The Best New Books on Futurism

The Best New Books on Futurism

Inventing Futurism: the Art and Politics of Artificial Optimism
By Christine Poggi (Princeton University Press; Princeton, New Jersey)

Placing Futurism in its historical context and shedding light on several under-studied areas of the movement, this book, by a leader in the field, is essential reading. Countering the standard notion that the Futurists were naive technology worshippers, Poggi argues that they were fundamentally ambivalent in their response to industrial modernity. Her chapters serve as case studies of a rich variety of subjects, including the rise of the city, accelerated travel and growing urban crowds, changing gender roles, the cults of the machine and war, and the impact of Fascism. Poggi’s methodologies are equally diverse: she deftly mixes art-historical studies of paintings and other artworks with intellectual history, the social currents of everyday life in early 20th-century Italy, and literary and gender theory. The result is an incisive study of Futurism that reveals the movement’s vast complexity.

Critical Writings: F. T. Marinetti
Edited by Günter Berghaus and translated by Doug Thompson (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; New York)

Incendiary and bombastic, F. T. Marinetti is always a delight to read. Indeed, his writings are, in many ways, the keystone of Futurism, and this collection is a crucial and long-needed contribution to the field. Manifesto writing was central to the Futurist project: between 1909 and 1912 alone, Marinetti and his fellow artists published more than 30 manifestos, describing the movement’s goals for complete cultural and political revolution. Editor Günter Berghaus has expanded the selection of Marinetti’s works available in English, spanning the years 1909 through 1933, and included texts now considered to be central to understanding Futurism, along with providing his own extensive editorial notes. Political manifestos are especially emphasized, but so are texts on Futurist art, theater, and even radio.

Radical Light: Italy’s Divisionist Painters, 1891-1910
By Simonetta Fraquelli, Giovanna Ginex, Vivien Greene, and Aurora Scotti Tosini (National Gallery; London)

As the dominant art movement of Italy in the 1890s, Divisionism immediately preceded Futurism and was the starting place for many of the Futurist painters. This exhibition (which was recently on view in London and Zurich) provided a rare opportunity to see Divisionist art outside Italy, and the catalogue provides excellent information on both the movement itself and its ties to Futurism. Several of the essays focus on explicating Futurism’s Divisionist roots: both groups were motivated by social dissatisfaction and a belief that art could be an agent of political change. Stylistically, the Futurists used Divisionism as the central component of their painting technique until their exposure to Cubism in 1911. Radical Light stands as an essential work for anyone aiming to gain a full picture of Italian modernism.

By Ester Cohen, Matthew Gale, Didier Ottinger, and Giovanni Lista (5 Continents Editions/Centre Pompidou; Milan, Paris)

The exhibition for which this book serves as the catalogue is one of the most expansive of the centennial year, opening at the Centre Pompidou and traveling to Rome’s Quirinal this month and London’s Tate Modern in June. It takes as its starting point the Futurists’ 1912 show at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris. With this initial exhibition, the Futurists gained international exposure and began to impact avant-gardes throughout Europe. In tribute to this Continental dialogue, the curators have placed Futurism alongside many of its close cousins: French Cubism and Simultanism, Russian Cubo-Futurism, and British Vorticism are all well represented, as are several lesser-known players, such as the vibrant Czech painter Frantisek Kupka and the French Futurist Félix del Marle. The show and catalogue powerfully draw out the shared Futurist themes of these years — dynamism, modernity, speed, sport — and underscore how fundamental Futurism was to the character of early 20th-century modernism.

Vertigo: A Century of Multimedia Art, from Futurism to the Web
By Germano Celant and Gianfranco Maraniello(Skira/Thames and Hudson; Geneva, London)

Germano Celant, known best as the founding critic of arte povera, has also long defended Futurism as one of the most advanced avant-gardes of the 20th century. While Futurism was being dismissed as second-rate Cubism or simply fascistic, Celant and his fellow Italian writers recognized how much the Futurists anticipated later avant-garde experiments. Vertigo pays homage to the Futurists’ engagement with new media, emergent technologies, and the merging of art and life by tracing developments in multimedia art over the course of the century. Arguing that the Futurists were the first to see the barrier dropping between fine art and other modern tools of communication, Celant has included a diverse range of artists who, as he puts it, recognize "the fluidity of confines between media." The book represents the early part of the century with technology-savvy avant-gardes such as Dada and Russian Formalism; the second half of the century begins with giants such as Warhol, Tinguely, and Arman, continues with the first generation of video artists, and arrives at the present day with selections as wide-ranging as Thomas Hirschhorn, Vanessa Beecroft, and William Kentridge.

Jennifer Bethke is an art historian who writes on Italian modernism.

"The Best New Books on Futurism" originally appeared in the February 2009 issue of Modern Painters. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Modern Painters' February 2009 Table of Contents.