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How the Italian avant-garde survived the trenches of World War I

Umberto Boccioni’s Charge of the Lancers. Wikimedia Commons

How the Italian avant-garde survived the trenches of World War I

Milan, July 1915: 600 volunteer soldiers on bicycles make their way through the city streets, showered with sweets and cigarettes, as three planes overhead unfurl Italian tricolours. Among these soldiers was Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the poet-cum-journalist who had founded the futurist cultural movement six years earlier. Beside him on their bicycles were fellow futurists, Umberto Boccioni, Luigi Russolo, Mario Sironi and Antonio Sant’Elia.

Marinetti launched his revolutionary avant-garde movement in 1909 to an unsuspecting public and the group made forays into the fields of literature, painting, sculpture, music and architecture. He sought to break all links with the past and praised all manifestations of modern life, including automobiles, steamships, electricity and the telegraph.

Although Marinetti initially wrote the Futurist Manifesto of 1909 in French, the movement was highly nationalist with the intention of revitalising a stagnant Italy. Such a goal could be achieved through war, which Marinetti famously called “the sole hygiene of the world”. In 1913, he claimed that he and the futurists would go to war “dancing and singing”.

Striding forth: Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913. Sharon Mollerus/Flickr, CC BY

When World War I broke out in Europe in August 1914, it finally seemed as if Marinetti and his futurist followers would have the chance to put their words into action. Their bellicose ambitions were thwarted, however, by the decision of the Italian government to remain neutral in the global conflict. After much posturing, but little effective or decisive action on their part, the futurists’ dreams were finally realised with the entry of Italy into the war on the side of the allies in May 1915.

So it was that the futurists found themselves departing on bicycles for the Italian frontlines. Although a seemingly incongruous mode of transport for the self-styled lovers of all things modern, in fact the cyclist soldiers were to be used for advance reconnaissance – literally forming the avant-garde of the Italian army. Marinetti ended the war in 1918, however, not on a bicycle, but inside an armoured tank, which for him became an erotic object that he lovingly called his “steel alcove” and dubbed his “new mistress”.

Apart from the exuberant canvases that Giacomo Balla and Gino Severini painted during Italy’s neutrality, futurism did not produce much in the way of war art. From 1915 on, the futurists were more concerned with fighting than with painting. Instead, many of them submitted visual poetry, hastily penned in the trenches, to futurist periodicals, which were signed “Futurist at the front” or “Futurist injured at the front”.

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, author of the Futurist Manifesto. Wikipedia

From the summer of 1918, Sironi was editor of the trench newspaper, Il Montello, and focused his attention on propaganda. Marinetti, meanwhile, turned his attention away from experimental literature, such as his pre-war Zang Tumb Tumb, and towards crowd-pleasing and semi-erotic bestsellers with titles such as How to Seduce Women (1917) and The Island of Kisses (co-written with Bruno Corra, 1918).

Their aim was not to produce high art during the war years but to engage with ordinary people on the home front and soldiers on the frontlines. The strategy worked. While before the war, the press and the general public in Italy had derided the bombastic rhetoric and provocative stance of the futurists, their dedicated service in the army (and the fact that many of them served as volunteers) earned them a new respect.

Never one to fail to take advantage of an opportunity, Marinetti sought to capitalise on this change in public sentiment. Shortly after the end of the war, in spring 1919, he staged a major exhibition of futurist work – but conspicuously absent were the works of any futurist, such as Umberto Boccioni, who had perished during the conflict. His message was clear: futurism had survived the war, a little bruised perhaps but intact. Under his direction, the movement would continue to exist throughout the fascist period and right up until his death in 1944.