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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Macron, the gilets jaunes, roundabouts, and French politics (Charles Devellennes)

  • Macron represents a new era of French politics, for one thing the streets are reacting differently.
  • Hollande tried for normalcy but that era has passed.
  • “Macronades” are little sayings that Macron has become famous for (ex. telling an unemployed man “you only need to cross the street to find a job”).
  • Macron is very stubborn but the gilets jaunes forced his hand.
  • The gilets jaunes were the only political force to successfully get Macron to increase social welfare spending.
  • The center right and center left parties have completely collapsed. Macron has taken more upscale voters from both.
  • Macron is really despised by a lot of people. One reason is repressive police violence. He also pushes through reforms without consultation.
  • He is perceived as a right-wing president.
  • No political party has captured the gilets jaunes movement, they have intentionally evaded this in any event.
  • There was a gilets jaunes party in the 2019 european elections but it completely flopped.
  • In the first round of presidential voting younger voters went for Mélenchon, the middle aged favoured Le Pen and Macron won the old.
  • Macron’s base has changed, the wealthy and retired have flocked to him over time. He passed a tax break for the richest.
  • Le Pen has support in rural and peri-urban areas, places outside of big metros where you need a car to get to work (the gilets jaunes protest was sparked by a carbon tax policy).
  • There is a diagonal of these communities that crosses France (low pop. density).
  • Le Pen is first for working class voters. That said, the working class tends to abstain from voting.
  • Many working class non-voters are those who have distanced from the left but haven’t been taken in by Le Pen.
  • The France of roundabouts, edges of cities, big box supermarkets etc. is the key locus of gilet jaunes type French. They tend to live in still further outlying areas and are small property owners.
  • French villages have lost needed amenities like little shops so locals have to go to big box stores via the roundabouts.
  • Macron has framed French politics as “it’s me or the fascists”.
  • A Macron reform made the “state of exception” permanent in French law so his self-assertion as the candidate of democracy is disingenuous.
  • Le Pen’s platform was surprisingly boring.
  • There’s been a far-right candidate in 3/5 of last French presidential elections (final vote).
  • Macron claimed to be “at the same time” left and right.
  • Since 2002 the left end of the French political spectrum has coalesced around anti-fascism (against the National Front, now the National Rally).

Bonus: Quentin Letts on suburban roundabouts in the UK

Mini roundabouts are suburban, bossy little objects. They are imposed on us from on high, ostensibly for our own good (but just as possibly because they create work for consultants). Their introduction involves great cost and prolonged upheaval at the end of which you are left with a small lump, little bigger than an upturned saucer, on the Queen’s highway.

Be not deceived. Mini roundabouts are a menace. They are an aesthetic blot. They kill the spirit of the road. And they cause car sickness, as the pongy interior of many a family hatchback will confirm.

They were invented by a 1960s’ Ministry of Transport boffin, Frank Blackmore. It may seem harsh to include Mr Blackmore in this sort of book. He was only doing his job. He was maybe even ‘acting under orders’, as the saying goes. But life is a merciless business.

Blackmore created a monster, as anyone who has visited Swindon’s ‘Magic Roundabout junction roundabouts all stuck together – will agree. The mini roundabout – a moonscape of mini has run amok. Mini roundabouts have replaced ancient crossroads, once site of the gibbet and the wind-gnarled oak, more recently a place of sporting judgement. At crossroads you had to time your leap, gun your engine, make tyres squeal. We could not all be Nigel Mansell but we could at least get the adrenaline pumping by darting out in front of an oncoming juggernaut. Why should only Mr Toad have some fun at the wheel?

At a crossroads, moreover, you have a sense of one road being senior to another. Should the busy A road not have priority over the piddling country lane? Not at a mini roundabout it doesn’t. Heavy traffic has to screech to a halt for even Mini roundabouts are the very opposite of democratic. They are the many bending to the few.

Auguste Comte (1798-1857) – notes

  • Context for Auguste Comte’s life: France was in a social crisis in the first half of the 19th century—roughly Comte’s lifetime. There was class conflict in the context of industrialization. The country was divided between enlighteners/revolutionaries and conservatives. Throughout the 19th century France flip-flopped between governments.
  • Comte was dismayed at the restoration of the monarchy in 1814. He saw that the old France was dying and knew the nation had to progress but thought that the radicals did not have the answers and proposed more moderate reforms instead.
  • Comte’s positivism was based on the notion of a progressive development from theological and metaphysical views. Positivism = facts, but facts made coherent by a unifying analysis.
  • Comte thought that positivism would influence human sciences in order of difficulty with sociology—basically “human affairs” as opposed to hard sciences—coming last. For Comte, sociology was the sum of all sciences.
  • Comte approached society as a realm of social interaction, rules and institutions, not individuals. Comte asked: given the turn to individualism, how is social order and stability maintained?
  • If sociology could outline the underlying principles of social order it could be used to guide social reforms. This was Comte’s logic and the first premise of sociology.

