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Art and Violence: Technology and Domination: Futurism and Fascism

Chris Sullivan looks back at the role of painters and writers who co-opted 1930s technology and modernity to espouse far-right ideas

Marinetti with other Futurists in 1916. Photo: Alamy

Art & ViolenceTechnology & DominationFuturism & Fascism

Chris Sullivan looks back at the role of painters and writers who co-opted 1930s technology and modernity to espouse far-right ideas

“Art, in fact, can be nothing but violence, cruelty, and injustice,” said the Italian poet and writer Filippo Tommaso Emilio Marinetti in Le Figaro, France’s most prestigious periodical, on 20 February 1909 – cementing the bond between fascism and art.

Contentious and unflinching, Marinetti later claimed that he saw the light after a minor car accident in 1908, which revealed to him that futurism and fascism would “destroy the museums, the libraries, every type of academy” and subsequently “glorify war – the world’s only hygiene – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for women”. 

Marinetti’s futurism was a scientific, fictional, utopian and political manifesto, with an obsession for fast cars, planes, warfare, death and cooking. 

“It is from Italy that we launch through the world this violently upsetting, incendiary manifesto of ours,” he wrote. “With it today, we establish futurism, because we want to free this country from its smelly gangrene of professors, archaeologists, ciceroni and antiquarians.”

And many Italians agreed. The Italian unification of 1870 had prompted a surge of nationalism that invigorated latent fascists who yearned for the return of the Roman Empire.

One such was Italy’s most prestigious writer, Gabriele D’Annunzio, a dedicated womaniser and exhibitionist. In 1892, he wrote that “men will be divided into two races. To the superior ones, who have raised themselves by the pure energy of their will, everything will be permitted, to the inferior ones nothing, or very little”.

D’Annunzio had achieved huge success with his novel The Triumph of Death (1894), his autobiographical novel The Child of Pleasure (1889) and his collection of verse Halcyon (1903). Rather like Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, D’Annunzio used his outspoken rhetoric, outlandish behaviour and subsequent notoriety to garner political success – winning an election in his native Abruzzi.

Although he was voted out after two years, D’Annunzio did not relent from fascism – composing aggravating nationalistic verse that he often recited in public. In 1903, he delivered a 5,000-word tribute to unification hero Giuseppe Garibaldi in Turin. Reporting the event for Gil Blas was Marinetti who, obviously impressed, let D’Annunzio’s ideas ferment. 

In 1910, Marinetti found support from three young artists – Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carra and Luigi Russolo – along with the upper-class futurist poet, Aldo Palazzeschi. With four disciples, he considered it apt to host a series of futurist evenings which, almost theatrical displays, allowed futurists to sermonise their manifestos in front of a crowd that, for the most part, came to boo, hiss and launch rotting fruit at the gang of five. 

Undeterred, in 1912 Marinetti published his most notorious work Zang Tumb Tumb – a written account of the Battle of Adrianople which he witnessed as a journalist covering the first war between Turkey and the Balkan states. A particularly striking technique was the raging onomatopoeia, variable font sizes and blunt industrial typography he deployed when rendering the sound of bombs and gunfire: “zang -tumb-tumb-zang-zang-tuuumb tatatatatatatata picpacpampacpacpicpampampac uuuuuuuuuuuuuuu.”

“We must abolish the adjective so that the naked noun can retain its essential colour,” he wrote.

Italian publisher Arnoldo Mondadori and the writer Gabriele D’Annunzio. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Archivi Mondadori

Touting these philosophies, Marinetti toured Europe – lecturing, shouting and gesticulating – until, by 1914, he had gained enough influence to urge Italy’s participation in World War One and be taken seriously. Perceiving the war as the height of human achievement and the apogee of modern technology, both Marinetti’s and D’Annunzio’s agitation for conflict reached a crescendo.

