“The motorcycle jumps, then intoxicated with joy, hurls quivering on the dusty road. / I run and run, but I never seem to be fast enough, and I want to increase speed by angrily pushing on the lever. / The machine restores its strength and doubles its speed / Now wheels don’t touch the ground anymore: they fly, and fly…” [‘Aeropoet’ Bruno Giordano Sanzin, ‘In the Arms of Speed the Goddess’ (1924)]
The Italian Futurists, a group of artists devoted to speed, noise, technology, youth, and violence, were the first and only modern art movement to embrace the motorcycle as subject matter. Don’t take it too personally, though, as they equally celebrated cars, planes, and trains too, and while each of those continued under the spotlight of later art movements (think Surrealist trains, Vorticist planes, and Pop Art automobiles), the motorcycle was never again included in any significant way into the Modern Art canon. What the Futurists loved about motorcycles was an abstract love for speed and noise, and at least in some cases (as our opening poem illustrates), the actual experience of having a motorcycle between your legs. That subjective experience apparently ceased to be of interest to later painters and sculptors, although writers, photographers, musicians and filmmakers have celebrated the motorcycle extensively in the past 100 years.
So, we thank the Futurists for digging ‘our thing’…but who were they anyway? The seed of Futurism was planted literally ‘by accident’ in 1909, when Filippo Marinetti drove his car into a ditch to avoid a pair of cyclists, and was thrown into a drainage channel. He emerged transformed – baptized by the automobile – and immediately began formulating an ideology celebrating the tools of the future, and their implications for society. His ‘Futurist Manifesto’ arrived on the doorstep of the Italian and French bourgeoisie in 1909, via two popular newspapers (Gazzetta dell’Emilia in Bologna, and Le Figaro all across France), who published the tract on their font pages. It was immediately the talk of the town all over Europe, as the Futurist Manifesto was the first art manifesto published in the 20th Century, although not the first art manifesto – painter Gustave Courbet wrote a Realist manifesto in 1855, and initiated a déluge of artists making quasi-political statements in a numbered list. Courbet was inspired by a very long tradition of political manifestos, which date back a thousand years, and includes the Declaration of Independence.
Motorized vehicles were relatively new in 1909, and all types were worthy of the Futurists’ attention, despite their wobbly beginnings at this early stage. It may seem quaint to read the Futurists’ nearly hysterical engagement with what appear today as slow and clunky vehicles, but artists see beyond the literal, and are typically first to read the social undercurrents beneath any new technology or social trend. So it was with the Futurists, who foresaw enormous changes ahead for an individually mobilized society, where the barriers of distance are eradicated, and the whole world is suddenly within reach. They proclaimed the transformation of society, and they were correct, sometimes disturbingly so.
The Futurists were poets, painters, sculptors, and performance artists, who broke the rules of printed texts with their published writing, scattering words across a page to evoke chaos or excitement (see Zang Tumb Tumb), and inventing sound-poetry to imitate the sonic landscape of the modern era (you can hear Marinetti’s amazing sound poetry here). Their public performances and rule-breaking on the printed page (which Marinetti called ‘words in freedom’) were a huge influence to later art movements like Dada, but the Futurists weren’t interested in chaos for its own sake (like Dada), art for art’s sake, or psychology (like Surrealism); they were trying to capture a new energy in the world through art.
While the Futurists were an art movement initially, it wasn’t long before their aggressive energy, exhortations to violence, and ardent nationalism found a connection with contemporary politics. “We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for…” Marinetti founded the Futurist Political Party in 1918, which he then merged with Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Party, as they thought (and fought) alike, landing in jail together more than once at pro-Fascist demonstrations before 1920. Marinetti even co-wrote the Fascist Manifesto with Alceste De Ambris in 1919, and similarities between his two great manifestos puts a damper on the nutty charm of the Futurist Manifesto.
