Back to the Future
Largely a philosophically driven art movement that arose in tandem with the industrialisation of its host country, Italy, Futurism embraced the now and the not yet of the new century, last century. It wasn’t greeted with universal enthusiasm. Even avant garde artists and critics expressed a certain repugnance at the lack of structure and the new kind of description in Futurist painting and sculpture. Despite their adulation of technology and the apparent adaptation of new scientific principles to their work, the Futurists succeeded in alienating many contemporaries, even those who similarly recognised the relevance of scientific discoveries to art.
The Cubists’ primacy of form was invoked in protest against the dissolution of objects inherent in the less tangible Futurist schemata. Guillaume Apollinaire, who blew both hot and cold in his support of the Futurists, reckoned they had no concept of the meaning of plastic volumes and simply produced illustrations. Jacques- Émile Blanche complained that Futurism was a mechanical process, merely rendering the sensations of dynamism and obliterating the very objects which caused these sensations. Blanche’s aphorism, “One cannot make any omelette with eggshells,” appraises its pictorial limitations through his eyes. Futurist forms conveyed information and ideas without provoking the necessary aesthetic emotions was the underlying message.
Other critics were more direct. Futurist artists were derogatively referred to as photographers and moviemakers. Gino Severini’s Pan Pan at the Monico was slammed for revealing the cinematographic character of his work. Robert Delaunay, who was contemptuous of the engineered mechanical appearance of their forms, confided to his notebook, “Your art has velocity as expression and the cinema as means.” Cubism supporters warned that it was folly to depict movement, analyse gestures and create the illusion of rhythm by reducing solid matter to formulae of broken lines and volumes.
Unsurprisingly this view was vehemently denied by Umberto Boccioni, the group’s most vociferous spokesman. His denial is understandable due to the difficult relationship between art and photography in the early 20th century. Yet the critics were reaching toward the crux of the matter. Why and how had these Italians mutilated their subjects? What were the sources of these new forms?
The Futurists’ strident pronouncements praised a universal dynamism and oneness in the arts. They had discovered a new beauty in their modern world. Victories of science: aeroplanes, trains, cars, factories. Buildings under scaffolding became beautiful symbols of a frenetic mood. They coined the word ‘noctambulism’ to express the exhilarating activities of a city by night, lit by electric moons and garlanded by incandescent necklaces. Futurist poets like Luciano Folgore and Paolo Buzzi sang praises to the daemonic character of the machine, to the sensations of flight, the launching of torpedoes, to war itself.
Henri Bergson’s philosophy of change was central to the Futurists’ ideas. Intuition is the essence of life. Knowledge is for life. Life’s not for knowledge. Action constitutes being. I do therefore I am. Reality is cinematographical. Between 1910 and 1914 no fewer than seven books about the French philosopher were printed in Italian. Bergman’s favourite substantive, too, was “dynamism”. In the dense metaphysics of Matter and Memory he describes a psychical physical in which the immediate past, present and future effervesce in some sort of spatial continuum. He ruminates, “My body is acted upon by matter, and itself acts upon matter and must transform itself into movement. The material of our existence is nothing but a system of sensations and movements, occupying continually different parts of space.”
In the Futurist conception of a new literature expounded by Filippo Marinetti, ‘liberated’ words can be formed into images which make direct contact with the imagination. Conventional syntax is equated with the optical logic of ordinary photographic perspective. The manumission of literature, like that of painting, is seen in the utilisation of a multiple, simultaneous, emotional perspective. And through the typographical prisms of ‘word free’ paintings, the transient sounds and appearances of the industrial environment are refracted. Marinetti saw analogies between the narcissistic metaphors traditionally used by writers and the adulation of ordinary photographic images. Nevertheless he betrays his excitement about the ‘miracles’ of experimental cinema.
The Futurists’ analysis of objects in motion, their reduction of solid forms to equations and the multiplication of their sensations in order to create an illusion of rhythm had significant prototypes in photography, especially the work of Étienne-Jules Marey. This physiologist’s chronophotographs were pictorial verifications of Bergson’s ‘transformed man’, in keeping with the Futurist machine aesthetic. The Futurists’ references to rhythms in space; interpenetration of forms, fusions and simultaneity; and vibrating intervals can all be explained in terms of Marey’s multiple exposed photographs. So too can the statement that a galloping horse has 20 legs, not four. Boccioni’s enigmatic comment that a horse’s movements are triangular is corroborated by Marey’s linear diagrams. In creating a sense of continuity by means of lines of force emanating from the central object, the dynamism of that object is given substance, its movements are delineated.
Those artists who believed that the important thing is not to present the speeding car but the speed of the car were working in a similar vein to Marey. He had scientifically explored not just the particularised somatic appearances of his subjects in instantaneous phases of movement but also the peculiar patterns caused by the multiplication of their images in space. Through these kinetic recordings Marey was able to obtain graphic representation not only of a man or bird in motion but of the motion of a man or bird – a consequential prefiguration of the Futurists’ concern with the vestigial signs of movement.
Enter Michel-Eugène Chevreul, the discoverer of the laws of simultaneous contrasts of colours and himself a protean figure in the development of progressive aesthetic concepts. He observed how a figure clothed in black moving against a black background could transcribe its own trajectory of the linear graph of its movement by means of a light spangle placed on parts of the subject or by a luminous stripe placed along the length of the limbs. Either by exposing the single plate intermittently or by holding open the shutter for the duration of the action, Chevreul recorded linear oscillation patterns and trajectories.
A comparison of Marey’s 1880s chronophotographs showing an athlete during a long jump and Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space is highly revealing. Aside from the obvious similarities, Boccioni’s sculpture demonstrates the inability of the sculptor to express the transparencies and rupturing of form caused by the inevitable superimpositions and interpenetrations intrinsic to the photograph. The blurred interstices between more clearly registered phases of movement lend themselves more readily to the greater stratagems possible with canvas and paint. Boccioni fuses the figure with its environment.
There was substance in those criticisms which attacked the decomposition of Futurist works, the forms reduced to analytical statements about motion, time and space. In his statement of 1913 defining the difference between Futurist dynamism and contemporary French painting, Boccioni said that the Futurists were the first to assert that modern life was fragmentary and rapid. He claimed that Futurism encapsulated dynamism and not merely the trajectory and mechanical episodic gesture. He insisted that the Futurists had always contemptuously rejected photography, deliberately ignoring the distinctions between Marey’s genre of photography and those which simply reproduced natural scenes. Certainly the direct accusations that the Futurists were mere photographers and moviemakers owes much of its venom to the fact that the dilemma of art and photography had not been resolved.
Yet ironically the Futurists were instrumental in resolving it, if not for themselves, then for the more or less anti art movements which followed in their wake. The incipient machine aesthetic of Futurism and the fierce proselytising that accompanied it was a powerful stimulus on all subsequent artists who in one way or another were orientated to technology. The importance of photograph, photogram and photomontage to the Bauhaus, Constructivism, Dada and Surrealism, with the fundamental emphasis placed on impersonality and anonymity, the individual in cahoots with the machine, was clearly an extension of the Futurist ideology, the disdain for self expression in the arts and its insistence on contemporaneity.