For his part, Marinetti enlisted and was seriously wounded in 1917 – using the end of the war to set up the Futurist Party in 1918. His mentor D’Annunzio, meanwhile, angered by the “mutilated victory” of the war, took control of Fiume (today the seaport of Rijeka in Croatia) on 12 September 1919, aided by his motley crew of 2,000 Italian nationalist irregulars – declaring it an independent state with himself as its ‘Duce’.

In his mini-empire, D’Annunzio implemented the black shirt uniform, the straight-armed salute, stressed the veneration of youth, virility, the fatherland, and thus created the future fascist blueprint. As Hitler said in 1941: “The brown shirt would probably not have existed without the black shirt.” D’Annunzio was not a fascist; fascism was D’Annunzio.

And so, Fiume became a refuge for anarchists, communists, fascists, drug dealers, criminals, bitter war veterans and prostitutes – all of whom followed their leader’s penchant for cocaine-fuelled orgies. 

D’Annunzio’s assault squadron – the arditti – was a gaggle of almost kamikaze warriors who, mainly homosexual, consumed narcotics as if they were going out of fashion. Having survived the war and the Spanish Flu, Fiume’s conquerors lived as rogues, while D’Annunzio – funded by drug-dealing and piracy – organised military processions every day to celebrate his dictatorship.

“Songs, dances rockets, fireworks, speeches. Eloquence! Eloquence!” reported one of the many journalists on hand. In the haze of his deified status, D’Annunzio a few months later declared war on Italy – an act that blew up in the face of the Duce and forced him to capitulate.

Fiume had operated for 15 months as a quasi-fascist republic – allowing Europe to glimpse the dark decades ahead. 

The regime was a beacon for Marinetti and the futurists. They sought to tear down the house, end every tradition and build anew. In his Manifesto of Futurist Cooking of 1930, Marinetti even condemned pasta – claiming that it was the cause of lassitude, pessimism and lack of virility. He predicted that pills would replace food, advocated the merits of processed food, and held events such as the ‘tactile dinner’, at which diners would don pyjamas ornamented with aluminium, sponge and sandpaper, while eating salad with their hands.

But, as unfathomable as some of the futurists’ events and philosophies might appear, as a group they were a tangible threat to democracy. They surfed the zeitgeist, using the era’s fascination with modernity to espouse far-right ideas.

In 1919, Marinetti’s Futurist Political Party merged with Benito Mussolini’s Fasci Italiani di Combattimento and, the following year, together with Alceste de Ambris, he wrote the Italian Fascist Party manifesto.

After the march on Rome on 28 October 1922, Mussolini and his black shirts took control of Italy in a bloodless coup. The following year, Marinetti joined the Novecento Italiano – an art movement organised by Mussolini’s mistress Margherita Sarfatti that, based on fascist philosophy, was thoroughly associated with the state propaganda machine.

Even though Marinetti espoused the virtues of modern art, he showed his true colours when Italy passed a series of anti-Semitic laws and he declared that futurism was purely Italian – adding that there were no Jews in futurism and that Jews were not active in the development of modern art.

Of course, the relevance today is that fascism, as propagated by the likes of the futurists, began its obnoxious ascendance in countries – Germany, Spain, Portugal, Greece, America, Brazil and Britain – directly after both a surge of nationalism and the Spanish Flu in the 1920s.

Seen as fashionable by many members of the upper-crust creative community in Britain, the Mitford brood was a case in point. Diana Mitford married British fascist leader Oswald Moseley, bore him two children and, due to her devotion to the Third Reich, spent most of the war in prison. Unity Mitford, meanwhile, was so obsessively dedicated to Hitler that she attempted suicide by shooting herself in the head on the day the UK declared war on Germany. Brother Tom refused to fight his beloved Nazis and instead fought the Japanese in Burma.

Fascism entails a macho, xenophobic patriotism that promises to put people first while turning them against one another.

Today, we see the re-emergence of this ideological trend, as extremists radicalise people against their neighbours. History is supposed to warn us against repeating our mistakes.

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