, with the former at one point describing the latter as a “dear old friend from the first Fascist battles” and the latter calling the former a “megalomaniac.”. Even when it came to pasta, Mussolini was not as ardently averse to it as Marinetti, perhaps because of its importance to the Italian people and his need of popularity rather than infamy.

Noting that Marinetti served as an officer in the Abyssinian invasion and volunteered on the Russian front during WWII, even well into his sixties, it may be deduced that his dedication to Fascism, Futurism, and the ideals which gave soil to them lasted a lifetime. Considering that he was the force central to Futurism, especially once it was championed by a second generation of post-WWI creatives, then his actions and creative decisions were likely to have driven the direction of Futurism on par with that of fascism; he orchestrated a movement that spread through Italian consciousness the values of fascism, creating subliminal propaganda for Mussolini before the authoritarian even came to power and well after. It was what Bowler termed as the “aestheticization of politics and everyday life” which made Futurism successful at this and truly avant-gardist. Philosopher and historian Benedetto Croce described Futurism as the ideological origin of Fascism, and indeed it can be seen as such as well as a vehicle through which the fascist regime sustained its popularity in mainstream media.

Essay was originally written for a History course, slight edits have been made to adjust to artmejo house rules.
Read more from Jad Dahshan.
All image courtesy indicated in captions.

Jad Dahshan

I am an art history student from Amman studying at the University of Chicago, with a special interest in materiality, theory, and contemporary art, especially of the Arab World. I write for the Chicago Maroon and UChicago Arts Blog and perform as an aerialist with the Le Vorris & Vox Circus. Occasionally I illustrate at @sad_with_a_j on Instagram.

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