Futurism, the mother of all avant-gardes, was fascist

You can smell the old Italian bourgeoisie in the Rijksmuseum Twenthe in Enschede. Four atomizers of scents that the Italian futurists diffused a century ago at their tumultuous, Dada-esque soirees are on display there Marinetti and Futurism: Manifesto for a New World. According to the futurists, each population group had its own smell and the hated rich bourgeoisie smelled of a mixture of old urine, mold and incense, as can be read in the hall text next to the atomizers. The smell of the Italian bourgeoisie, specially reconstructed for the exhibition, turns out to be a musty well. Fortunately, you can also smell ozone, the smell of the futurists themselves (and of thunderstorms).

The Futurist perfumes are by no means the only notable part of the exhibition on Italian Futurism, the first avant-garde movement in modern art, started by Filippo Tomasso Marinetti (1876-1944) in 1909. There are also La Cucina Futurista from 1932, Marinetti’s cookbook. Pasta was not the right food for virile warriors and good lovers, believed the foreman of futurism, Italian folk food made a person dull. Marinetti’s cookbook is full of recipes for potent fighters with names like Steel Chicken, War in Bed and Excited Pig. The latter dish consists of salami topped with cologne, served in hot coffee.

Fortunato Depero: The Gondolier, 1924
Archivio Depero, Rovereto

Alliance with Mussolini

Yet Marinetti and Futurism also a regular futurism exhibition. For example, there are the usual, dynamic, semi or fully abstract paintings of famous futuristic painters from the first hour such as Umberto Boccioni and Giacomo Balla. The five-room exhibition also provides a good overview of the later development of Futurist painting, from Fortunato Depero’s machine paintings of the 1920s to the end of the ‘aerial painting‘ paintings, including the large ones Dive into the city from 1938 by Tullio Crali.

But the unusual dominates in the Rijksmuseum Twenthe. This is primarily because Marinetti and his commitment to fascism, unlike usual at exhibitions about futurism, have not been hidden away. On the contrary: as the only constant of Futurism that only ceased to exist with Marinetti’s death in 1944 in the Nazi-Fascist Republic of Salò (see inset), Marinetti is the main figure of the exhibition. His alliance with Benito Mussolini, who took power in Italy exactly one hundred years ago on October 28, is the common thread.

Umberto Boccioni: Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913 (cast in 2011), bronze, Private collection, Rome
Damiano Fianco

The new man

The fact that Marinetti has hardly ever been in the spotlight of art museums is not only due to the fact that he was not a painter, and as a litterateur and performance artist avant la lettre has left behind little more than manifestos, literary works, sound clips and a cookbook.

Another, more important, reason is that art historians do not know how to deal with the alliance between futurism and fascism, explains art historian Joery de Winter in his contribution to the catalogue. Futurism, the mother of all 20th-century avant-gardes, still has the reputation of being a progressive movement at the forefront of modernist art – and this is incompatible with reactionary, vengeful fascism. But now that more and more historians recognize that fascism was not an anti-modernist movement, but part of ‘modernity’, the discrepancy with ‘futurofascism’ is disappearing.

Futurists in Paris (from left to right Luigi Russolo, Carlo Carrà, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Umberto Boccioni and Gino Severini), 1912

It is clear from the beginning of the exhibition that Futurism was also a political, proto-fascist movement from the start. There hangs the first one Futuristic Manifesto that Marinetti published as the birth certificate of his movement on 20 February 1909 on the front page of the French daily Le Figaro. “We want to glorify war – some hygiene in the world – militarism, patriotism, the destructive actions of anarchists, the beautiful ideas for which one dies and the contempt for women,” reads the ninth point of the manifesto.

Marinetti’s manifesto was a call to blow up the old world of dusty museums and academies and replace it with a new world dominated by the beauty of speed and machinery: is more beautiful than the Nike of Samothrace.” Later, it also became the ambition of the futurists to create the new man and even “reconstruct the universe”.

Rougena Zatkova, Portrait of Marinetti, 1915-1916, oil on canvas, Erven Marinetti, Milan
Heirs Marinetti

Genocidal wars

In film fragments, posters and works of art, Marinetti’s relationship with fascism is a recurring theme in the exhibition. He only founded his own political party in 1918, the last year of the First World War, when he had enthusiastically gone to war and been wounded. Just one year later, the Futurist Political Party merged with Mussolini’s Fasci di Combattimento, the forerunner of the National Fascist Party.

Yet, according to the exhibition’s creators, Marinetti was never an orthodox fascist. In the 1920s, when Mussolini, under the influence of his mistress Margherita Sarfatti, preferred the neorealist painting of the Novecento movement as the art of fascism to futurism, Marinetti even distanced himself from Mussolini. But after joining the Fascist establishment in 1929 through his membership of the Royal Academy, which he had wanted to blow up twenty years earlier, he succeeded in reinforcing the position of Futurism in the Italian art world.

In the 1930s, Marinetti sided with Mussolini and hailed Italy’s genocide, colonial wars in North Africa as “futuristic aesthetics of war.” It had consequences for futurism, as can be seen at the end of the exhibition. There goes aerial paintingart that depicts the thrill of flight, glorifying in violence and war aeropittura di war. In doing so, the Futurists remained true to the first of many Futurist manifestos, in which Marinetti wrote in 1909: “From Italy we launch this manifesto of compelling and incendiary violence.”

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