On the occasion of the one hundredth anniversary of the Futurist Manifesto, art historian Maria Gough takes stock of the numerous exhibitions celebrating the movement this past summer, while writers Charlotte Birnbaum and Bruce Sterling muse on Futurism's legacy, from comestibles to combat.
ITALIAN FUTURISM TURNED ONE HUNDRED this past February, but nobody much celebrated--at least not any of the major museums on this side of the Atlantic. Conferences, new publications, and live readings of manifestos have certainly abounded, and this fall's extensive Performa will be devoted to the anniversary; yet with the exception of a cluster of vitrines in the basement of the Education and Research Building at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the "Speed Limits" show organized by the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal with the Wolfsonian-Florida International University in Miami Beach, the silence on the North American museum front has been stunning, particularly given Futurism's fundamental significance to the historical avant-gardes. But it has also been rather fitting: The Futurists, after all, wanted to destroy the museum, an institution they deplored as the absolute enemy of contemporary art. Whatever the intellectual, ideological, and pragmatic reasons for this current silence (for example, impatience with Futurism's Utopian claims, abhorrence of its call to purify society through war and of its scorn for women, or simply the fact that many of the best pictures were already out on loan), it could not contrast more dramatically with the museological clamor in Europe, where a gigantic, sprawling, and seemingly interminable birthday party has been in full swing for over a year.
Major centenary exhibitions have opened--two each in Milan, Rome, and Rovereto, Italy, and others in Venice, Berlin, Paris, and London. Most of these have produced scholarly catalogues, each heftier than the last, as well as a cacophony of symposia and concerts that have kept the crowds coming, sacerdotal and secular alike. At times, the party, like the movement itself, has spilled into the street: In homage to Futurism's enthusiasm for mechanized transit, a "FuturTram" trundled through downtown Milan this past spring, while the movement's forays into the kitchen were explored by the Taverna dei Futuristi in Rome, whose menu included risotto all'alchechingio, a primo piatto composed by Futurist poet Paolo Buzzi.
Anniversary exhibitions are typically timed to an individual artist's birth, but in this instance they celebrate a mass-media event, perhaps the first to have been orchestrated by an art-world representative: the publication of "The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism" on the front page of Le Figaro in Paris on February 20, 1909. Penned by the Alexandrian-born Franco-Italian poet F. T. Marinetti, whose primary literary language was French, the manifesto agitated for a radical presentism in both aesthetics and everyday life. Rejecting the past, Marinetti called for a vigorous embrace of modernity in all its most contemporary manifestations, particularly those having to do with the acceleration of our experiential reality: "A racing car ... is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace," he shouted at his unsuspecting readers.
It was not only the heretical content of this attack launched from Italy that inaugurated a new, all-encompassing platform for aesthetic theory and practice, however, but also its form of articulation as a manifesto--a genre borrowed from religious and political tracts, perhaps the most famous example being the Communist Manifesto. Add to this the unprecedented hijacking of the mainstream press by a young poet (thanks apparently to the assistance of an Egyptian ex-minister and epicure, one Pasha Mohammed el Rachi, who also happened to be a substantial shareholder in Le Figaro and an old friend of Marinetti's father), and one has all the major components of Futurism as it would henceforth develop, spreading rapidly from literature to painting, sculpture, architecture, music, theater, fashion, photography, and film. …