In 1906 Milan hosted the World Exhibition which, significantly, focused on the theme of transportation. The occasion for the exhibition was the inauguration of the spectacular Simplon Tunnel, connecting Milan to Europe’s major cities.
The opening up of commercial and cultural connections unleashed a burst of buoyancy. Milan became associated with the ﬁrst aesthetic movement to praise the potential of the modern metropolis.
The cult of technology was central to Italian Futurism. Whereas the Romantics had recoiled in horror from the machine, the Futurists embraced it with zeal. Futurist artists were inspired by the spectacle of industrialism. They intended to wrench Italy from her retrospective dream of an antique past into the dynamic world of the industrial present.
Futurists aimed at “killing the moonlight” in the surge towards a dynamic future of technological advancement. The moon was synonymous with superstition and Romantic myth. It had to be erased by the glare of man-made light bulbs. Giacomo Balla’s 1909 painting “Lampada ad arco” (Street Light) is the movement’s iconic image of the moon being subsumed by artificial street light. Tiny vectors of red, blue, and yellow spring forth from the radiating source of electrical illumination. The future was a light switch.
Milan & New York
The future began on February 20, 1909 when Filippo Tommaso Marinetti published his “Manifesto of Futurism” on the front page of Le Figaro. Written in assertive and quasi-militaristic style, it celebrated machine civilization. In this, his first of countless manifestos, he called for the replacement of an “anachronistic” and backward-looking society (promising to “destroy the museums, libraries, and academies of every kind”) with an alternative reality based on the ethic of speed and technology.
Marinetti, known as the “caffeine of Europe,” was a master in attracting attention. Launching a series of raucous campaigns, he traveled back and forth across the Continent, giving interviews, arranging meetings where he mocked “passéist” artists (his attack on John Ruskin during his visit to London was a notorious example). Champion of the grand tradition of “being booed,” he welcomed hostile responses to his crusade, viewing those as symptoms of its artistic vitality. Following in his footsteps, Futurist artists advocated radical social and cultural reform.
Inevitably, the noise reached New York. On December 24th, 1911, the magazine section of the New York Herald carried a full-page illustrated article entitled “The New Cult of Futurism Is Here.” The story was based on an interview with French-born André Tridon that took place at the artist’s studio in East 19th Street, Gramercy Park, Manhattan. Tridon was introduced as America’s “archpriest of Futurism.”
Paying tribute to Marinetti for naming the group of rebels, Tridon insisted that members of the movement shared a sound “contempt for tradition.” Shifting attention to the American cultural landscape, he attacked the “piffle” of literature because authors slavishly followed a “feeble” English tradition rather than looking ahead. In good Futurist fashion (Marinetti had declared “war” on pasta an absurd gastronomic religion), he drew a parallel with cooking: American cuisine was “almost as dreadful as cooking in England.” Art and literature needed a stronger stomach.
America’s greatest contribution to the arts according to Tridon was its capacity for creating a self-reliant architecture. Ridiculing the tendency to build banks and stock exchanges upon the models of ancient Greek temples, he juxtaposed a photograph of a cumbersome Neo-Classical building against a soaring skyscraper. Hygienic, attractive, and an economiser of effort and time, the skyscraper perfectly suited the needs of a metropolitan setting – it was ‘a perfect machine.’
Interestingly, Tridon’s reflections on modernist architecture preceded those of Marinetti. In 1913 the latter admitted that despite grand ambitions, Futurist architecture was a construct that remained unrealized. It was Milanese architect Antonio Sant’Elia whose name would become synonymous with Futurist urban planning. In 1914, he exhibited a series of visionary drawings for the “New City” and published a “Manifesto of Architecture” in which he envisaged the city as an integrated entity condensed around the central presence of a power station, the “cathedral of the electric religion.”
Sant’Elia died in October 1916 at the age of twenty-eight, killed in a war he and other Futurists had so enthusiastically embraced, thus leaving his imagined future for others to explore.
Armory No Show
Futurist painting first manifested itself outside Italy in a major touring exhibition at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery in Paris in February 1912 and then, after its London showing in March, moved on to Berlin, Brussels, and other European cities.
In London, the exhibition was shown at the Sackville Gallery and included thirty-four works by Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo, and Gino Severini. It received extensive press coverage. Marinetti gave a lecture at the Bechstein Hall in Wigmore Street, Westminster, which according to The Times reviewer was read in French with such an impassioned torrent of words that some of his audience “begged for mercy.”
By the time that the organizers of New York’s ground-breaking Armory show started their preparations (the exhibition opened in February 1913), American art lovers were relatively well informed about the new movement. They had seen reproductions of some paintings, come across citations from Futurist manifestos, and read an English translation of Boccioni’s preface to the original exhibition catalogue. All this produced a flurry of hostile commentary in the popular press.
