INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Independent FEBRUARY 20, 2009 - by Peter Popham
BACK TO THE FUTURISTS: HAS THE ART MOVEMENT HAD ITS DAY?
The dead weight of the past was the enemy of Italy's first avant-garde art movement. A century later it is being celebrated in Rome with a series of events including a commemorative banquet.
Exactly a century after the publication of the Futurist Manifesto, Rome is throwing a city-wide party to honour Italy's first home-grown avant-garde art movement. In the years before the First World War, these Italian visionaries proposed tearing civilisation down and starting again from scratch, and in the coming weeks visitors to Rome will have the chance to discover what they had in mind.
Painting and sculpture, poetry, music, performance art and architecture were to be just the start of it. Other manifestos were published on clothing, food, smells, war and lust. Commemorative happenings from this week in Rome will include a banquet inspired by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti's Futurist Cookbook, multi-media performances and laser light shows.
Celebration is the keynote in Rome - but for an artistic movement which declared "we will glorify war" and claimed that art can be "nothing but violence, cruelty and injustice," a critical counterpoint is also called for.
Providing it is the prolific British musician and artist Brian Eno - a founder member of Roxy Music back in the 1970s - with a sound and light installation entitled Presentism - Time And Place In The Long Now which offers tranquility and extreme slowness in place of the violence and hectic pace exalted by the Futurists.
"Nothing happens," Eno says of his installation, "and nothing happens very slowly. And people like the chance to go down through the gears till they get to the speed of this show... It's very sensual, very tranquil and very re-awakening."
The original Futurist manifesto, written by Marinetti, was published on page one of the French daily Le Figaro on 20 February, 1909, and it is one of the most extraordinary pieces of prose ever to grace the front of a newspaper. It describes how the author and his friends stayed up all night talking and writing. "For hours we had trampled our atavistic ennui into rich oriental rugs, arguing up to the last confines of logic and blackening many reams of paper with our frenzied scribbling..." Then at dawn they sallied forth in their cars, "three snorting beasts", running over numerous dogs until the author overturned his car and sailed into a ditch trying to avoid two cyclists. "O maternal ditch, almost full of muddy water! Fair factory drain! I gulped your nourishing sludge... When I came up - torn, filthy and stinking - from under the capsized car, I felt the white-hot iron of joy pass deliciously through my heart!"
Out of this crazy and unpromising adventure emerged the "Manifesto of Futurism": a list of dos and don'ts for the impatient young artists of the industrial age. It is a scary document, a paean of praise to many of the things that made the twentieth century so devastating - for humanity and for the earth. But it was also a brilliant evocation of the modern zeitgeist, a call to arms by Marinetti to his fellow Italians who were only just awakening to the potential of modernity.
"We want to free this land," Marinetti wrote, "from its smelly gangrene of professors, archaeologists, ciceroni [tourist guides] and antiquarians. For too long has Italy been a dealer in second-hand clothes. We mean to free her from the numberless museums that cover her like... graveyards. Come on!" he raved. "Set fire to the library shelves!... Flood the museums!... Take up your pickaxes, your axes and hammers and wreck, wreck the venerable cities, pitilessly!... Art can be nothing but violence, cruelty, and injustice."
What is extraordinary is how well Marinetti's wake-up call worked. Uniquely for the manifesto of an artistic movement, Futurism's manifesto was written before a single Futurist painting had been executed - or even conceived. Yet within a year, galvanised by Marinetti's summons, a true Futurist movement had sprung into life, and had rapidly become one of the richest elements in the extraordinary eruption of modern European art in the years before the First World War.
The good luck of the Futurists was that the following year Picasso invented Cubism. The Futurists - Umberto Boccioni, Gino Severini, Carlo Carra, Luigi Russolo - wanted to paint speed, energy and destructive violence: suddenly in the multiply-fractured canvasses of the Cubists they found a key to doing it.
"The Futurists stepped into a cultural situation already boiling with ideas," says Ester Cohen, curator of Futurism: Avant-garde, Avant-gardes, an exhibition at Rome's Scuderie gallery.
The first exhibition by Marinetti's artists "was an immediate scandal," she says. "Nothing of the kind had ever been seen." Marinetti, whose genius at propaganda spread his ecstatic creed throughout Europe, showing his artists works in exhibitions held in several capitals. But Brian Eno, whose show opens in Rome's Palazzo Ruspoli on the centenary of the manifesto, says the sort of Future proposed by Marinetti has had its day. "The kind of modernism the Futurists endorsed was sort of: smash the past, build the future and it's going to be rough," Eno said.
"It very much fitted with ideas that were going around at that time in the century, and of course it had this very progressivist idea which then infected and was infected by what was going on in the rest of culture: the idea that we had to rebuild the world from scratch."
Eno's installation, in an ancient palace on Via del Corso, is at the polar extreme from the noisy, hyper-active, self-assertive art of the Futurists. "People enter a darkish room which has music coming from many different sources," he said.
"There are several large plasma screens on the wall and those form a continually changing, slowly moving painting; basically, a very complicated, extremely rich, coloured abstract picture. The important part about the motion on the screens is that it's very, very slow. It flies in the face of the Hollywood idea that people need more and more stimulation, that they have increasingly short attention spans.
"I'm absolutely convinced that that's the diametrical opposite of what's true... People who come to the shows say, 'I wish there was one of these in the city all the time.' And it makes me realise that there are things that people traditionally do - like go to church or sit in parks or daydream - which have become harder to do...
"So when people find a place where they can do that, they are pretty excited."