- Inventing Futurism: The Art and Politics of Artificial Optimism
Not least among the many virtues of Christine Poggi's elegant, richly textured, and impressively researched new book is its careful attention to the psychological and intellectual complexities of the urban experience that underlay the art and politics of the men who would create the early futurist movement. Our familiar image of F.T. Marinetti as the "caffeine of Europe," pulsating through its capitals as he pumped up crowds with his denunciations of "passatisti" and his championing of a chaotic modernity, undergoes significant revision here as the public rhetoric of his movement is contextualized within the lived experience of its main protagonists. What emerges is a sense that the thrills and raptures of turn-of-the-century urban modernity were at the very least matched by shocks and traumas, resulting in a deeply felt ambivalence. Admittedly, this insight about futurism is not new. Poggi herself finds it already in the pioneering work of Roberto Tessari in the early 1970s, and more recent biographical work on Marinetti by Giovanni Lista and Cinzia Sartini Blum has deepened our appreciation of it. Nonetheless, Poggi's close readings not only of artworks, poems, and novels, but also of diaries, letters, and memoirs by an unusually wide circle of participants, each one understood as a unique individual, makes her book a singular achievement.
Poggi reveals a number of conundrums in the early futurist movement owing to the uneasy, sometimes even conflictual relations between the experience of the protagonists and the movement messages they sought to adhere to and promote. Since the five main early futurist painters all held socialist or anarchist views (and even Marinetti had some anarchist connections), each embraced the movement's intense nationalism only after discomfort and hesitation. Likewise, their art had to reconcile the excitement and spectacle of the trams in the Piazza del Duomo [End Page 692] with the sense of spatial and psychic disorientation the new urban landscapte was producing. In this regard, Poggi explores the early Carrà's urban scenes and Boccioni's 1911 triptych on "states of mind," the latter revealing "loss and melancholy" in the modern experience of train travel. Similar reactions pervade the art of Balla, Severini, Russolo, and even Marinetti, each of whom developed a kind of Freudian "stimulus shield" with which to parry urban shocks. At the same time, the early futurists had to deal with annoying, sometimes painful internal differences since they did not adapt to futurist norms at the same speed or in quite the same way. Thus, in chapter 3, we see how Boccioni's 1908-10 paintings of Milan's industrial periphery, with their draft horses and carts, factories and workers, are entirely foreign to Marinetti's futurist depiction of work as mere drudgery to be overcome in the ecstasy of technology, war, and aviation. While Boccioni would soon succumb to pressure, he still refused to sign Marinetti's manifesto endorsing the colonial war in Libya in fall 1911. Then, in chapter 4, we learn that Balla's remarkably original "iridescent interpenetrations" (1912-13), rarely shown in futurist exhibitions, had been suppressed by the futurists themselves (especially Boccioni) because they violated "humanist norms of representation"—a double irony in the sense that they are denied the status "futurist" because they violate non-futurist norms. Moreover, Balla and the young Bragaglia, then breaking into the futurist scene, were both chastised by Boccioni for the way they were led to abstraction through photography rather than in flight from it, as was more typical.
Similar issues arise in chapter 5 on the "mechanized body" and chapter 6 on notions of "love, luxury, and lust," both of which are rich in material illustrating the conflicts between futurist aims ("multiplying" the body as a proto-cyborg to resist modern shocks and rejecting inherited Symbolist tropes) and the lingering anxieties and even allegiances that made the futurists ambivalent about pursuing them. Still, illuminating as all six opening chapters are, they also reveal some missed opportunities and...