Saturday, 10 May 2008

Attacking the canon is always dangerous, especially if, as in Maurizio Calvesi's case, you are cultural establishment.

And especially if you are Italian. Or French. Or German. In such nations culture is a point of pride, a distinguishing referent shared by all, a sign of ‘developed’ status.

It is taken seriously.

There is one unfortunate aspect of the public sphere in these countries, however. Especially in countries such as Italy and Germany where the fascist era coincided with post-industrial Modernity. (In Britain it coincided with the Renaissance.) A cultural product associated too closely with the period is automatically stigmatised.

It’s not surprising that in his 1973 Boccioni monograph Calvesi starts apologising in the first sentence of the first paragraph on the first page.

Self-censorship is political. Here it’s the knee-jerk submission - doff your cap when you pass the seigneur - required within democracy’s subtle realpolitik.

As is the belief that eugenics were practised and studied only in fascist countries during the mid part of last century. There is a taint of participation simply by saying ’Futurist’.

The colour of the label - the yellow of shame, the green of sickness, the black of collective blindness - is not always deserved. It is true that some Futurists, like Marinetti, prospered under Mussolini. Others, like Boccioni, died in WWI.

Ironically thrown from a horse, as he would have preferred crushing by a tank or bombing from the air. I'm sure.

There are many layers in any art movement. Often the reason for the original impetus - frequently political or nationalistic - is lost in time. We just don’t remember, or else nobody told us.

Joyce was undoubtedly influenced by Futurism - exposed to such artefacts as Boccioni’s ‘movement’ drawings - included in the monograph - and which are part of classical Modernism. While living in Trieste he also made a careful study of the reclusive Ettore Schmitz. He went further, into the realms of narrative (whence all things spring).

The relationship would blossom in Bloom - the Ulysses character - but the style is outlandishly Modernist. It shows the fragmentary, synchronous perception Futurists conflated into their boyish enthusiasm for the products of modernity: aeroplanes, trains and cars.

But Joyce showed us how expressive are our imperfections. He made this into a universal virtue. The Futurists, on the other hand, overawed by London’s inherent dynamism, associated their aesthetic response to modernity only with its technology-rich cultural artefacts.

In the same way, people today from developing countries automatically recognise ‘progress’ in a big bridge, but will not be aware of the reason for its existence.

The futurists visited London - the ‘engine room’ of advanced capitalism - and, struck with elemental ideas of ‘speed’ and ‘movement’, would bring home new doctrines. They fashioned an image of modernity for the purposes of participation in the public sphere. They felt it was 'their' time.

Sure, Mussolini appropriated Modernist aesthetics, but pity poor Calvesi in 1973. Why an apology at all? A Boccioni design is struck on the Italian 20 cent Euro. Some sort of rehabilitation, at least.

Calvesi may have helped by writing:

[T]his vision of movement as an absolute, as energy that is latent in the body, whether mobile or at rest, can be set against the narrow idea of movement as displacing a body in space, from one fixed point to another: what Boccioni calls ‘relative movement’, but he allows for it only as a complementary representation, not a mandatory one, of ‘absolute movement’. He privileges a universal dynamism, and simultaneity ...

That Futurism was reductively interpreted as a pure representation of ‘relative movement’ was, in fact, intolerable for Boccioni. He looks askance at colleagues who, like Balla in 1912, adopted as the keystone and justification for his futurist figurations the cinematographic principle of the persistence of images on the retina, depicting a small dog passing with a disproportionate number of feet, in homage to their pictorial manifesto’s clause - one that Boccioni must immediately have thought very dangerous: “a galloping horse does not have four hoofs, but twenty, and their movements are triangular”.

Calvesi excuses the good boy from a classroom filled with miscreants.

He talks of Boccioni’s “idiosyncrasy” (a 'plus') in a context coloured (positively, for us) by the presence of Henri Bergson. The philosopher, Calvesi says, opposed (such tendencies as Boccioni’s) “schematic or successive reproduction of the static and the moving” with the “so-called” “spacialised time” of the scientific positivists.

“A pure dimension of consciousness” Calvesi calls it, referring to Bergson’s 1922 ‘Duration and Simultaneity: Bergson and the Einsteinian Universe’.

Boccioni was not interested, says Calvesi, in "merely" physical phenomena (the duration of images on the retina). Rather, he looked at how ‘duration’ manifested itself in memory. This (possibly bogus) distinction shifts the reader's focus away from ‘bad’ mechanistic and utilitarian notions of Modernity.

And brings it to bear on mainstream Modernism: Proust, Joyce and, even, the seminal scene at the end of Anna Karenin - here the doomed heroine is in a cab watching streets and shops pass, on her way to the train station and death.

In Proust, a world comes to life via flavour. In Joyce, every artefact (verbal, visual) has a political connotation and it is linked to the personal - linked deep.

In Tolstoy’s 1877 book (which drew heavily for its plot on Flaubert’s 1856 Madame Bovary) the individual suddenly becomes important - truly a revelation for a Russian intellectual.

It was this revelatory thing that inspired the writer to empathise - on the page - to see the world - ‘through Anna’s eyes’.

But Calvesi is drawing a long bow when he tries too hard to 'rehabilitate' Boccioni. The fact is that the artist escaped most of the stigma of Futurism because of the good luck (!) to die before 1922 - the year of (then-socialist) Mussolini’s inaugural piece of street theatre: The march on Rome.

When we look at Boccioni’s drawings, we see a youthful attempt to do something worthy of his social position, but we don't see more existential angst than, say, Bonnard.

We will not find a visual analogue of Joyce, Proust or Tolstoy.

Boccioni is like, in an Australian context, the artist Charles Conder. Conder revered French paintings, as of course did others at the same time. But he never really ‘got it’; it was always pure display - superficial and ultimately trite.

Nothing that Boccioni drew - Calvesi puts the date 1911 on the meeting of Futurists and Cubists - outdid the Parisians (Braque, Picasso). The latter is infinitely superior to such as Boccioni.

What these young Italians did - ultimately - was to show the rest of the world their excitement. The thrill of untold wealth and advanced technology. The fruits of democracy; but this last connection they didn't really understand. Few do now, even.

It is unfortunate that their sense of identity was sullied by association with the purely political. We blame them for not foretelling the future.

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