THE GUILLOTINE

Twentieth-Century Classics That Won't Last No 46: FILIPPO MARINETTI
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The Independent Culture
The history of 20th-century art has been supremely a history of "isms". A handful of these have entered the sociocultural bloodstream, notably Cubism (a term now employed indiscriminately to describe virtually any painting of abstract or semi-abstract angularity) and Surrealism (whose adjectival form "surreal" has become shorthand for any even mildly bizarre experience). Others cling on frantically to the coat-tails of their most prestigious practitioners - how diminished would be the reputation of Fauvism, for example, were it not for the genius of Matisse. And others already resonate with the hollow ring of words bound for the dustbins of history. Quickly, now - name a Vorticist!

Or, for that matter, a Futurist. If Futurism is the saddest case of all, it's because of the hubris which its spokesman, the indefatigable Filippo Marinetti, courted in his choice of name for the movement, a hubris to which it duly fell victim. Is there any word quite as passe-sounding as "futuristic"? If it still has a science-fiction feel to it, it's surely the earliest examples of the genre that it reminds one of - Verne and Wells, the past's, rather than the present's, conception of the future.

Marinetti, a diminutive, pugnacious tyrant, eternally struggling to keep his troops in line, wrote manifestos the way other people write thank- you notes. (A whole collection of them was published several years ago, and quite a slab of a volume it was.) In febrile thrall to the cult of speed and movement, war and destruction, he worshipped the tank and the aeroplane and called for the Louvre to be razed to the ground. The problem was that the Futurists themselves attempted to convey this Marinettian dynamism with the traditional tools of the artist's craft - paint and canvas, marble and chisel - and strained to keep pace with a world that was evolving far more rapidly than they could. Their predicament called to mind the old joke of the man who spent years inventing the automobile, finally succeeded, rushed into the street to announce his discovery and was run over by one.

As for Marinetti himself, he was, perhaps not surprisingly, an early convert to what has been, alas, the most enduringly meaningful of all the century's "isms": Fascism. By then, the late 1920s, Futurism was finished. It was no longer an "ism" but a "wasm".

GILBERT ADAIR

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