THE Futurists were prophets. Their avant-garde art movement was born of an explosion, a roaring manifesto that burst on the front page of Le Figaro on Beb. 20, 1909. "Time and space died yesterday," cried their clairvoyant bard, the poet Marinetti. "Destroy the museums! Set fire to the library!" The Futurist Manifesto was modern art's big bang.
Its echoes still reverberate -- in the noise of heavy-metal rock in the confusion of art happenings, in the joyous rage of punk. The Futurists loved speed, powerful machineds, dynamism, thrust, bombast and sensation. They saw war as hygienic."We sing the love of danger . . . exalt aggressive action, a feverish insomnia, the racer's stride, the moral leap, the punch and the slap." Whipping filaments of force would energize their active, still-amazing paintings. Though none had been produced when Marinetti's manifesto summoned them to battle, his bugle call already had changed the course of art.
There were five of them at first: 1mberto Boccioni, Carlo Carra, Gino Severinin, Luigi Russolo and F.T. Marinetti -- all from Italy, a nation they referred to as "that land of the dead." their passion was for movement, their religion was the newo. "Futurism and the International Avant-Garde," Anne d'Harnoncourt's revisionist exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, at last gives them their due.
There are 120 objects in this vertiginous display. None of them moves, but not one suggests rest. Giacomo Balla's charmingly blurred dachshund is perhaps the least belligerent painting in the show. A little dog is trotting it's floppy ears are flapping -- the motion catured in time-lapse serial images. Its dotted leash describes a jump-rope's sweeping curves.
The strange blue projectile of Luigi Russolo's "Dynamism of an Automobile" (1912-13) sends off pointed shock waves, like some modern missle cone photographed in flight. Carlo Carra's "Swimmers" (1910-11) seem to have dissolved into flowing water. Though a train ride is the subject of Boccioni's tryptich -- the locomotive belches smoke, lights fly by the window -- we see not juxt the passengers, buth their states of mind. Their swirling thoughts embrace those they leave behind; soon the shaking motion of the speeding train lulls them into jagged, blue and rhtymic sleep. Behind them, in the station, those who saw them off slink into the steam like so amny gray-green ghosts.
"Unique Forms of Continuity in Space," Boccioni's 1913 statue, is an undisputed masterpiece. That forceful, striding figure is a demigod as muscular, and just as imposing, as those of Michelangelo. Although cast of bronze, it too is seen in motion, The Futurists proclaimed a world in ceaseless flux.
There are dusty pendants still who dismiss their swirling pictures as relatively minor things, mere "Cubism with curves." The Futurists themselves would hav spat on that contention. There was nothing they loathed more thant the "gangrene of professors," except, of course, the timid. And what could be more timid than gray analytic paintings, "motionless and frozen," of sharply splintered absinthe glasses and fragmented guitars? Cubism, indeed!
Why not, the asked, "shake the gates of life, test the bolts and hinges?" Why not paint the fierce, the "violently upsetting," the hurtling of motorcars, "the glittering of knives" and "deep-chested locomotives whose wheels paw the tracks?" Why not bring to painting wholly modern subjects, emotions and sensations?
Calm artists armed with scalpels seem to have produced the patiently dissected pictures of the Cubists. But nothing is at rest in the writhing, hotly colored paintings of the Furturists. They were not scientists but warriors. "Wreck, wreck," they cried. "We hurl defiance at the stars."
The Philadelphia exhibit lets us for the first time see the Futurists in context. Their works are displayed telling and surprisingly with other works of art form England, France, America, Germany and Russia. Henri Mattise, Marcel Duchamp, his brother, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Wyndham Lewis, David Bomberg, Malevich and Kandinsky, John ymarin and Max Weber, and even the young Piet Mondrian -- all of whom were moved, to some degree or other, by the Futurists example -- play supporting roles in d'Harnoncourt's exhibit. Her show, in a thoughtful way, hurls scholarly defiance at those Francophilic formalists who have for so long argued that France, and only France, gave birth to modern art.
The Futurists of Italy (except for Bonccioni, the one master among them) may not rank today with the greatest moder artists -- with Mondrian, Malevich, Duchamp and Matisse -- but they were pioneers. They had glimpsed something new.
"We affirm," wrote Marinetti in 1909, "that the world's magnificene has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed." "A roaring car," he added, "is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace."
One glance at Boccioni's 1913 masterwork shows the eerie aptness of Marinetti's simile. Boccioni's statue, though dynamic as a speeding car, is another striding figure, armless like the Victory. Perhaps it is worth noting that four Italian Guturists -- Balla, Boccioni, Carra, Severini -- were reporesented in "PostImpressionism," the Royal Academy's exhibit which, last summer, visited the National Gallery of Art. Balla painted both electric light and moonlight. The grandly plunging horses the Futurists so frequently protrayed represented power, and they thought the bicycle a symbol of high speed. To modern eyes, the Futurist will seem, like Boccioni's statue, to have one foot in the future, one in the past.
Visionary painters paint what must be seen. Perhaps it may be argued that all the most important abstract paintings of our century portray acceleration, and the sense of all-at-onceness evoked b y high velocity. The vastly speedy paintings made by Jackson Pollock, Warhol's serial images and Barnett Newman's "zips" allow the eye no rest. to graze a field painting is to sense the world in motion. The painters of the 19th centruy Protrayed a world in stasis. The Futurists of Italy were among the first to bring that old art up to speed.
Balla painted his trotting dog in Rome; Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase No.2" is a picture made in Paris; Kasimir Malevich's "The Knife Grinder (Principles of Glittering)" is a work from Moscow. It is astounding to consider that these three works of art all date from 1912. There is no way of knowing if one of these artists influenced the others. Piet Mondrian's curve-filled "Trees in Bloom" was completed the same year. Futurism's spirit, if it may be called that, would soon be felt in Germany (see "The Sidewheeler" of Feininger, a work of 1913), by John Marin in our own land, and by the Vorticists in England. Complex art ideas that cannot quite be caught dart from Mondrain to Matisse, from Kupka to Kandinsky, in this exhibition. Their works are so alike, and yet strangely different. One leaves the show convinced that Marinetti's manifesto manifested something already in the air.
There was anger in his summons, perhaps a hint of fascism, and not a little humor. Later manifestos -- "Futurist Manifesto of Lust" (1913), "Down with the Tango and Parsifal" (1914) -- glittered with high spirits. One of these, "Down with Passatist Venice," was "launched on July 8, 1910, in the form of 800,000 leaflets thrown from the clock tower onto the crowd in the Piazza San Marco. If Russolo's "noise intoners" -- large electrical machines that in 1914 filled the London Coliseum with vastly amplified crackles, buzzes, howls and scrapings -- prefigured rock 'n roll, it may be claimed as justly that much in Marinetti's writings -- "we will sing of arsenals" -- seemed a call for war.
Futurism, like much else, did not survive the trenches. With an awful irony perfectly appropriate to that slaughter, Boccioni died in 1916 after falling from a horse that had been startled by a train. By 1918, when the Dadaist Tristan Tzara mimicked 'Marinetti -- "I am on principle against manifestos as I am also against principles" -- Futurism's confidence had bowed to the absurd.
The Philadelphia exhibit could not have been mounted without loans from the famous New York collection of Dr. and Mrs. Barnett Malbin, the finest in this country, as well as others from the holdings of the Museum of Modern Art. The show will not travel. It closes Jan. 4.