Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Designer

"It is from Italy that we launch through the world this violently upsetting incendiary manifesto of ours. With it, today, we establish Futurism, because we want to free this land from its smelly gangrene of professors, archaeologists, ciceroni and antiquarians. For too long has Italy been a dealer in second-hand clothes. We mean to free her from the numberless museums that cover her like so many graveyards..."
-F.T. Marinetti, Futurist Manifesto, 1909
The history of art and design has been shaped most strongly by the avant-garde. Among the first, if not the first of these radical and inventive movements is the early 20th century’s Futurism, and at its helm stood the Italian, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. Though better remembered as a polemicist, ideologue, and poet than as a graphic designer, his vigor and ideals are vitally influential to the graphical work of the Futurists and successive visual practitioners. Marinetti embodies the concept that a designer’s realm is not limited to the visual, and should just as actively engage cultural and ideological concerns.

Futurism was truly avant-garde in that it was a “totalitarian” movement, spanning media and categories like no movement before – it was “a group whose members shared an elective affinity, with an ideology which is not limited to the arts but includes politics, morals and manners” (Hulten 512). Sparked by Marinetti’s initial manifesto in 1909, Futurism took a decidedly modernist stance, embracing industrialization, mechanization, and acceleration in the name of patriotism. It was geared towards an uprooting of Italy’s allegedly sedentary mindset of the time, and maintained that total industry, violence, and war were the cure for a stagnating nation. Ironically, Marinetti was born in Egypt and spent much of his younger life in France, and was thus far from intimate with the true conditions the country experienced. Marinetti and the movement eschewed the effeminate, and were disgusted by the relegation of art and creativity to museums -“Admiring an old picture is like pouring our sensibility into a funerary urn instead of projecting it into the distance in violent spasms of action and creation,” he said (Hulten 516). Much of his contemporaries’ work was two-dimensional and sculptural. His own visual work is not immediately recognizable as similar. It is generally typographical experimentation in an effort to embody the dynamism of his poetic work, among other tropes.

Marinetti was, in fact, closely associated with the Italian Fascist party, identifying with its desire for violence and revolution. He spent several of Fascism’s formative years orating vigorously in its favor, but by the time it was firmly established in Italy, he became dissatisfied and declared it passé, accusing the Fascists of upholding impure ideals and reactionary attitudes. “Marinetti’s original, energetic personality and the vitality and intellectual spark of Futurism never fitted with the Duce’s (Mussolini’s) abysmal artistic ideal – of something close to Soviet socialist realism,” says critic Lesley Chamberlain (17). Marinetti’s support of Fascism, while no more than an example of the man’s Futurist ideologies permeating every aspect of life, would put him out of favor with the Italian public for decades after Mussolini’s death.

Marinetti despised the traditional grid. “I initiate a typographical revolution aimed at the bestial, nauseating idea of the book... My revolution is aimed at the so-called typographic harmony of the page, which is contrary to the flux and reflux, the leaps and bursts of style that run through the page” (Marinetti, from Eskilson 158). His 1912 piece CHAIRrrrrrrRR is an early attempt at breaking down the grid. He attempts to fight conventional rectilinear constraints in the piece, but is seen to ultimately work within them. This is a result of the use of letterpress, on which letters cast into metal blocks are set into a strictly rectangular frame to print. This speaks of the reliance on certain mechanical limitations that are inherent to industrialization. The poem bucks literary tradition for a more pure, efficient, speedy form of communication – parole in liberta, “words in liberty,” an abolishment of conventional syntax, closely related to the stream-of-consciousness writing that was pioneered by other modernists, such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, in the early 20th century. These liberated words now also have a graphical quality that extends beyond mere font selection – they are graphical elements themselves, a convention embraced by Marinetti that has become essential to graphic design since.