Paris, 1968: “1968 and the Struggle Against Technocracy”

These are notes from a lecture by Andrew Feenberg. The lecture was found by searching “Technocracy” on YouTube.

  • A French student revolt provoked a general strike in May 1968.
  • We have a false image of the whole New Left, they were actually serious political movements challenging the notion that we have to live with a technocratic consumer society.
  • It was about an alternative social model, the inheritance from the New Left is anti-technocratic struggle.
  • Paris 1968 started out as a small student revolt, students were arrested and locked out of the university and gained a new target in the police as a result.
  • Students began to build barricades in part as a reference to history like the Paris commune. Barricades became more and more numerous.
  • At this point a huge police attack was organized but the violent attack mobilized many people against the government.
  • Students were let back into the university and had talks about revolution.
  • At the arts school the students seized the studios and made posters like the famous poster of a fascist policeman wielding a baton.
  • “We want to build a classless society.” (student statement)
  • Scenes: Workers and students seized a factory and were jubilant, saluting each other.
  • “We must destroy everything that isolates us from each other (habits, the newspapers, etc.)”
  • All this was as a trauma for business executives and civil servants who saw themselves as doing a social service.
  • A strike movement began to appear in the middle class.
  • Even civil servants from Finance were involved. Also the ministry of housing, white collar postal service workers etc.
  • The protests/movement contained the notion of self-management vs. the planned economy of the Soviet Union which was more so supported by the Communist Party. Workers “by and for themselves.”
  • De Gaulle consulted with generals and implied the possibility of civil war.
  • Sartre said “you have enlarged the field of the possible.”
  • “refuse profit, progress and luxury.”
  • “Do not confuse the TECHNICAL division of labor and the HIERARCHY of authority and power” (the first is necessary, the second is not)
  • “all power to the imagination”
  • “ni dieu, ni metre” (neither god, nor meters ie. measurement)

German nationalism vs. France in the 19th century

Quoted from Jugendstil and Racism: An Unexpected Alliance by Angelika Pagel

“…hostility grew strong as a result of Napoleons occupation of Germany. The hoped for unification of the many petty German states under the leadership of Prussia and with the help of the French Revolution had not been achieved. The Vienna Congress of 1814-15 failed to establish a sovereign German nation-state with unified national politics and France, though defeated, even managed (through Talleyrand’s diplomacy) to emerge from the talks with its hegemony in Europe re-affirmed. Germany’s struggle for national unity would continue throughout the 19th century while the other major European powers had long since achieved this status. Disappointed and envious, Germans turned inward and backward, to ideas of tribal nationalism, of common ancestry in a shared Germanic past. Gradually, this idea of an integral German nation and people (Deutsche Nation und Volkstum) degenerated into the myth of blood-and-soil; antisemitism emerged as a “logical” consequence of this tribalism and the Nazi battlecry “One People, one Empire, one Leader” (Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer) epitomized the desire for national unity spanning the entire 19th century. Even after the Vienna Congress, the “glorious power of French nationhood” was experienced by the Germans in painful contrast to their own lack of national unity.”

France vs. England in the 14th Century (the Estates vs. Parliament)

Quoted from The Age of Adversity by Robert E. Lerner

“There are many reasons why the history of the Estates is so strikingly different from that of Parliament. The fact that the Estates were normally called only in major crises made them appear more revolutionary than constitutional and thus alienated the large majority of their potential supporters. Furthermore, the French were more deeply divided than the English not only by class but also by local loyalties. Both the use of free farmers, or yeomen, in the army and the fact that the lesser nobles or knights sat as county representatives alongside the burgesses in the House of Commons are cited as examples of social integration in England that could not be matched in France. There the peasants were rigorously excluded from any but servile occupations and the townspeople were considered social inferiors and political rivals by the nobles. To this social prejudice must be added the fact that provincial loyalties were often stronger than those to the monarchy and that the interests of the northern and southern halves of the country were frequently quite disparate. As a result, the establishment of a unified constitutional opposition was extremely difficult; and the very failure of the Estates, at least by contrast, served to enhance the prestige of the crown.”