Visual Arts: Metal Machine Music Futurism Emerged at the Turn of the Century, Flick-Knives Flashing, from the Mean Streets of Milan - More of a Marketing Campaign Than an Artistic Movement, and a Fascist One to Boot. but How Else to Sell the Romance of the Machine?
Bayley, Stephen, The Independent (London, England)
Archaeologists can accurately date any civilisation simply by looking at its vision of the future. Few things are more historically specific, more evocative of temporary local concerns, than the artistic expression of our expectations. Futurism was Italy's first contribution to modern art: an eclectic body of painters, pamphleteers, controversialists and typographers, brought together by a journalist and prankster of genius called Emilio Filippo Tommaso Marinetti.
At the time Italy was the most technically backward of the advanced countries. This, of course, encouraged a belief in the infinite possibilities of the future. It's a curiosity of modernism that the most extreme expressions of the desire for progress came not from Paris and New York, but from pre-industrial centres. The constructivist El Lissitzky and the Suprematist Kasimir Malevich came from the meanest, remotest oblasti of imperialist Russia. For them, modernism offered a clean redemption from the grime of serfdom. But Marinetti was not from Siberia. He was from Milan (although the fact that his famous "Futurist Manifesto" was published in Paris, in Le Figaro, says all you need to know about contemporary Milanese mass media).
What was Marinetti's Milan like? Baedeker in 1899 comforts travellers that hotels "of the first class have lifts" (a comment eloquent of the others) and helpfully adds that a fiacre from the central station to the Duomo might cost 50 centesimi. It was the town of white marble and veal cutlets. The great Edwardian gourmet traveller, Colonel Newnham-Davies, describes the hilarious atmosphere of the restaurant Savini and says "a fire or a revolution could not excite the waiters more than their ordinary duties do". The Savini is still there. Bersaglieri officers strolled down the Galleria. They still do. Just as Marinetti was limbering up to denounce fine art and advocate racing cars and machine-guns in its place, Puccini was just finishing La Fanciulla del West. Given Marinetti's distaste for gallery art, it is perhaps not surprising that Futurism's paintings are the least impressive of its achievements. With their roots in symbolism, but giving a nod to contemporary scientific interests in speed, the pictures of Giacomo Balla, Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carra, Gino Severini, Luigi Russolo and Ardengo Soffici are in truth only art historical curiosities. Instead, the great expression of Futurism was in typography and in performance. And here is Futurism's significance: it realised the mood of the moment, captured and projected it. "Zang Tumb Tumb" was Marinetti's onomatopoeic poem about cannon used in the Balkan War of 1912. Later, Marinetti performed an acoustic poem about an aerial dogfight in which he made all the noises of the planes and the guns himself. This was before the talkies. Marinetti wanted to destroy libraries, although, like Nicholas Negroponte of MIT's media lab who had to write a book to describe the awesomeness of Being Digital, the Futurists were equally committed to the expressive power of print. During the life of Futurism, more than 300 books and manifestos of one sort or another appeared. "My revolution," Marinetti wrote "is aimed at the so-called harmony of the page, which is contrary to the flux and reflux, the leaps and burst of style that run through the page. On the same page, therefore, we will use three or four colours of ink, or even 20 different typefaces if necessary. For example: italics for a series of similar or swift sensations, boldface for violent onomatopoeias and so on." The concept was styled parole-in- liberta, or words-in- freedom. If the effect is not always comfortable, then you must remember that Marinetti had no interest in maintaining the smug and easy conventions of the old culture. Futurism is rebarbative. It is about lust and destruction, not love and creation. Music should be replaced by noise. Factor in a strong misogynist element, a love of speed and car crashes - also an influence on Puccini - and you realise there are no cliches here. …