Zang Tumb Tumb is Marinetti’s 1912-14 poem that was published in segments over the course of two years, and finally as a book. It is another showcase for his “words in liberty” concept. It depicts and glorifies the sounds and experience of war (“the world’s only hygiene”), and shifts focus to the primal violence of sounds and images rather than any literal meaning. Its graphical qualities are primarily a breakdown of grid in a more fluid manner than before – at some points this is even presented quite literally, such as with a flying bomb demolishing a building made of justified text. This is a result of the use of the process of offset lithography, which used totally grid-free plates for reproduction rather than letterpress’ perpendicular constraints, and allowed the creation of cut-and-paste typographic composition. It also showcases the use of typographic items as both objective and non-objective visual elements, and the careful use of typography to convey a word’s meaning through its appearance, or to alter its meaning through its presentation.

In his 1916 watercolor and ink piece Tribute To Guido Guidi Who, In An Italian Aircraft, Beat The World Height Record, Marinetti’s patriotism, fascination with speed, and violently energetic spirit are evident. The work, bursting with dynamic activity, depicts all manner of powered transportation. Visible are the signature Futurist lines of force, which project forward and upward with confidence and abandon. This is certainly less dependent on the constraints of Marinetti’s exercises with typesetting, and less refined than his lithography, but its devotion to mechanization is no less apparent.

One of the movements subsequent to Futurism was the no-less-radical Dada. Dada typographic design owed heavily to both Futurist poetry and Marinettian typography. In Ilia Zdanevich’s 1923 poster, the influence of Marinetti’s madcap, dynamic composition technique and the use of type as image are clear. The seemingly jumbled, yet rational and precisely arranged nature of the type again hints at mechanical influence and specificity in the creative process. Surrealism, a later evolution of Dada, drew heavily on Marinetti’s parole in liberta for influence upon its “automatic writing” style of literature.

I aimed in my affair with Marinetti to capture the totalitarian, holistic designer, breaking beyond the visual, into vital cultural meddling. I extracted the Marinettian vigor, determination, and radicalism from its original early 20th century Italian context, and applied it to an early 21st century American context. I considered what ideals would be most similar to Marinetti’s in their shaking-up of American culture, their opposition to the malaises and ills of today’s society, and their radical, progressive opposition to convention and the norm. Much in the spirit of Marinetti’s 1932 Futurist Cookbook, I attacked a bastion of slow, fast American food – KFC. As he did with the Italian staple of pasta, I upturned fried chicken from a decelerator of citizens to an energizer of the masses. Radical concepts such as anarchy, ultra-environmentalism, science in lieu of religion, and other anti-conventional ideals are thrust upon the viewer dynamically and unapologetically. Words are used liberated from syntax, as onomatopoeia, and as graphical elements. I mimicked Marinetti’s cut-and-paste composition technique, but rather than ultimately employing lithography, I took advantage of the equivalent quick, modern tools of the scanner and computer. The human touch and the freedom from grid gained by hand-arrangement, seen in Marinetti’s more spontaneous work, are tinged by the quality of work originally created and reproduced by machine, reminding us of the eminent importance and influence of mechanical efficiency.

Though not conventionally identified as one, F.T. Marinetti is as much a designer as those notable only for their visual work. His Futurist ideologies and vigor permeated modernist thinking for decades after his time, and his influences on typography and literature last to this day. Marinetti was a holistic designer who applied his creativity and passion to not just the visual, but to the cultural, political and social. For this, coupled with his bawdiness and magnetism for controversy, he remains one of the more striking personalities and influential minds of the vast Modernist era.

Works Cited

Chamberlain, Lesley. Introduction. The Futurist Cookbook. 1932. By Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. Trans. Suzanne Brill. San Francisco: Bedford Arts, 1989.

Eskilson, Stephen J. Graphic Design: A New History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.

Hulten, Pontus. Futurismo & Futurismi. Milan: Bompiani, 1986.

“Letterpress printing.” Wikipedia. 14 Mar. 2008. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 1 Apr. 2008 .

Lista, Giovanni. Futurism. Paris: Terrail, 2001.

“Lithography.” Wikipedia. 27 Mar. 2008. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 1 Apr. 2008 .


Anonymous said...

Can you tell me what specific lithographic processes were used by Marinetti and Depero in the creation of their "mechanical" books, e.g. those printed on pages made of tin? Many thanks.

ignas bednarczyk said...

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