The concept of Futurism that emerged from Tridon’s interview was that modernists should follow the Italian example, discard obsolete lessons from the past, and welcome the dynamic originality that modern technology brought to bear. From there it was a small step to conclude that Futurism was a mere manner of thinking that placed emphasis upon doing away with a stagnant past whilst glorifying movement and mobility.
Tridon was the first to articulate the persistent dichotomy between a definition of Futurism as an Italian manifestation and one encompassing avant-garde activity in general. It was this application of the term “futurist” to vanguard European art in general rather than specifically denoting the motion-driven movement originating in Milan, that infuriated Marinetti. He refused the invitation to take part in the Armory show.
By insisting that Futurism was a uniquely northern Italian movement, Marinetti proved himself to be as “parochial” as the idolaters of the past he so vehemently attacked. He failed to grasp the fact that New York could be precisely the fertile metropolitan environment that members of his movement yearned for.
In 1915 the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) was organized in San Francisco to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal and showcase to the world the city’s recovery from the devastating 1906 earthquake. The Fair offered visitors (almost nineteen million people paid a visit in the ten months of its duration) a view of the latest industrial developments; they could ride around a replica Grand Canyon; sail on a model of the Panama Canal; or be entertained by a rotation of bands and performers. The Palace of Education and Social Economy presented public health programs by promoting eugenics. Celebrating mankind’s forward march, attendees could enter a living Pueblo Village (Arizona) that was occupied by members of the Zuni and Hopi tribes. Progress was in that sense a sadly misconceived concept.
The PPIE also exhibited over 11,000 paintings, sculptures, prints, and photographs. Housed in national sections at the Palace of Fine Arts, visitors were presented with walls of paintings and large-scale murals.
A Norwegian by birth and a former student at Antwerp University, John Nilsen Laurvik had been an American resident since 1901. A prominent photographer, art critic for such papers as the New York Evening Post and the New York Times, and translator of Henrik Ibsen’s correspondence, he was a cosmopolitan intellectual. He served on the PPIE Art Commission and acted as Director for the Palace of Fine Arts. With war spreading throughout Europe, he still managed to secure works of art from a range of countries.
Having traveled to Venice, Laurvik arranged a meeting with Marinetti and persuaded him to send a collection of works to the Fair. The inclusion of a Futurist gallery was also supported by Marinetti’s friend Ernesto Nathan, Mayor of Rome, and Head of the Italian Commission to the PPIE. Assigned a gallery to themselves (Gallery 141), forty-seven paintings and two sculptures were exhibited. None of these works was reproduced in the official Fair’s catalogue, but Boccioni’s essay “The Exhibitors to the Public” which had appeared previously in exhibition catalogues in Paris and London was reprinted for the occasion.
It was the first time that a collection of Italian Futurist paintings was exhibited in the United States, but the movement was not made welcome in San Francisco. Futurism’s first decade had been its most explosive and innovative period, but the works on show received little attention other than journalistic derision and ridicule (a similar disinterest was evident in 1917 when Severini exhibited his work at New York’s Gallery 291 on Fifth Avenue).
After the First World War, the members’ intense nationalism led to an alliance with Italy’s National Fascist Party. Although Futurism continued to develop new areas of focus and attracted a ‘second generation’ of Futurist artist, its political association with Benito Mussolini was a further obstacle to a wider appreciation of the movement in American art circles.
With Italy’s return to democracy, a political push was advocated for the re-establishment of cultural exchange between the two nations. It was decided that New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) would hold an exhibition of Twentieth Century Italian Art in 1949, but its curators Alfred Barr and James Thrall Soby were confronted with a major hindrance: the sparsity of modern Italian art in American museums. From May to June 1948 they made a “grand tour” of Italy, not only to select exhibition materials but also to make a determined effort to fill the gap in MoMA’s holdings. Their endeavors made an impact. Today the Museum has a rich public collection of Futurist art.
Illustrations, from above: Lampada ad arco, 1909 by Giacomo Balla (Museum of Modern Art); Marinetti’s foundation manifesto of Futurism; portrait of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, 1915 by Carlo Carrà (Private collection); Power Station, In: La città nuova, 1914 by Antonio Sant’Elia; Dynamism of a Soccer Player, 1913 by Umberto Boccioni (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco); Danseuse blue = Blue Dancer, 1912 by Gino Severini (Private collection); Panama-Pacific International Exposition poster; and George Giusti’s catalogue cover for Twentieth-Century Italian Art exhibition. (MoMA).