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An essay by Robert Lynd

The Futurists

Title:     The Futurists
Author: Robert Lynd [More Titles by Lynd]

The appearance of the first number of Blast ought to put an end to the Futurist movement in England. One can forgive a new movement for anything except being tedious: Blast is as tedious as an attempt to play Pistol by someone who has no qualification for the part, but whom neither friends nor the family clergyman can persuade into the decency of silence. It may be urged that Blast does not represent Futurism, but Vorticism. But, after all, what is Vorticism but Futurism in an English disguise--Futurism, one might call it, bottled in England, and bottled badly? One has only to compare the pictures of the Vorticists recently shown at the Goupil Gallery with the pictures of the Italian Futurists which are being shown at the Dore to see that the two groups differ from each other not in their aims, but in their degrees of competence. No one going through the gallery of Italian paintings and sculpture could fail to see that Boccioni, with all his freakishness, his hideousness, his discordant introduction of real hair, glass eyes, and so forth into his statuary, is an artist powerful both in imagination and in technique. His study of a woman in a balcony is of a kind to bring an added horror into a night of human sacrifices in the Congo. His representation of Matter destroys the appetite like a nightmare that has escaped from the obscene bowels of the sea. It produces, one cannot deny, an emotional effect, like some loathsome and shapeless thing. Compare with it most of the work that is being done in England under Futurist inspiration and you will see the immense difference in mere power. How seldom, apart from the work of Mr Nevinson and one or two others, one finds among the latter a picture that is more interesting to the imagination than a metal toast-rack! You see a picture that looks like a badly opened sardine-tin, and you discover that it is called "Portrait of Mother and Infant." You see another that looks as if someone had taken a pair of scissors and cut a Union Jack into squares and triangles, and had then rearranged the pieces at random in a patchwork quilt, and this, in turn, is labelled, say, "Tennyson reading In Memoriam to Queen Victoria." In either case, if the thing were done once, it might be funny. But the young artists are not content to have done it once. They keep on emptying the contents of ragbags and dustbins on to canvases in the most wearisome way. After a time one can neither laugh at them nor take them seriously. One can simply repeat the name of their new review with violent sincerity.

It is not, however, with the Futurists themselves that one's chief quarrel is. It is with the people who do not support the Futurists, but will not condemn them for fear of going down to posterity in the same boat as the people who once ridiculed Wagner and the Impressionists. This fear of the laughter of posterity is surely the last sign of decadence. It is the kind of thing that, in the religious world, would prevent you from criticising the Prophet Dowie or Mrs Eddy. It would compel you to take all new movements seriously simply because they were new. It would lead you to suspend your judgment about the Tango till you were in your grave and your grandchild could come and whisper posterity's verdict to your tombstone. It is, I agree, a fine thing to have a hospitable mind for new things--to be able to greet a Wordsworth or a Manet appreciatively on his first rising. Artists have the right to demand that their work shall be judged, not according to whether it fits in with certain old standards, but by its new power of affecting the emotions and the imagination. Great artists are continually extending the boundaries of their art, and there are, in the last resort, no rules to judge art by except that the artist must by one means or another succeed in bringing something to life. Boccioni satisfies the test in his sculpture, and therefore we must praise him, whether we like his methods or not. The majority of the Futurists, on the other hand, produce no more effect of life than a diagram in Euclid which has been crossed and blotted out with inks of various colours.

