“Why should we look back, when what we want is to break down the mysterious doors of the Impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. ” So announced Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s in his 1909 ‘Fondazione e Manifest del Futurismo’ (The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism).
Along with all other forces of Modernism the Futurists were both agents and reflections of the change in Western societies at the beginning of the 19th century. A true force for the fantastic, they rejoiced in the consequences of the scientific and industrial. Futurism though is much neglected. The reckless language of its founders, the advocacy of war, anti-feminism and extreme patriotism has undermined its position at the epicentre of Modernism.
The Effects of Urbanisation
The certainties of 19th Century formality and the figurative, descriptive in art, the search for classical notions of ‘truth’ and ‘beauty’ that lay, for instance, within the paintings of Alma Tadema, the music of Schumann, the novels of George Eliot, were all undermined by rapid undustrialisation. This ineluctable force led to the greater movement of peoples and ideas in the closing decades of the 19th century. Canals had been replaced by trains, letters delivered by horse were eclipsed by the telegraph; life became faster, noisier and more dynamic under the crescendo of scientific innovation. The popularisation of photography for instance had already removed the hideous burden of portraiture from the painter and this was followed by the exhilaration of moving pictures (the ‘movies’) at the close of the Century. The restrictions of the past could be seen for what they were, barriers to be leapt over; for the first time it became possible, and credible, to explore the imagination without the stultifying weight of institutional, classical forms and the status quo.
Form Reflecting Content
For many artists, writers, painters, musicians and scientists the desire to express their response to the changes around them, both in its consequences and processes, became irresistible. This post focuses on one of the most significant proponants of Modernism, the Futurist, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti.
An Italian writer and firebrand Marinetti is intriguing because he leads us to many forms of the fantastic: science fiction, surrealism, atonal composition and modern theatre, amongst others. He was heavily influenced by Baudelaire, whose rejection of realism in the 1850s and 60s are the true roots of modernism and whose translations of Edgar Allen Poe brought a very modernistic reading of terror and mystery to a literature-devouring reading public. The work of Marinetti himself informed an entire generation of the European and American avant garde.
His 1909 The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism was published on the front page of one of the world’s most influential newspapers, Le Figaro. Writing with the fervour of a revolutionary Marinetti declared his determination to rattle society and report the the sounds and colours of the new world, with a heartfelt desire to raise a once culturally dominant, his beloved Italy from its ancient slumber. Just two of his aims:
2. The essential elements of our poetry will be courage, audacity and revolt.
3. Literature has up to now magnified pensive immobility, ecstasy and slumber. We want to exalt movements of aggression, feverish sleeplessness, the double march, the perilous leap, the slap and the blow with the fist.
…show the energy of his manifesto. His inflammatory language stirred young painters of his own country (Boccioni and Severini contributed to their own Futurist Manifesto of Painting) but stirred many others including Ezra Pound (who was flirting with imagist poetry during this period and would become the midwife to T.S. Eliot’s great works of Modernism, Four Quartets, The Wasteland); Wyndham Lewis and the Vorticists; James Joyce’s Ulysses and the time and space experiments of Picasso and the cubists. These all have common themes: they reject the precepts of the past, they explore the dynamic forms and processes of their art rather than adhere strictly to the received wisdom of the traditional. In the period between 1910 and 1930, highlighted by the shock of The First World War (the ‘war to end all wars’ that did not), wave after wave of cultural change was sent crashing through society. Marinetti was at the hub of this transformation.
The Work of Marinetti
Filippo Tommaso Marinetti revelled in the form of writing: the physical nature of the book, for instance, the use of typography, the colour of the type on the page that could be to used to convey his message, not just the meaning of the words themselves. Although common now, such techniques were revolutionary and much derided by institutions of culture, the Royal Societies and the government bodies. For Marinetti though, even the means of mass production, the physical distribution of the book or the pamphlet, provided the perfect instrument for his message that industry and urbanisation should and could be represented in art. His ‘Zang Tumb Tumb’ of 1912 (seen left here and at the top of this post), an account of the battle of Adrianopolis (now Turkey) used an astonishing array of techniques, with different typefaces, font sizes, the breaking of lines, borders and margins, to convey the sounds and impact of battle.
