April 16, 2014


The Spirit of Youth : What was so new about Futurism? (Morgan Meis, Smart Set)

Futurists like Pannaggi may have been trying to break civilization wide open. They may have declared a new age of speed and violence and radical newness. But as soon as they attempted to analyze that newness, as soon as they attempted to say something about their brave new world, they found themselves pulled back into history and tradition. Pannaggi wanted to show us that modern machines are unlike anything we've ever seen or experienced before. Then he created a painting that doesn't look radically different from C├ęzanne's paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire, a mountain that has existed since before the dawn of the human species. Pannaggi wanted to paint the very essence of speed in the machine age. His painting, with its basic geometrical shapes, looks like a study in Platonic solids that could have come from the early Renaissance; something, maybe, by Paolo Uccello.

This inability truly to break out of the old ways must have been frustrating for the Futurists.

Newness, it turns out, is a trap. That is one of the essential discoveries of Futurism. Futurism was not the first movement to discover this trap. But the trap of newness is no less important for being discovered and rediscovered over the ages. That is part of the trap, after all. You rediscover something that has already been multiply rediscovered. What seemed brand-new at first, turns out, on further reflection, to be ancient.

Amusingly, perhaps maddeningly, you can scratch the surface of any work of Futurism and the past comes rushing back in. Take Umberto Boccioni's Futurist sculpture, "Unique Forms of Continuity in Space." Boccioni's work is to sculpture what Pannaggi's "Speeding Train" is to painting. It is the attempt to make a solid, motionless piece of cast bronze into something that is fluid in space and time. Boccioni achieves this by breaking up the surfaces of a human figure. That's to say, he sculpts a person in several moments of motion all at once. Look, especially, at the legs of the figure. The legs are thick because Boccioni is showing us multiple positions of a moving leg. It is as if Boccioni took a series of photographs of a person striding forward, spliced those photographs together, and then made a sculpture of the result. The sculpture does not freeze a moment into sculptural eternity, as a more traditional sculpture might do. Instead, it shows us that form is never frozen, but always in transition from one state to another. That's an essentially Futurist thought--all the emphasis is on dynamism, with little regard for the fixed state.

But the problem with Boccioni's sculpture is that, though it may suggest movement, as a sculpture, it is still in a fixed state. It may express dynamism, but it does so in static -- one almost wants to say classical -- form. Indeed, as has been noticed before, "Unique Forms of Continuity in Space" resembles the classical sculpture, "Winged Victory of Samothrace." You'll recall that "Winged Victory of Samothrace" was the very sculpture that Marinetti referred to in his Manifesto. Marinetti claimed that the roaring motorcar was more beautiful than the "Winged Victory of Samothrace." This was his way of rejecting past notions of beauty in the name of the resolutely modern. But Boccioni's sculpture is beautiful partly because of what it shares, formally and historically, with the "Winged Victory of Samothrace." Boccioni's sculpture does not resemble an automobile; it resembles a stone statue from ancient times. Boccioni and the sculptor of "Winged Victory" share the assumption that there is something essentially compelling about the movement of human bodies. When a human being strides forward, the rest of us pause to take a look. The lyrical quality in "Unique Forms of Continuity in Space" would have been beautiful to a citizen of 2nd century Hellenistic society, just as it is to someone wandering through the Guggenheim in the early 21st century.

Indeed, the more one looks at Futurist art, the more one suspects sleight of hand. Maybe the claim to radical newness was not so much a trap as a conscious or semi-conscious ploy. In this, Futurism was a fascist movement all the way to its core. That's to say, Futurism and fascism were both about restoring order in a disordered world.

And art is great to the extent it reflects the order of creation.

Posted by at April 16, 2014 5:14 AM

blog comments powered by Disqus