Visiting the town of Cortona was my wife, Catherine’s idea. She had read Frances Mayes’ 1996 novel, Under the Tuscan Sun and wanted to see the picturesque hill top town where it was set.
The picturesque town of Cortona is built on top of a steep hill. Cortona is tourist attraction of an old town in Tuscany made famous through a book and movie adaptation. Catherine and I walked around the town, up to the church on the top of the hill, through the narrow, winding streets and down again. It is a quite place, there is no traffic, a rest from the busy streets of Milan and Rome. After lunch we visit the town museum with its fine collection of Etruscan and Roman antiquities, a rare double 16th century portrait, a palanquin and other odd things. And in the very top room of the museum was the work and mementos of Gino Severini, Futurist painter, and former resident of Cortona.
Gino Serverini was a Futurist painter (it even said “Futurist painter” on his wedding invitation). It is hard to imagine a Futurist in such a quaint old town but Severini was born and lived for most of his life in Cortona. The contradiction between antique Cortona and a futurist vision makes Cortona a surprising place for an artist who wanted to paint the modern world. The nature of his home inspired his interest in its antithesis – the modern world.
In the top floor of the Cortona museum there are some early and late works by Severini (none of his classic works) along with some of his belongings and photos in display cases. Severini’s pre-Futurist paintings ranged between realist, romantic and post-impressionist style portraits (all in the same year). Although he is most famous for his Futurist exploits Severini continued to produce art until 1964, two years before his death in 1966. His late works, like, L’Age Industriel, 1964, with their diverse material look like the work of Dadaists. There is also his modern mosaic on the front of St. Mark’s Church in Cortona, one of several churches that he decorated (the others are in Switzerland).
A century after there is a need to reconsider Futurism’s place in the history of modernism now that the dust is settling on the whole modernist experiment. There has been a recent major Futurist exhibition at the Centre Pompidou and Tate Modern. The first critical attacks against the Futurists were launched by Appolinaire and followed by subsequent critics. Futurism has been left gathering dust since the end of WWII when the Italian fascists found themselves on the wrong side of history.
Apart from the visual arts the Futurists are best known their contribution to modern music. Futurism invented synthesisers, samples and noise music, the soundtrack of the modern world. Futurists even had a hand in the invention of jazz. Marinetti proposed “words in freedom” and wrote poems in onomatopoeia, like “Zang Tumb Tuum” (1914). In 1909 the Futurists invented the word “jazz”, an adjective to refer to anything radically new. “Jazz” is a perfect modern word as it uses the most modern letters included in the Roman alphabet j & z. It was first used in English when in 1913 the San Francisco Chronicle published “In Praise of Jazz: a Futurist World Which has Just Joined the Language”. San Francisco sport writers then used it in reporting on baseball before it spreading east across the USA and become attached to a new modern style of music. (Philippe Dagen and Veronique Mortaigne “Soundtrack to radicalism” The Guardian Weekly 3/4/09 p.34)
Inventing new words to describe the modern world is a practical poetic activity. New words were a development from the play with sounds and the logic of the alphabet. These words exist in free play before becoming attached to a meaning. These new words are rather like political tag – fascist or communist or Dadaist – before anyone knew what the party would do. At the turn of the century the idea of progressive politics or progressive art was still experimental.
Trying to distinguish Futurist works of art from other works of art from the same era is a daunting exercise of shibboleths. There is lack of any real stylistic differences between Futurism, Dada, Vorticism, Constructivism, Cubism and Divisionsim. Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (1911) uses Cubist conventions to depict movement and Balla’s Girl Running on a Balcony (1912) is almost the same subject and style.
This discussion of styles is not a digression from the politics of Futurism. To reconsider Futurism is to reconsider assumptions about how political ideology influences the style and content of art. The Futurists were Italian Fascists, the Dadaists were anarchists, the Constructivists were Communists but although their politics appeared different their art is less apparently different. This is ironic considering the passion that these artists had for politics. It also raises important questions about the relationship between art and politics. Does the type of art indicate anything about the artist’s politics? Are the political connections and espoused ideology of artists who want to be progressive determined by their location and background rather than conscious choices?