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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Goebbels on Radio

“The old regime was content simply to fill empty offices or change the faces, without however changing the spirit and content of public life. We on the other hand intend a principled transformation in the worldview of our entire society, a revolution of the greatest possible extent that will leave nothing out, changing the life of our nation in every regard.

It would not have been possible for us to take power or to use it in the ways we have without the radio and the airplane. It is no exaggeration to say that the German revolution, at least in the form it took, would have been impossible without the airplane and the radio.

It is in fact a modern revolution, and it has used the most modern methods to win and use power. It therefore does not need saying that the government resulting from this revolution cannot ignore the radio and its possibilities. To the contrary, it is resolved to use them to the fullest extent in the work of national construction that is before us, and in ensuring that this revolution can stand the test of history.

As in all other areas, the changes are primarily spiritual in nature. The radio must be brought out of the stubborn emptiness of its technical limitations into the lively spiritual developments of our age. It is not possible for the radio to ignore the times. More than any other form of public expression, it has the duty to meet the needs and demands of the day. A radio that does not seek to deal with the problems of the day does not deserve to influence the broad masses. It will soon become an empty playground for technicians and intellectual experimenters. We live in the age of the masses; the masses rightly demand that they participate in the great events of the day. The radio is the most influential and important intermediary between a spiritual movement and the nation, between the idea and the people.

The more committees, review committees, bureaucrats and higher offices there were in the German radio system, the less its political accomplishments. Here more than anywhere else, there were no personalities who took pleasure in responsibility. The spiritual energy, the flexibility necessary to reach the people in changing times, may not be the responsibility of boards, commissions or committees. They only get in the way. Here, too, faster than is generally believed, we will clearly and resolutely introduce the leadership principle.

We will eliminate excessive organization as quickly as possible, replacing it with Spartan simplicity and economy. We will also systematically increase productivity in all areas. We will bring to the microphone the best spiritual elements of the nation, making the radio into the most multifaceted, flexible means of expressing the wishes, needs, longings, and hopes of our age.

We do not intend to use the radio only for our partisan purposes. We want room for entertainment, popular arts, games, jokes, and music. But everything should have a relationship to our day. Everything should include the theme of our great reconstructive work, or at least not stand in its way. Above all it is necessary to clearly centralize all radio activities, to place spiritual tasks ahead of technical ones, to introduce the leadership principle, to provide a clear worldview, and to present this worldview in flexible ways.”

Germany’s unique romanticism

“Romanticism took different forms in different national contexts but everywhere it was part of modernity. At its center stood the celebration of the self. In France and England, it partook of democratic and egalitarian traditions to a far greater degree than in Germany, where it combated such claims. No one understood this better than Thomas Mann. Commenting on the ‘melancholy history of German Innerlichkeit,’ he said that the ‘romantic counterrevolution against the Enlightenment’ had made decisive contributions to Weimar’s ‘old-new world of revolutionary reaction’ as well as to National Socialism. Speaking of Hitler’s Germany, he wrote that ‘there are not two Germanies, a good and an evil one, but only one, which through the cunning of the devil turned the best to the service of evil.’ National Socialism reconciled Innerlichkeit and modern technology. The reactionary modernists were German ideologists who selected from their own national traditions those elements that made these cultural reconciliations possible.”

How did the Nazis come to power? “Fear and Hitler’s Instant Subversion of Freedom” (Fritz Stern lecture notes)

THE BASICS
-National Socialism was a “temptation.”
-Persistent distortion of history got into the mainstream of German thinking, particularly the “stab in the back lie” (Marxists and Jews subverted the old regime and were an internal enemy). Liquidate the enemy at home before the enemy abroad, this notion nestled in elite German thought.
-It only took the Nazis 3-4 months to obtain totalitarian rule.
-Hitler was not elected chancellor. He was leader of the largest party but did not even seize power, it was handed to him by “conservatives.”

WORLD WAR 1
-In August 1914 Germany was divided and experienced mass delirium (context: “the sanctity of a soldiers death”).
-The military got more powerful through WW1.
-Sending Lenin to Russia and unrestricted submarine warfare were major mistakes of the German leadership.
-The German people had been misled and defeat “came as a total shock to people in grief and hunger.” The upper classes were stunned.
-“The hatreds that the war had spawned.” Germans were near unanimous in their hatred of Versailles, it epitomized humiliation.

WEIMAR
-Weimar Germany suffered from Versailles and inflation but more importantly the German upper classes could not make peace with the new regime. The churches, the judiciary, academics etc. felt uprooted and had contempt for liberal practices.
-In 1930 foreign troops departed from German soil.
-“In Weimar, death itself was anti-democratic. The moderates dying young, the enemies living on past unrecognized senility.”
-The Great Depression.
-The Nazis made major inroads in local elections before the Great Depression, and in student elections.

THE APPEAL OF HITLER AND THE NAZIS
-Hitler portrayed himself as hero who would save Germany from enemies, gain “Lebensraum” and put community over class.
-The Nazis undertook “astounding manipulation of the new media” and promoted a return to non-capitalist ideals.
-Germans harboured the dream of a new authoritarianism.
-Judges left over from the imperial regime dealt out justice favouring the right and punishing the left.
-Street fighting took place between communists and the right-wing. The divided right looked for an authoritarian solution.
-Social democrats were the “true and sole defenders of Weimar.” Communists attacked social democrats saying “after Hitler, us.”
-The left underestimated the psychological appeal of Hitler and the Nazis.
-National Socialism was “the enduring appeal to the swine in man.”
-“Hapless intriguers” in the conservative establishment handed Hitler the chancellorship.
-Hitler never received more than 37% of the vote in a free election.

COMPLETE POWER
-At the time Hitler was handed power civil society was still in place.
-People were deluded that some decency or “rule of law” would remain.
-It took Mussolini two and half years to establish complete power, it took Hitler a few months.
-The civil service was subservient.
-The “spread of ideology” was “a brute spectacle” that “touched the depths of desperate people.”
-Hitler moved with dizzying speed.
-Fear was rampant in Germany and for many reasons. Hitler spread and exploited fear. Concentration camps were publicly announced for purposes of fear and intimidation. Fear has a dumbing effect and is contagious.
-The SA were made auxiliary police, a white arm band sufficed.
-“Our own decency limited our imagination to think of what could happen.”
-“The themes of death and resurrection” acted to limit the “loyal christian patriot,” displaying and downplaying his antisemitism, and played into the virtues of “violence, war” and the “cult of death.”
-“The Nazis managed to combine to the appearance of legality with the reality of terror and intimidation, the former was important to maintain the self-respect of civil servants and the upper classes.”
-The Catholic party surrendered.
-The self-submission and self-censorship of the Germans was preemptive, even the Nazis were surprised.