The Futurists’ fascination with propaganda and visual messaging had a lasting influence on graphic design, especially the commercial work of Fortunato Depero, whose posters for Campari and Bianchi, and covers for Vanity Fair, are the stuff of legend. His painting style was a great influence on other artists as well. Other significant Futurist artists included Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Giacomo Balla, Gino Severini, Ugo Giannattasio, Mario Sironi, and Gerardo Dottori. Of all the Futurists, it was Ivo Pannaggi who really dug bikes the most, and carried on painting them in a Modernist style into the late 1930s, by which time the Futurist movement was politically unpopular, as Modern Art was considered ‘Jewish’ in Germany, and Hitler pressured Mussolini (who really didn’t care what kind of painting Italians did) to join his suppression of Modern Art. While the Nazi party had denounced Modern Art since the 1920s, it wasn’t until 1937 that an amazing collection of 650 confiscated paintings and sculptures were exhibited in Munich at the ‘Entartete Kunst’ (Degenerate Art) exhibit…which was probably the greatest Modern Art exhibit of the 20th Century, despite its chaotic display and insulting labels. Despite the fact that Marinetti had a hand spawning Fascism in Italy, Hitler’s pressure on Mussolini to toe the party line meant the Futurism was suddenly at the end of its tether in 1937, despite Marinetti’s protestations that ‘There are no Jews in Futurism!” Revolutions eat their children, and their artists, too.
MANIFESTO OF FUTURISM
We want to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness.
The essential elements of our poetry will be courage, audacity and revolt.
Literature has up to now magnified pensive immobility, ecstasy and slumber. We want to exalt movements of aggression, feverish sleeplessness, the double march, the perilous leap, the slap and the blow with the fist.
We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath … a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.
We want to sing the man at the wheel, the ideal axis of which crosses the earth, itself hurled along its orbit.
The poet must spend himself with warmth, glamour and prodigality to increase the enthusiastic fervor of the primordial elements.
Beauty exists only in struggle. There is no masterpiece that has not an aggressive character. Poetry must be a violent assault on the forces of the unknown, to force them to bow before man.
We are on the extreme promontory of the centuries! What is the use of looking behind at the moment when we must open the mysterious shutters of the impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We are already living in the absolute, since we have already created eternal, omnipresent speed.
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.
We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.
We will sing of the great crowds agitated by work, pleasure and revolt; the multi-colored and polyphonic surf of revolutions in modern capitals: the nocturnal vibration of the arsenals and the workshops beneath their violent electric moons: the gluttonous railway stations devouring smoking serpents; factories suspended from the clouds by the thread of their smoke; bridges with the leap of gymnasts flung across the diabolic cutlery of sunny rivers: adventurous steamers sniffing the horizon; great-breasted locomotives, puffing on the rails like enormous steel horses with long tubes for bridle, and the gliding flight of aeroplanes whose propeller sounds like the flapping of a flag and the applause of enthusiastic crowds.
All other major art movements of the 20th Century virtually ignored the motorcycle as subject matter, although they occasionally appear in an individual artist’s body of work (see our Billy Al Bengston article here). Perhaps the dynamism and danger of motorcycling became too closely associated with the Futurists, who were the last to celebrate any kind of machinery as romantic. More likely, such optimism was simply considered naive after two World Wars, and as the novelty of personal transport wore off, becoming an ordinary part of life. Despite their politics, the imagery produced by the Futurists remains among the most exciting and visually inspiring interpretations of the motorcycle ever put to canvas.
The Fondazione Prada in Milan is currently hosting a terrific exhibit, ‘Post Zang Tumb Tuum. Art Life Politics Italia: 1918-1943’ which includes significant Futurist art, including the fabric-collage of Depero shown below. It’s a fascinating piece of curation, eschewing a lot of art-talk about the work itself, and replacing the usual wall panel discussion with a timeline of political events between those dates. Reading the wall text a bit like watching a film of a cataclysmic accident, in which you know the ending, but must read the particulars in horror.