Other Futurists poets, such as Paolo Buzzi, Anatol Stern, Jaroslav Seifert, explored what they considered to be essential aspects of Futurist literature: intuition, analogy, irony, abolition of syntax, metrical reform, onomatopoeia and synthetic lyricism. These seven tenets were considered to be essential in the battle against tradition and representational forms. Novels, per se were considered to be old fashioned and elaborate, lacking in compression and intuition. Later, the work of Virginia Wolf and Graham Greene were amongst the first works of fiction in the 20th century that began to answer these specific concerns and offered a way out of the classic nineteeth century novel.
Marinetti and Robots
Another of Marinetti’s ground-breaking works includes Elettricità Sessuale, his Synthetic Theatre play of 1913 (based on an earlier version Poupées Electriques) which introduces the concept of robotic forms. His explorations of speed, the mechanical and industrial had led him inevitably to the beneficial consequences of a world that encourages man-made, mechanical helpmates. His intention was to shock his audiences and the play’s themes of exhibitionism, voyeurism and open sexuality were abhored by the conservative institutions of the day.
Elettricità Sessuale both casts back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a biological robot whose malady is to be too human, and forward to Karel Čapek’s RUR (which popularised the notion of the ‘robot’) and the mechanical city of Fritz Laing’s 1925 cinematic Metropolis (a dystopian tale of human authority, the power of machine and the consequences for working people). How much does subsequent and modern science fiction owe to Marinetti’s explorations? The pulpy sf novels of Abraham Merritt’s 1920 ‘The Metal Monster‘ and H.P Lovecrafts’s ‘At the Mountains of Madness‘ (1931); Asimov’s iconic ‘I Robot‘ (1950); the dystopian visions of Aldous Huxleys ‘Brave New World‘ (read the book here); the entire imaginative canon of Philip K. Dick, including ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?‘ (1968, text here) and it’s iconic film version, Ridley Scott’s 1982 ‘Blade Runner‘; and The Matrix movie trilogy with its machine city.
Marinetti’s aggressive language, his desire to smash the traditions of the past and strike the vital spark of the new led him to use the language of war and terror. He influenced anarchists, vorticists, cubists and imagists. In spite of being an early supporter of fascism and Mussolini in particular Marinetti’s work, along with other Futurist poets was included in Hitler’s 1936 list of Entartete Kunst, Degenerate Art (which included Kandinsky, Klee, Chagall and other Modernist artists). It is hard not to judge an artist by his political convictions, especially when one such as Marinetti wears them so brazenly, (Ezra Pound suffered badly at his own hands by supporting and broadcasting for the Fascists in the second World war) but Marinetti’s essential contribution to the development of the Fantastic should not be ignored and his work can be admired for what it is: quintessentially personal, powerful and magnificent.
The influences of his work can be found in the fibres of so many artists, composers and writers, many of whom will be the subject of the next few posts in These Fantastic Worlds.
The next post will focus on the Fantastic Worlds of Futurism in Art
The thread for this series of posts begins with Only Connect.
Helpful external links: Marinetti’s futurist manifesto; Baudelaire and his works; more about Marinetti and Futurism here and here; a version of Metropolis with a soundtrack from Pink Floyd. (Sounds like a copyright nightmare to me, but thank you Youtube for this version of an incredible silent film).
Pinterest Board with other Futurist images here.
Coming soon: Futurism in Art; Futurism in Music; Cubism; Vorticism; The Fauvists; Abstract Expressionism in Art; Pop Art; Pulp Magazines; Baudelaire and the Symbolists; Bauhaus; Debussy’s Expressionism. Einstein and the Fantastic.