Italian Futurism: art, design, national rivalry and diagonal lines

La Rivolta (“The Revolt”) by Luigi Russolo
  • After Italy unified in 1861 it looked back to ancient Rome.
  • Subsequently, Italian architects fashioned Art Nouveau into a local strand.
  • Everything was subject to design: curtains, cabinets, staircases and door handles. Function persisted intact with new trimmings. With Marinetti, nothing was to remain intact.
  • Marinetti proclaimed a new Italian order, remaking an “agrarian backwater” into a nexus of cultural innovation.
  • Clothing, theatre, music, poetry and the built environment. Futurists took the city as the crucible of modernity, celebrated “throbbing boulevards”.
  • Boccioni offered a manifesto on futurist architecture.
  • Boccioni’s art: even a bottle sitting on a table is interpenetrated by various angles, intercepted by geometries. Still and static objects as bound up with their environment.
  • Futurist ideal: a chair with tacks on it that would make you stand back up. Futurism had an ambivalent relationship with objects because they are static and Futurism was about motion and movement.
  • Boccioni used Futurist watchwords like dynamism, said Italian art and architecture had to liberate itself from past glories and European trends.
  • Futurism came with increased functionalism and utilitarianism (anticipating “form follows function”).
  • Sant’Elia’s new cities drawings (Cita Nuova) included soaring trains and power stations, a ceaseless mobility that would defy the inertia associated with architecture. An Italy and a world stripped of history and constantly rebuilt.
  • Sant’Elia was killed during WW1 but his drawings transformed the architectural imagination. A 1930’s fascist architectural journal was published in his name.
  • Virgilio Marchi’s delirious “Fantastic City” looked like Disney and was first conceived as set designs for theatre.
  • Wenzel Hablik: new age mysticism, transcendence and passage to a new plane. Futurism, for all its emphasis on technology, has “flighty metaphysical tendencies” as well.
  • The notion of interpenetration was hardly amenable to architecture construction.
  • “Art into life” was the modernist Avant-garde drive, aesthetics not as a mirror of history but its engine.
  • Giacomo Balla painting: Abstract Speed + Sound.
  • Balla/Depero proposed transforming everything and demonstrated their ideas with models. They wrote “The Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe”, a manifesto.
  • The spiral staircase at the Guggenheim should be seen in light of Italian futurist precedents.
  • The futurist insistence on motion, mobility and activism.
  • Coat racks, bookshelves, end tables, bottles (work for the Campari company). Furniture and clothing in futurist terms, fashion designs. Even dress habits could contribute to this new sensibility of living.
  • The Futurist movement was frequently misogynist but many women contributed. When modernist male artists set about applying aesthetics to actual design it was women doing the work.
  • “Balla’s field of futurist flowers”: futurist flora and animals, rendering the organic world as something synthetic.
  • Balla named his daughter “Propeller”.
  • Italy didn’t produce an art-design school to rival the Bauhaus or Russia.
  • Mussolini said “fascism is a glass house”, implying complete transparency. Abstract murals, architecture of rationalist simplicity and chrome tubular chairs all feature in the Casa del Fascio.
  • Balla designed a FuturFascist sweater that can be seen in comparison to Alexander Rodchenko’s design for workers clothes, clothes as ideology.
  • Balla/Depero worked in the fascist cause into the 1930’s.
  • Balla’s “house of art” in Rome served through the 20’s/30’s as a nexus of experimentation, walls painted in Futurist style. It’s not just the canvas you’re painting but everything around it, the world itself is transformed.
  • Aeropainters painted from the perspective of flight. There were many Futurist and fascist motifs of flight.
  • The Futurists had a diagonal drive, used diagonal lines. The diagonal means something is in the process of moving. Horizontal and vertical are about stasis and solidity, the diagonal is in every example of Futurist design/architecture/painting. Example: a mirror unit made for Italy Balbo was tilted but still functionally vertical.
  • Marinetti hated symmetry because symmetry is about stasis and order.
  • The 1925 Paris Art Decoratif exhibition (ARTDECO). The pavilion incorporated seemingly futurist trees. Balla wrote back home and said “we won, Futurism has taken over Paris”.
  • In the 1920’s there was sympathy and rivalry between France and Italy. They fought on the same side in WW1 and considered themselves Latin brothers.
  • The Futurist trees are another example of synthetic nature.
  • Futurism had a problematic relationship with fascism. Most elements, designers, architects actively supported (or at least in no way dissented) from the regime.

