Filippo Tommaso Marinetti: Europe’s Caffeine
It was a warm evening in October 1908. Marinetti was racing around the streets of Milan in his Fiat. The outing was to have unforeseen consequences. “As usual we were having a lively evening in our favourite all-night café, which was full of elegant women. It was already late into the night when we decided to get some fresh air and go for a spin around town. We piled into the car and were soon driving along the sleepy streets. Soon, we left the city behind us. The road was dark. The car was not just running along – it was flying. Everything around was pitch black. And then something happened – a mistake with the steering wheel, a false manoeuvre – and the car flew off into a ditch. We plummeted into an abyss (…). And in that very moment, when we were falling, that was when the idea of Futurism was born.”
In this fashion did Marinetti found the myth of Futurism during one of his lectures. Soon afterwards, at his urging, a group of Russian intellectuals declared: “People live in the past, the present and the future. In the past, there is no life. You don’t live there – you merely survive. The present is a place of bourgeois lethargy – a peaceful and sober life is what people generally call it. And yet, both over the graveyard of the past and over the swamp of the present, dance the intense, and perhaps insane and downright dangerous flames of the Future.” So who was Marinetti? How did he manage to get the Olympus of the art world to move briefly from Paris to Milan and to bring public attention to bear on Italy’s art of the future? Some saw him as “a cretin with flashes of imbecility” while others fell victim to his charisma and followed him in all his adventures. He was a dandy, to be sure, with a lively gaze, a “tumultuous, strange, colourful lifestyle ”, and an elegant and captivating way of speaking, as described by Francesco Cangiullo.
He was, in other words, a born leader, one capable of gathering the faithful around him. In Milan, he discovered several young artists whom he judged to have “a futurist temperament”: first, Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà and Luigi Russolo, and then Giacomo Balla, who was older, but the master of the divisionist style, and then Gino Severini. From Milan, Marinetti moved to Paris, where he introduced his new recruits to Alexandre Mercereau, the refined and intellectual manager of the Caméléon Café Littéraire in Montparnasse , a place assiduously frequented by the intelligentsia of the time, including the French symbolists and cubists. Magnetic, larger-than life Marinetti decreed what the new poetry, painting, sculpture, literature and music should be like, issuing a series manifestos intended to reach the widest possible audience, which is why he got in touch with Mercereau.
That was how – with a long stream of manifestos – the author theorized and announced the birth of Futurism.
The first of these proclamations was the Futurist Manifesto, which set out the 11 points of the new aesthetic programme. It was the lead item in the 50th issue of the French literary review “Le Figaro”, on 20 February 1909. Underscoring its importance, the text was spread over the first two columns of the page, immediately below the list of contents. Almost at the same time as the Paris launch, “Poesia” published a summary of Futurism’s 11 articles of faith signed by Boccioni, Russolo, Balla, Carrà and Severini. It closed with the words: “It is from Italy that we cast before the world this, our manifesto of overwhelming and incendiary violence”. The words were prophetic because that was the day when Marinetti started to become internationally famous. A perfect chronicler of his time, he kept his “brother” Mercereau fully informed about the “violent and untiring activities of the Futurism Movement” on behalf of the interventionist campaign (including large, violent demonstrations in Rome and Milan, over 100 lectures and marches against the neutralists), with the aim of “pushing the Italian Government into war with Austria”. He was arrested twice, in Rome and in Milan, where he ended up in San Vittore jail with Mussolini, as he reported in a letter dated 8 March 1915: “We are the only people in Italy to have received such treatment, which demonstrates the violence of our movement.” Forever enthusiastic about progress and everything modern, he attacked history, the past and tradition in every form and shape. He also railed against neutrality and glorified war in an abstract and idealistic manner. Also warlike were his efforts to convince reactionaries, traditionalists and academics that the only possible art form was the one that was in tune with the time, i.e. Futurist art. With Mercereau’s help he managed to organize the first Futurist exhibitions as well as some Futurist soirées in France and abroad. In fact, Futurism became unexpectedly successful. The country that proved most fertile and receptive was Russia. And that too was thanks in part to Alexandre Mercereau, who, as President of the Societé Universelles des Grandes Conférences, often organized exchanges and exhibitions. Not even Belgium escaped the lure of Futurism: “This evening will remain unforgettable because all the artists present understood the courage shown by the young Italian painter in overcoming the modesty and reserve which all sincere artists must conquer in order to explain their own, unappreciated works,” wrote the Belgian journalist Ray Nyst in “La Belgique artistique et littéraire”, in an article entitled “Futurist painting in Belgium”. His piece closed with: “…words fail one, as they do before the infinite sea, the song of the wind, the call of the horizon. It makes one think, seek, glimpse, and all of that is immense”. Those wonderful, complex years have been recreated through the lot of unpublished Futurist correspondence offered by Wallector today.