ON 15 OCTOBER 1908, A YOUNG, SELF-AGGRANDISING AND WEALTHY ITALIAN POET CALLED FILIPPO TOMMASO MARINETTI crashed his new Fiat sports car into a ditch on the northwestern edge of Milan while avoiding an errant cyclist. No one was hurt much in the incident, though the four-cylinder Kaiserpreis Replica was quite badly damaged.
Marinetti and his mechanic--for in the early days of motoring a sports car and its driver needed one--were rescued, oddly enough, by two real racing drivers, Vincenzo Trucco and Vittorio Giovanzani of the Isotta Fraschini factory, out for a morning test run on public roads. Motoring accidents were a more novel aspect of life then than they are now, but this one was to have a very particular effect on the history of modenist art, on the cultural response to the development of industrial and governmental modernity. Thanks to Marinetti's re-casting of the incident, a bit of a do on the Via Domodossola was turned into a seminal motif in the emergence of Futurism. The car was vital to Futurism; indeed, to contemporary sceptics it was perhaps, as Percy Wyndham Lewis scoffed in the first issue of BLAST, little more than 'a hullabaloo about motors'.
'The Futurist Manifesto', first published in December 1908 in the little magazine Poesia but gaining most of its subsequent notoriety through its front page publication in the Parisian newspaper Le Figaro in February 1909, used Marinetti's crash to symbolise the violent collision of dynamic industrial modernity with a passive, sentimental and slow-moving past.
We know all about Futurism, or we think we do: the first modernist movement to issue a manifesto; the first modernist movement to endorse without qualification the effects of industrial modernity upon the human body and psyche; a celebration of speed, power, technology, violence and masculinity; eventually an aesthetic programme that rejoices in war--'the hygiene of society'-which after 1918 quickly degenerates into support for Mussolini's right-wing ideas. Its visual art is that of Umberto Boccioni, Giacomo Balla, Carlo Carra, Gino Severini; the art of the dynamics of bodies in space and time, fragmented into the shattered, interpenetrating planes of 2-D painting, reconstituted in attempts to render the stasis of sculpture as mobility of both subject and spectator; the art of manic dancers and scurrying dogs, straining horses and rattling trams, surging trains, swooping aircraft and bustling metropolises.
On the margins there are abandoned experiments with the technologies of modernity as the bases of new arts that might synthesise experience rather than focus it within the rhetorics of specific media: Luigi Russolo's 'machine music'; Anton Giulio Bragaglia's chrono-photography; Bruno Corra and Armaldo Ginna's proposed hand-painted, abstract films with their debt to the various notions of music and colour that circulated in the 1910s. Futurism, so alembicated, looks from here, and indeed--if you were a Purist--looked, as early as the 1920s, like a compendium of all the mistaken assumptions and investments that modern artists could make about and within the times in which they lived: wrong politics, wrong aesthetics, wrong rhetoric both in content and in application. If Modernism is propelled, as TJ Clark argues, by a dialectic of horrified fascination with modernity, then these macho boys were at the far end of fascination, where the experiments with language transformed it into Fascismo.
However, we have now reached the centennial year of Futurism's founding, an apparently necessary point for its reappraisal and explanation. Futurism had, of course, already entered the academy well before this, become part of what its participants would have understood, with extreme revulsion, as the 'passeist' pursuit of art history, researched by dull professors such as myself, removed from the sphere of …