restricted access “Women Artists and Futurism.” Special Issue, International Yearbook of Futurism Studies ed. by Günter Berghaus (review)
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Reviewed by
Günter Berghaus, ed. “Women Artists and Futurism.” Special Issue, International Yearbook of Futurism Studies, Volume 5. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2015. Pp. xii + 676. $182.00 (cloth).

Of the many controversial slogans and apodictic assertions contained in Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s 1909 “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism,” few have endured as a continuous source of heated debate and polemic as has the famous call for “le mépris de la femme,” already targeted by the earliest critics of the movement. Traditionally seen as a cardinal component of an aggressive rhetoric that would find its ultimate fulfillment in fascism, the question of this “scorn for women”—along with the equally controversial exaltation of war as “the sole cleanser of the world”—contributed in no small part to keeping Futurism on the margins of modernist studies until quite recently.1 At the same time, over the last twenty-five years—one might take Lucia Re’s influential 1989 essay “Futurism and Feminism” as the watershed—a closer engagement both with male Futurists’ writings on women and with the works by women writers and artists who aligned themselves with the movement has helped to provide a more complex and nuanced picture of the situation, at least for Italian Futurism.2 (Barbara Meazzi offers a useful and thorough overview of the scholarship on women and Italian Futurism in her contribution to the volume under review.)

This issue of the International Yearbook of Futurism Studies, edited by the journal’s director, Günter Berghaus, aims at expanding the range of this enquiry to consider the influence of Futurism on women artists, writers, and intellectuals across Europe and beyond. As Berghaus remarks in his introduction, that influence should not be measured only in terms of the relative adherence or response to the aesthetic and social orthodoxy formulated in the many manifestoes of the movement, but also by considering the role played in the artists’ formation by a much looser understanding of Futurism based on the “scattered information” and the “more or less denigrating, satirical or scandal-mongering articles” provided by mainstream newspaper and periodicals, for which Futurism quickly became a synonym of “Modernism gone mad” (ix). For several of the women considered in this volume, the antitraditionalist ethos of Futurism, for all its strident bellicosity, could become an instrument through which they could articulate an alternative to the values of patriarchal bourgeois society defended by the mainstream press and [End Page 200] institutions that heaped their ridicule on Marinetti and his movement. At the same time, their peripheral role within the heated polemical battles of competing avant-garde groups often allowed women an exceptional freedom to develop their own aesthetics, although the originality of their contribution still goes largely underrecognized.

Selena Daly provides a particularly interesting example of the liberating role played by a loosely defined Futurism in her essay on the Irish painter Mary Swanzy, traditionally associated with Cubism. Swanzy was exposed to Futurism initially through press reports in Ireland, and then first-hand in Italy, where she lived between 1913 and 1915. Like many fellow Protestant women artists, Daly found in the Continental avant-garde a fruitful alternative not only to aesthetic academicism, but also to the nationalist demands of the Gaelic Revival movement, dominated by Catholic male artists and intellectuals. Similarly, for the Argentinian painter Norah Borges, sister of the writer Jorge Luis, a “flirt” with Futurism, as with other European avant-gardes such as Expressionism and Cubism, was a step on the way to the formation of a personal, eclectic style that would become the expression of Ultraismo in the figurative arts. In his contribution on Borges, Eamon McCarthy emphasizes the crucial role played by her marginality within the Argentinian intellectual milieu in which she was formed. As Borges herself recalled in a 1992 interview, young women of her generation did not frequent the cafés where the avant-garde gathered or participate in its debates, and yet it was precisely this position as an “insider-outsider” that allowed her the autonomy to experiment without being beholden to aesthetic orthodoxies.

By the same token, if figures such as Kate Lechmere, Jessica Dismorr, Helen Saunders, and Dorothy Shakespear...