Even, however, when, as in the case of the sculptures of Boccioni and the paintings of Severini, we admit that a brilliant imagination is at work, we are not necessarily committed to belief in the methods through which that imagination happens to express itself. It is possible to enjoy Whitman's poetry without believing that he has laid down the essential lines for the poetry of the future. One may agree that Boccioni and Severini have justified their methods by results as far as they themselves are concerned; this does not mean that one agrees with them when they preach the adoption of their methods by artists in general. One takes the Futurist movement seriously, indeed, only because various clever men have joined it, and because young Italians, more than most of us, seem to be justified in some form of violent reaction against a past that oppresses them. Whether Futurism is merely the growing pains of a rejuvenated Italy, or whether it is a genuine manifestation of the old passion for violence which first showed itself on the day on which Cain killed Abel, it is difficult at times to say. Probably it is a little of both. "We wish," says Marinetti, praising violence like any Prussian, in a famous manifesto, "to glorify war--the only health-giver of the world--militarism, patriotism, the destructive aim of the Anarchist, the beautiful ideas that kill, the contempt for women." And, again: "We shall extol aggressive movement, feverish insomnia, the double quickstep, the somersault, the box on the ear, the fisticuff." It is very like Mr Kipling at the age of fourteen writing for a school magazine, if you could imagine a Kipling emancipated from religion and belief in British law and order. Later, as Marinetti proceeds to foretell the day on which the Futurists shall be slain by their still more Futuristic successors, the schoolboy wakes once more in him. "And Injustice, strong and healthy," he writes,--how one envies the fine flourish with which he does it!--"will burst forth radiantly in their eyes. For art can be naught but violence, cruelty, and injustice." One need not be too solemn with writing like that. It may be growing pains, or it may be a new jingoism of the individual, but, whichever it is, it is amusing nonsense. One begins to swear only when people above the school age insist upon taking it seriously as though it might contain a new gospel for humanity. It contains no new gospel at all. It is merely an entertaining restatement of an egoism of a kind that man was trying to discard before the days of bows and arrows. It is a schoolboyish plea for the revival of the tomahawk. It is a war-song played in a city street on the bottom of a tin can. It has no more to do with art than a display of penny fireworks, an imitation of barking dogs at the calves of old gentlemen, or the escapades of Valentine Vox. It has no relation to art whatsoever except from the fact that Marinetti himself is an exceedingly clever writer, as one may see from almost any of his manifestoes. One may turn for an example of his manner to the following passage from his summons to the young to destroy the museums, the libraries, and the academies ("those cemeteries of wasted efforts, those calvaries of crucified dreams, those ledgers of broken attempts!"):

Come, then, the good incendiaries with their charred fingers!... Here they come! Here they come!... Set fire to the shelves of the libraries! Deviate the course of canals to flood the cellars of the museums!... Oh! may the glorious canvases drift helplessly! Seize pick-axes and hammers! Sap the foundations of the venerable cities!

The oldest amongst us is thirty; we have, therefore, ten years at least to accomplish our task. When we are forty, let others, younger and more valiant, throw us into the basket like useless manuscripts!... They will come against us from afar, from everywhere, bounding upon the lightsome measure of their first poems, scratching the air with their hooked fingers, and scenting at the academy doors the pleasant odour of our rotting minds, marked out already for the catacombs of the libraries.

* * * * *

That is a vivid piece of humour. It is as amusing as Marinetti's portrait of himself at the Dore Gallery--a portrait the head of which is a clothes brush and the hat a tobacco tin--a toy which would be in its right place, not at an exhibition of paintings, and sculpture, but in the nursery squares of Mrs Bland's Magic City.

As a matter of fact, however, Futurism as an artistic method seems to have only the slightest connection with Marinetti's neo-Zarathustraisms. The Futurist painters give us, not the blood that Marinetti calls for, but diagrams as free from implications of bloodshed as a weather-chart or the illustrations in an engineering journal. These artists are not primarily concerned with protesting against the conversion of Italy into a "market for second-hand dealers." They aim at inventing a new kind of art which shall be able to paint, not objects in terms of form and colour, but the movements of objects and the states of mind of those who see them. They have invented a jargon about "simultaneousness," "dynamism," "ambience," and so forth, which is about as impressive as the writings of Mrs Eddy; and they paint in the same jargon in which they write. "Paint the soul, never mind the legs and arms," recommended the cleric in Fra Lippo Lippi. "Paint the simultaneousness, never mind the legs and arms," is the golden rule of the Futurists. They have conceived a strange contempt for the visible world. They tell us that a running horse "has not four legs, but twenty," but that is no reason for leaving the horse entirely out of the picture, as some of the enthusiasts do. They do not realise that our sensations about horse and the movements of horse can only be painted in terms of horse--that art is not a dissipation of life into wavy lines and dots and dashes, but the opposite. There may be a science of Futurism in which the "force-lines" of a horse or a motor car may be part of a useful diagram. These arbitrary lines, however, have no more to do with imaginative art than the plus and minus signs in arithmetic. Occasionally, of course, there is an obvious symbolism in the lines as in the charging angles which represent the dynamism of a motor car. But this is merely speed expressed by a commonplace symbol instead of by a symbolic impression of the flying car itself. This is an intellectual game rather than an art. Occasionally it gives us a wonderful piece of broken impressionism; but the stricter Futurists are symbolistic beyond all understanding. Their work is like an allegory, to the meaning of which one has no key--an allegory printed in the hieroglyphs of an unknown language.

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Robert Lynd's essay: The Futurists