Q&A

  • Italy and Russia were both seen as “backward” nations in the early 20th century.
  • Milan was the only industrial city in Italy at the time.
  • Progressive Avant-garde artists of the 20th century were working in synch with industrial production and turning away from the artist as individual genius.
  • Within Italian fascism, fascism was considered a revolution. Italian fascism was tolerant of modernist Avant-garde culture.
  • Under Mussolini a certain pluralism of culture was tolerated as long as it pledged allegiance to the regime. There were traditionalists who labeled the modernists degenerate.
  • The “Square Colosseum” building was a modernist version of the Colosseum.
  • A logic of pluralism and competition: have Futurism compete as one cultural current under fascism and it will contribute.
  • Fascism included superficially contradictory cultural phenomena under its umbrella. After fascism, people could claim they were being anti-fascist due to this ambiguity.
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Benedict Anderson on Europe, Asia, nationalism and the state

“Before the late seventeenth century, when French intellectuals began to claim the superiority of their civilization, none of the European countries denied that the civilization of antiquity was superior to its own, and they competed against each other to learn more about it in order to be civilized. Whether in wartime or peacetime, no country could boast that it was the centre of civilization, a European version of ‘sinocentrism’ as it were, and throw its head back declaring it was no. 1. Innovation, invention, imitation and borrowing took place incessantly between different countries in the fields of culture (including the knowledge of antiquity), politics, global geography, economics, technology, war strategy and tactics, and so on.

Nothing like this existed in East Asia, nor even South Asia. In East Asia, China and Japan both set up geographical and cultural boundaries and often attempted to shut out the ‘barbaric’ outside world with drastic closed-door policies. The necessity of competition with other countries over politics, economics, technology and culture was only scarcely felt. Southeast Asia was probably the closest parallel to Europe. It was diverse in terms of culture, language, ethnicity and religion. Its diversity was further magnified by the historical lack of a region wide empire (which was associated with frequent political turmoil), and later by the colonial rule of various Western powers. It also resembled Europe in its openness to the outside world through trade.

Because Europe, after Rome, never experienced a single stable master, it remained an arena of conflict, cooperation, commerce and intellectual exchange between many medium-sized and small states, and became the logical place for the birth of linguistic/ethnic nationalism, typically directed from below against despotic dynastic regimes. Though European nationalism adopted key ideas from the Creole nationalism of the Americas, it was deeply affected by early-nineteenth-century Romanticism, which was foreign to its Creole predecessors. It had huge appeal for outstanding poets, novelists, dramatists, composers and painters. It was also quite aware of, and felt solidarity with (though not always, of course), other popular nationalisms as fellow movements for the emancipation of the people from despotic dynasties – a solidarity later expressed institutionally in the League of Nations, the United Nations, and many other forms.

After the world wars of the twentieth century, however, many young nationalisms typically got married to grey beard states. Today, nationalism has become a powerful tool of the state and the institutions attached to it: the military, the media, schools and universities, religious establishments, and so on. I emphasize tools because the basic logic of the state’s being remains that of raison d’état ensuring its own survival and power, especially over its own subjects. Hence contemporary nationalism is easily harnessed by repressive and conservative forces, which, unlike earlier anti-dynastic nationalisms, have little interest in cross-national solidarities. The consequences are visible in many countries. One has only to think of state sponsored myths about the national histories of China, Burma, both Koreas, Siam, Japan, Pakistan, the Philippines, Malaysia, India, Indonesia, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Vietnam or Sri Lanka for Asian examples. The intended effect is an unexamined, hypersensitive provinciality and narrow-mindedness. The signs are usually the presence of taboos (don’t write about this!, don’t talk about that!) and the censorship to enforce them.”

Bonus: Philippe Aghion makes a related point

Then there’s the separate yet related question: why did the growth takeoff occur in Europe in 1820 and not somewhere else before? Why not in China for instance where you had so many inventions since the middle age? We believe that in these other societies you had vested interests, whether economic or political, that were scared that new inventions would threaten their power. So they sought to block them. That was less of an issue in places like Europe where competition between European countries made it more difficult for any single government to prevent innovation and progress, as Joel Mockyr has argued.