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Piety and Pragmatism: Spiritualism in Futurist Art

Preview by Lizzie Guilfoyle

AN EXHIBITION tracing the evolution of Futurism’s fascinating and complex attitude toward spirituality, Piety and Pragmatism: Spiritualism in Futurist Art, will take place at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art – from Wednesday, September 26 to Sunday, December 23, 2007.

The exhibition will include 45 works by artists such as Giacomo Balla, Gerardo Dottori, Fillia and many others. From Marinetti’s preaching of a ‘religion of speed’ in 1916 to the formulation of an arte sacra futurista (Futurist sacred art) in the 1930s, Piety and Pragmatism examines the social, political and ideological dimensions of the movement’s stance on all things metaphysical.

F.T. Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurist Sacred Art dates from 1931. Given the previous hostility of his movement towards the institution of the Catholic Church and its rejection of Christian concepts of morality, this text and the works it inspired perhaps require more explanation than some of the other documents of Italian Futurism.

The movement had addressed the question of spirituality from its early years, yet promoted values very different to those of Catholicism. Marinetti’s ersatz ‘new religion-morality of speed’ comically subverted Christian categories of sacredness by asserting that ‘if prayer means communication with the divinity, running at high speed is a prayer…..One must kneel on the tracks to pray to the divine velocity’.

Nationalism was also invested with a divine or transcendent significance – Marinetti stating that the only religion of the true Futurist should be ‘the Italy of tomorrow’ – as was artistic creation, something expressed in Luigi Russolo’s symbolic painting Music of 1911 which depicts a pianist in the throes of inspiration.

During the 1920s, Futurist artists in Turin such as Fillia explored how the machine had influenced the human psyche, stating that ‘to interpret this mechanical spiritualisation is to mark the beginning of a modern SACRED ART’.

The development of ‘aeropainting’ around 1930 had also prepared the ground for this deeper exploration of spiritualism in Futurist art, aiming not only to capture the visual sensations experienced during flight but also to convey its psychological and metaphysical dimensions. Prampolini’s biomorphic abstractions were interpreted as visual metaphors for ‘the transcendence of the spirit towards higher states of consciousness’.

Futurism’s sustained, bitter attacks against the Church had their roots in the anticlerical traditions of the 19th century movement for national renewal known as the Risorgimento – a fundamental goal of which was the territorial unification of the peninsula. This was finally achieved in 1870, but only at the expense of the Church, which was stripped of its temporal rule over the Papal States of central Italy.

The consequent hostility of the Church towards the new liberal kingdom gave rise to accusations of it being ‘an enemy in the house’, bringing it into conflict with Futurism’s nationalistic agenda. The movement’s anticlericalism reached a pinnacle in the years leading up to 1920 when the prospect of the equally intransigent Mussolini gaining control of Italy seemed increasingly credible. The Futurist dream of svaticanamento (loosely ‘de-Vaticanisation’) had become a very real possibility.

However, poor election results in 1919 had persuaded Mussolini that a more amicable relationship with the Church was likely to increase his popular support. Seven years after Mussolini took power, this change of policy eventually resulted in the signing of the Lateran Pacts (1929) that once more guaranteed the Church a significant presence in the life of the State and brought an end to Futurist hopes of a complete break with the Church. The new political reality brought about by this historic agreement may account for the emergence of the Manifesto dell’arte sacra futurista.

Undoubtedly the two most prolific and significant creators of Futurist sacred art were Fillia – the pseudonym of Luigi Colombo (1904-36) – and Gerardo Dottori (1884-1977). Although he had long been concerned with the spiritual aspects of artistic creation, Fillia’s interest in specifically religious themes dated from 1930, and the following three years witnessed his most intense activity in this sphere, no doubt stimulated by large exhibitions at Padua (1931), La Spezia (1932) and Florence (1933). Dottori’s interest in religious iconography can be documented from the late 1890s, although his first recognisably ‘Futurist’ works date from the early 1920s.

This exhibition will trace the evolution of Futurism’s fascinating and complex attitude towards spirituality. The central nucleus will be those works created during the early 1930s in accordance with the principles of the Manifesto dell’arte sacra futurista by artists such as Alessandro Bruschetti, Gerardo Dottori, Mino Delle Site, Fillia, Giuseppe Preziosi, Bruno Tano, Ernesto Thayaht and Wladimiro Tulli.

Historical documents such as Futurism’s political and artistic manifestos will also be on display, whilst information panels will provide a comprehensive overview of the period.

The catalogue, published by Gangemi Editore, will include a significant number of Futurist documents previously unpublished in English concerning the debate surrounding sacred art, the spiritual calling of the artist and the political views of the Futurists. Among these will be Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurist Sacred Art, the politically-charged De-Vaticanisation: Declaration to the Italians and Fillia’s Futurist Sacred Architecture.

Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, 39a Canonbury Square, London, N1 2AN.

Curator: Massimo Duranti.

Times: Wednesday to Saturday – 11am to 6pm; Sunday – 12 noon to 5pm.

Admission: £3.50, £2.50 concessions, free to under-16s and students with a valid NUS card.