Mechanization Takes Command
Umberto Boccioni, “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space,”
1913, bronze, 43 7/8 x 34 7/8 x 15 3/4”
As many commentators have noted, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has obvious parallels to the Nazi invasions of its European neighbors — including Ukraine. The former comedian Volodymyr Zelenskyy has risen to become this war’s Winston Churchill (though innocent of Churchill's youthful imperialist sins). It appears at this writing that Mariupol, the Sea of Azov port city situated between Russia’s enclaves in Donbas and Crimea, will soon become the Guernica of The Great Patriotic Special Operation. Will we in the western democracies comfort ourselves that we achieved, daunted by the prospect of Russian tactical nukes, an illusory “peace in our time”?
The coverage of the war falls into three categories: the suffering inflicted on Ukraine; speculations about Putin’s health and sanity, and whether the oligarchs, military or the Russian people will rise up and oust him; and technical evaluations of the weaponry of the Russian Federation and the old USSR, furnished to its former satellite countries, who are now sending those Soviet-era tanks, missiles, rocket launchers and fighter planes to beleaguered Ukraine.
As a liberal who considers war barbaric (but never quite convinced himself that Homo Sapiens had outgrown it), and who, having seen through the Bush administration’s lies, took no pleasure in its high-tech missiles zipping down chimneys, I have discovered a strange fascination after weeks of doom-scrolling for the power, beauty and even poetry of weaponry. It’s not exactly loving the smell of napalm in the morning, like Robert Duvall’s happy warrior in “Apocalypse Now.”
But my inner fanboy seems to have awakened after decades of slumber or repression. It’s a guilty pleasure that comes with a price. For every tank stalled in the infamous Russian convoy that erupts into a blossom of flame, four or five young Russian soldiers have died inside, blasted to smithereens, tricked into this war by their superiors. Adding insult to injury, knowledge of their deaths, concealed by incineration in mobile crematoria, are being kept from their families.
Carlo Carra, “Funeral of the Anarchist Galli,” 1911, oil on canvas, 78 1/4 x 102”
Artists are predominantly left-wing, but not all artists have been supporters of truth, justice and (what used to be called in more innocent times) the American way, before America became The Evil Empire in certain quarters, or before Putin’s war crimes awakened us from dogmatic wokeness. A longer view of history disproves the assumption that artists always choose humanity over power. The art patrons for most of human history were kings, emperors and popes, and the work they commissioned supported and reinforced the status quo, glorifying death and subjugation in the process. It was not that the art that resulted from such patronage was corrupted by the power that paid for it, as current fashion prescribes; such virtue-signaling myopia is neither honest nor helpful. Rather, in its own way it is equivalent to the “culture-canceling” denounced by the American right as it hypocritically seeks to eliminate informed dissent by banning books and quashing intellectual freedom.
Giacomo Balla, “Dynamism of a Dog on a Leah,” 1912, oil on canvas, 35 1/2 x 43 1/4”
Probably the most egregious modern example of aesthetically progressive artists gravitating to the political dark side were the Italian Futurists and their influence on and embrace of Italian Fascism. Futurism added to Cubist fragmentation a worship of youth, energy, speed, violence, and a radical intolerance for tradition, which they considered responsible for the archaic and underdeveloped Italian economy. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the group’s leader, was an energetic and charismatic propagandist, in Robert Hughes’ words, “poet, dandy, ringmaster, publicist and red-hot explainer in the global villages — ‘the caffeine of Europe,’ as he called himself.” Marinetti’s polemics still make for entertaining and even thrilling reading — perhaps more than ever, considering our sensationalistic soundbite culture. His 1910 Futurist Manifesto is modern for its call to arms: “We repudiate the Venice of the foreigners, market of antiquarian fakers, magnet of universal mobbishness and stupidity … Let us fill the stinking little canals with the rubble of the tottering, infected, old palaces! Let us burn the gondolas, rocking chairs for idiots.” He famously asserted, with a sure touch for the populist jugular that an Ever Trumper might envy, that “a roaring motorcar that seems to run on shrapnel is more beautiful that the [Winged] Victory of Samothrace.”
Despite its trumpeted scorn for the past, Futurist art combined avant-garde pose with enduring artistic motifs. The strong headwind implied by the Winged Victory, that iconic figurehead of the Louvre ship of culture, also ruffles the flayed bronze musculature of Umberto Boccioni’s 1913 “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space,” testifying to a continuity of forms in time and mind. It’s still a stunner, as is Carlo Carrà’s 1911 “Funeral of the Anarchist Galli,” a Cubo-Futurist re-imagining of Eugene Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People,” with strife universalized beyond reportage of the stabbing death of a young striker. And there is the irresistibly charming 1912 multiple-exposure painting by Giacomo Balla, “Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash.”
Alfredo Gauro Ambrosi, “Aero Portrait of Mussolini Aviator,” 1930
Renato Bertelli, “Continuous Profile of Mussolini,” 1933, terracotta, , 121 1/2 x 68 x 108 1/2”
In 1918, Marinetti founded the Futurist Political Party; a year later, the party was absorbed into Mussolini’s Italian Fasces of Combat (later National Fascist Party). While it is tempting to consider works made under fascist dominance as inherently worthless, as we tend to do when considering art made in rival totalitarian regimes, it’s bad politics as well as bad aesthetics to do so. Alfredo Ambrosi’s 1930 “Aeroportrait of Mussolini Aviator” and Gerardo Dotter’s 1933 “Benito Mussolini Il Duce” may rankle democratic sensibilities with their deification of the dictator, but they are still admirable paintings that transcend the sum of their propaganda elements. Renato Bertelli’s 1933 “Continuous Profile of Mussolini,” with its features blurred into an illusorily spinning mass, is both sinister and comic, combining mechanistic hints of Jeremy Bentham’s surveillance-state panopticon prison, with a touch of the humor in Balla’s scampering dachshund.
Ideally, artworks indissolubly merge style and content, but to judge either aspect according to our political biases or convictions is problematic. In that direction lies censorship, book-burning, and iconoclasm — and succumbing to hatred of The Other out of fear of our own dark sides. If we cannot face reality and grow up as a species, perhaps for Plan B we can mature technologically: how long before we get 100% unmanned wars? Blowing up stuff: fun for those not suffering the casualties. Deus ex machina, at least until the Spartacist bots demand their own freedom and revolt.