Umberto Boccioni's The City Rises. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

In the popular imagination, bohemia is associated with left-leaning politics just as often as innovative artwork; between poets drinking absinthe and hippies shouting for free love, one can find countless historical examples to reinforce this view. Many of the most famous and innovative bohemians, such as American blues legend Bessie Smith, hail from marginalized groups, drawing on experiences of oppression to create compelling art. Most also engage in unconventional behavior, like rejection of middle-class comforts, that challenges the norms and expectations of mainstream society. When artistic bohemias intersect with politics, this inherent tendency to challenge the status quo typically sways them towards anticapitalism, nonviolence, and a mistrust of the organized state.

Futurism, an Italian avant-garde movement that arose in the second decade of the twentieth century, completely defies this characterization. Emerging on the cusp of the First World War, it represents an explosive challenge to both artistic and ideological convention.   Modernist painting techniques, influenced by Cubism and Impressionism, were used to depict atypical subject matter, such as contemporary technology or industrial strength. The Futurists were enthralled by youth, power, and new machines that could combine the two – they wanted to challenge ossifying bourgeois convention, replacing it with vitality and energetic creation.

Ominously, however, the explicit aims of the movement were starkly hawkish. The Futurist Manifesto, published in 1909 by the vocal leader of the movement, F.T. Marinetti, describes itself as a “manifesto of ruinous and incendiary violence.” It states, “We want to glorify war – the only cure for the world – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.” In addition, its descriptions of “the gliding flight of aeroplanes,” “sounds like the flapping of a flag,” and “the applause of enthusiastic crowds” seem to describe the mass mobilization, aggressive nationalism, and new technology that would propel the coming conflict.[1] Although primarily a literary document, this ennobling of technology, youth and violence seems significant, as all of these would thematically define the start of World War I.

Moreover, a cursory examination of burgeoning Futurist artwork reveals an innate propensity towards wartime ideals. In paintings such as “The City Rising” or “The Docker,” (created in 1910 by Boccioni and Carrà, respectively) vibrant colors and strong brushstrokes add intensity to depictions of industrial labor. These wild experiments in form and palette are meant to glorify movement, machinery and the modern world, and reach for “pictorial dynamism” in a manner that is almost violent.[2] In Futurist poetry, modernist techniques such as onomatopoeia and free verse are used to capture the sounds of battle; for instance, “Zang Tumb Tumb,” a piece by Marinetti, uses phrases like “tatatatatatatata picpac pampacpacpic uuuuuuuuuuuuuu” to describe the Libyan War.[3] Futurist sculpture was similarly energetic; the most famous example, Boccioni’s “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space,” has been described as “a male figure striding forward, superbly balanced, poised as he thrusts – an emblem of virile determination, needing no weapon because he himself is ‘a living gun.’”[4] Although these pieces are not overtly propagandistic, the ideals that they extol – energy, masculinity, and force – are markedly similar to those that would inspire young enlistees a few years later.

In addition, Marinetti proved himself to be an able political agitator, as well as a strident nationalist, years before the outbreak of war. Many 1909 presentations, such as a speech called “Trieste, Our Beautiful Powder-Magazine” and a poem entitled the “Ode to General Asinari di Bernezzo,” provoked ardent controversy due to their aggressively irredentist demands. The latter, which included lines such as “Maybe…we shall soon return to the Capitol with the tattered Austrian flag,” resulted in brawls and arrests, although the artists were released later that evening.[5] By provoking enmity towards Italy’s traditional rival, the Futurists hoped to expand their nation’s territory and restore glory to their weakened nation. Throughout this and many other Futurist presentations, a general glorification of violence would be targeted specifically towards the strengthening and revitalization of Italy. Although these ideas were highly debatable, Marinetti and his fellows did not shrink from controversy; rather, they invited it, traveling across Europe to deliver spectacular publicity campaigns. In a telling example, one journalist succinctly summarized these events by referring to Marinetti as “the caffeine of Europe”[6]

