The Australian Arts & Books

Postcards with an edge

Almost 100 years ago, Italy's futurists adopted a jingoistic manifesto. An exhibition in London showcases the satirical art that accompanied it, writes Richard Owen
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January 22, 2007


Call to war: Retrosi's The Complaining Citizen, 1914

'WE SHALL sing the love of danger, energy and boldness!" the Futurist Manifesto shouted from the rooftops in 1909. "We declare that the world's splendour has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. There is no more beauty except in strife, no masterpiece without aggressiveness, a violent onslaught upon the unknown forces, to force them to bow to the will of man ...

"We wish to glorify war -- the only hygiene of the world -- militarism, patriotism, the destructive arm of the anarchist, the beautiful ideas that kill!"

The futurists also set out "to destroy the museums, the libraries", adding: "It is in Italy that we launch this manifesto of violence, destructive and incendiary, by which we this day found futurism, because we would deliver Italy from its canker of professors, archeologists, cicerones and antiquaries ... free her from the numberless museums which cover her like so many cemeteries."

Fortunately -- not least for the futurists themselves -- the latter part of the manifesto was never fulfilled, otherwise those detested "museums and libraries" would not be able, nearly a century on, to showcase the achievements of futurist literature and art. A case in point is Barbed Wit: Italian Satire of the Great War, at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art in London, where visitors can admire rarely seen original artwork for the bitingly

satirical postcards produced in Italy during World WarI.

Postcards as an art form? Indeed, say the curators of the show -- organised jointly with the Imperial War Museum -- postcards could be "rapidly distributed to a mass public", and in the early 20th century were used to convey social and political messages.

Today most Italians are ambivalent at best about war, if not downright pacifist, as former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi found to his cost when his decision to send Italian forces to help to reconstruct Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion gave rise to anti-war protests as reconstruction deteriorated rapidly into an occupation fighting an insurgency.

The roots of Italian pacifism lie partly in the bruising experiences of the 1930s and '40s, when Benito Mussolini led his country first into costly colonial adventures and then, after initial hesitation, into a disastrous alliance with Adolf Hitler.

But the roots go even deeper, to World War I, when at the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 Italy formed part of the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary against the Triple Entente: Britain, France

and Russia.

Italy was a reluctant warmonger from the start, preferring its traditional neutrality, to the disgust of the futurists. This hesitancy to make a commitment to war is neatly satirised in Virgilio Retrosi's image of a red-faced Italian infantryman pondering whether to follow a signpost pointing to the "European Theatre". "Shall I just be an extra, or should I take a starring role?" runs the caption.

Italian vacillation is also captured in another Retrosi work, To Go or Not to Go, which shows a young woman picking petals off flowers.

Not all Italian artists were jingoistic; Giulio Gigli's postcard imitates the style of another futurist, Gino Severini, in a semi-abstract, dynamic composition that merges the national colours of France, Germany and Belgium with bullets, shrapnel and interspersed words such as "misery"

and "snow".

As Nadia Marchiani, who curated an exhibition on Italian art and World War I in Florence in 2006, points out, Umberto Bocciani, one of the foremost futurists, lost much of his bravado after joining the wonderfully named Volunteer Battalion of Cyclists and Automobilists at the front. Boccioni, who once declared that "art is always above war and is not troubled by it", confided distinctly "troubled and eminently human reflections" to his diary after the battle of Dosso Casina, Marchiani says.

The Cezannesque rhythms of his later work, she notes, are in contrast to his earlier explosive experimentalism.

Retrosi also offered a grim vision in his Il Volto della Guerra (The Face of War), with a Gorgon-like head regurgitating skulls and coins. But many futurists remained wedded to the idea of war as "the only hygiene" and used the postcards to mock the prosperous Italian bourgeoisie, depicted as cynics who were happy to profit from war while shirking their patriotic duty.

In Armed Neutrality, Victor Emmanuel III is shown as a diminutive figure peeping out of an excessively armoured suit, shackled by the chains of indecision. Not until the secret Treaty of London in April 1915, when Italy (after being promised territorial gains) switched sides by joining the Triple Entente and officially declared war against Austria-Hungary, did the propagandists finally have a foreign enemy in their sights.

Raffaelo Ferro's design of 1918 admiringly refers to the exploits of the eccentric nationalist poet Gabriele d'Annunzio, who in a daring propaganda stunt flew over Vienna, scattering red, white and green postcards appealing to the Austrians to turn on their government.

Ferro, depicting both poets with laurel wreaths round their heads, uses a quotation from Dante: "Poveri versi miei gettati al vento" ("My poor verses have been scattered to the wind").

Ferro also offers a propagandistic image of the Triple Alliance, with a spiked German helmet clamped over the globe (German Global Domination), while another postcard mocks Giovanni Giolitti, the prime minister, for trying to make territorial gains without going to war. Several postcards show emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary as a decrepit villain about to be overwhelmed by Italy, the "unstoppable avalanche".

In the end, Italy suffered heavy losses and war turned out to be not so glorious after all, although Italy gained Trento, the South Tyrol, Trieste and Istria in what D'Annunzio referred to as a "mutilated victory".

Dreams of glory, military triumph and even imperialism lingered on, fuelling the rise in 1922 of Mussolini, who (like Hitler) had fought in World WarI.

If futurism remains a sensitive subject in Italy, it is because of its associations with fascism as much as its chauvinism. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the futurist movement's acknowledged leader, allied himself -- and futurism -- with Mussolini from an early stage.

Nor is this merely academic: the centre-Left Government of Romano Prodi is facing a dilemma over the centenary of the 1909 futurist declaration. Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli, asked recently by the centre-Right opposition what plans he had to mark the event, replied that futurism "was the most important movement in Italy in the first half of the 20th century", but that he hoped that polemics could be set aside.

Not much chance of that: the second biggest party in the centre-Right opposition after Berlusconi's Forza Italia is the Alleanza Nazionale, a direct, if reformed, descendant of Mussolini's Blackshirts. As so often in Italy, the past informs the present. The Times

Barbed Wit: Italian Satire of the Great War is at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, London, until March 18.