I n 1909, when the Manifesto of Futurism was published in French newspaper Le Figaro, it sent shockwaves through the art world of the time: Marinetti claimed to reject all art that had come before him, calling for the demolition of museums in order to wipe out the past, and glorifying modernity, speed, violence, war, and the machine. His thunderous 1915 collage ZANG TUMB TUUUM perfectly encapsulates this view.
Sotheby’s is delighted to present a collection of thirty pieces on paper of the heroic period of Futurism (1909-1918).
Scroll through for more artworks.
The Typographic Revolution of Words in Freedom
With Parole in libertà (Words-in-Freedom), Marinetti revolutionised the typographic page: "Their words-in-freedom are bombs, or better yet torpedoes". Disregarding the usual rules of writing, he created a totally new oeuvre, playing with an unprecedented typographic design and layout: scattered across the page, words follow one another without logic, the rules of syntax and punctuation are flouted with the use of repetition and characters of different sizes. During futurist performances, Marinetti would recite these free-form compositions.
War, the World’s Only Hygiene
If the Futurists were fascinated by war ("the world’s only hygiene", said Marinetti in his manifesto), it was because they saw it as a way of wiping the slate clean of the past, in order to give birth to a new art. Marinetti's collage Zang Tumb Tuuum is a violent representation of combat. In 1915, Acciaio, in his Dimostrazione Interventista, illustrated the support given by the Futurists to Italy's entry into the war. Later, Angelo Rognoni in Scuola Militare + Lancio di Bombe portrayed this terrible war, where he describes the violent trench fighting in which he participated. Another combatant, Jamar 14, pseudonym of Piero Gigli, drew a kneeling figure in prayer formed by the assembling of letters and numbers: Preghiera (“Prayer”) is probably a work done to show his gratitude for having survived the war, in spite of having sustained serious injuries.
Simultaneity and Movement
Just as Boccioni represented several movements of a figure in a single sculpture, the Futurists sought to represent several actions simultaneously in a single drawing. Paolo Buzzi (Un attimo della mia giornata a Palazzo Monforte), but also Mario Carli (La Stazione Mestre è un Inferno), Volt (Caffè della Posta) and Angelo Rognoni (Caffè in Giorno Estivo) were early members of the Futurist movement and expressed their fascination with the hustle and bustle of railway stations and cafés, conveying the effervescence and cacophonous noises that reigned there, while Acciaio or Rognoni (Lancio di Bombe) depicted military actions using this same principle.
The Young Futurists
The charismatic Marinetti was surrounded by young artists who identified with the newness of his movement. Among them, Francesco Cangiullo's younger brother, who called himself Pasqualino, was one of the most brilliant: at the age of fifteen, he produced some of his most striking works: his Chiaro di luna offers an unusual, nocturnal view of a street in perspective, while his Golfo di Napoli! recreates the bay of Naples in lettering. Other names of note among the other young recruits of the movement were Luciano De Nardis, Gino Cantarelli and Angelo Rognoni.
This collection of Futurist works on paper was patiently amassed over several decades by a great collector of avant-garde and contemporary art. We spoke with him to understand his fascination for these works, and how he managed to assemble so many unique works which are usually not available on the market. He answers us with enthusiasm and erudition.
Futurist words-in-freedom are at the centre of your collection, and they form an exceptional array that has never been shown as a whole. How did you constitute this collection?
I had the exceptional luck that these Futurist works remained confidential following the eruption of WWI, which interrupted the Futurists’ projects (exhibitions, publications) and prevented the movement from fully resonating at the moment when Futurist creativity was so extraordinary. They remained among the artists’ families for decades. This is probably one of the last collections from this heroic period of Futurism (1909-1918) that is still in private possession. Moreover, only the collections held by the MOMA in New York City feature comparable works by Marinetti or Cangiullo.
Several of the works come from Marinetti himself: how did you acquire them?
My most fortunate encounter as a collector was with Luce Marinetti. Thanks to her, I was able to discover an almost unknown period of art history and retrace the artistic itinerary of Marinetti and his Futurist companions. During our countless discussions in Paris, Milan and Rome, she described to me her visionary father, and how he orchestrated the movement from his magical grotto of an office, where he assembled all his Futurist manuscripts and works. This speed-loving artist rose quickly to fame, and he lived his life like a word-in-freedom, looking only forward: “Standing on the world’s summit, once again we hurl our defiance at the stars.” (Manifesto of Futurism).
Can you tell us more about the revolution brought about by words-in-freedom?
Marinetti was the first artist to revolt against the page linearity imposed by books and printed materials, which have been structuring the mode of Western thought since Gutenberg.
Marinetti’s words-in-freedom are a revolution against the very way in which messages are perceived, a problem at the heart of modern art well summarised by the communication theorist Marshall McLuhan: “The message is the medium".
These words-in-freedom compositions detonate traditional language: the words float across the page, destroying syntax and logic, abolishing punctuation, and combining words and sounds, onomatopoeia and repetitions. These compositions are intended to visually reproduce their literal meaning, and to immediately bring forth strong emotions. These are visual works to admire as much as they are poems to read, or rather to declaim, as Marinetti did.
A century before the advent of Internet and social networks, words-in-freedom were already playing on the immediacy of information, its transmission and its understanding. The works also prefigured advertising art and the language of our instant message culture (emoticons, memes, GIFs).
This revolution was at the heart of the artistic revolt of the 1910s, and it influenced all the avant-garde movements that followed (Dadaism, Constructivism, Surrealism).
You are a modern and contemporary art collector. Why is Futurism essential to you?
I sought to trace the history of the avant-gardes back to the artistic Big Bang of the 20th century. Marinetti’s creation of Futurism in 1909 was one of the founding pillars of modern art. This radically innovative movement demanded that people adapt to the modern world, its speed and its technical progress. The ambition of the Futurists was global and all-encompassing: they wanted to change absolutely everything, from the visual arts to music to architecture to writing and even cookery. The movement appears more pertinent than ever in today’s world, where our speed has become the instantaneousness of the Internet and where our machines are rockets sent to colonise Mars.
What do you think about the Futurist fascination with media?
From its beginnings, Futurism has been a masterful stroke of media exposure. The publication of Marinetti’s Manifesto in the headlines of Le Figaro brought the author and the movement to centre stage, and it is one of the first-ever examples of an artist’s use of the large-scale media to communicate with the masses. Marinetti could be described as the first-ever artist-publicist, as shown by his many Futurist manifestos, promotional jaunts to the artistic capitals of Europe, spectacular demonstrations, calls to insurrection, evening ‘happenings’, tract releases from the top of the Clock Tower in Venice, and so on. In this accelerating world where humanity was becoming lost in favour of technical progress, symbols and information, Marinetti and the Futurists were seeking the best means to communicate to the masses, in a dynamic, simultaneous, immediate way. Indeed, communication is the keystone to Futurist art, the driver for transforming society so that every creative expression could become Futurist.