After the entrance of Italy into the war, however, Futurist activity largely abated. Marinetti, Russolo, Sant’Elia and Boccioni, all leading Futurist figures motivated by nationalist goals, joined the Battalion of Volunteer Cyclists in 1915, the only volunteer group in the Italian army.[7] This left comparatively little time for artistic production, and the few remaining Futurist events were poorly attended; everywhere, the necessities of war trumped the patronage of art. Ironically, the much-anticipated war proved highly detrimental to the Futurists. Almost all of the major artists involved were killed in the conflict, and despite efforts, Marinetti proved unable to recover the momentum of his movement after the peace treaty.[8] As the purity of its artistic vigor subsided, such aesthetic rhetoric served only as context in which to view the rise of Italian Fascism. Although the extent of the impact of Futurism on the young Mussolini is debated, it is clear that the ideals of the movement prefigured those of his violent regime.

Why did this bohemian movement, unlike most, become drawn to the hyper-nationalism that would later result in a totalitarian state? One historian, George Mosse, focuses on hawkish attitudes of the young, stating, “Marinetti’s emphasis upon war as a festival, upon life as a constant happening, paralleled the wish for the extraordinary which was so strong in the minds of European youth sated with bourgeois life…Futurism heightened this longing without institutionalizing it, pushing what is known as the ‘spirit of 1914’ to its extreme.”[9] In other words, he implies that Marinetti captured in extreme terms the dissatisfaction with which many viewed the decadent culture of their parents. Such emotions, he suggests, lead directly to the combative spirit surrounding the outbreak of war, and the patriotic fervor that would invigorate the early war effort. It is useful to note, however, that Mosse does not include all Italian youth in this analysis; rather, he situates the passage in a bourgeois perspective. As Marinetti was a wealthy man, it is unsurprising that he would capture the frustration of the upper and middle classes.

Historian Richard Bosworth elaborates on Mosse’s view. “Although not the cause of the war,” he explains, “the sense of relief, of an end to ennui, among bourgeois intellectuals was the basis of that attitude favorable to conflict much remarked on by later historians.”[10] Moreover, he acknowledges that Italian elites, considering their fractured national history and the overbearing pressure of former glory, were in the position to be particularly affected by such feelings of ennui.

Although not celebrated as often as other art movements, Italian Futurism made a splash both artistically and ideologically in prewar Europe. The chilling nature of its messages, as well as their distinct contrast to those of typical bohemians, are a stark reminder that radicalism is not always oriented towards positive progress. This interesting slice of history provides an impetus for critical examination of our assumptions about what constitutes bohemia.

 

Works Cited

Berghaus, Günter. Futurism and Politics: Between Anarchist Rebellion and Fascist Reaction, 1909-1944.   Providence: Berghahn, 1996.

Bosworth, Richard. Italy and the Approach of the First World War. London: The MacMillan Press Ltd, 1983.

Jensen, Richard. “Futurism and Fascism.” History Today 45 (1995): 35-41.

Joll, James. Three Intellectuals in Politics. New York: Pantheon Books, 1960.

Mosse, George. “The Political Culture of Italian Futurism: A General Perspective.” Journal of Contemporary History 25 (1990): 253-268.

Thompson, Mark. The White War. London: Faber and Faber Ltd, 2008.

 

[1] James Joll, Three Intellectuals in Politics (New York: Pantheon Books, 1960), 182.

[2] Giovanni Lista, Futurism (Paris: Terrail, 2001), 47-49.

[3] Richard Bosworth, Italy and the Approach of the First World War (London: The MacMillan Press Ltd, 1988), 80.

[4] Mark Thompson, The White War (London: Faber and Faber Ltd, 2008), 237.

[5] Günter Berghaus, Futurism and Politics: Between Anarchist Rebellion and Fascist Reaction, 1909-1944 (Providence: Berghahn, 1996), 48-51.

[6] Richard Jensen, “Futurism and Fascism,” History Today 45 (1995): 36.

[7] Thompson, The White War, 236.

[8] Joll, Three Intellectuals, 169.

[9] George Mosse, “The Political Culture of Italian Futurism: A General Perspective,” Journal of Contemporary History 25 (1990): 253-268.

[10] Bosworth, Italy and the Approach, 128.

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