"We had been up all night, my friends and I, under the Oriental lamps with their pierced copper domes starred like our souls -- for from them too burst the trapped lightning of an electric heart. We had tramped out at length on the luxurious carpets from the East our inherited sloth, disputing beyond the extremes of logic and blackening much paper with frenzied writing."
So begins Filippo Tommaso Marinetti's "Futurist Manifesto," the alternately exhilarating, absurd, unsettling and repellent rant that launched the Italian Futurist movement. The movement is probably best known for its paintings, which look something like Cubism on speed, with splintered forms spun into feverish motion to suggest, say, the vigor of a soccer player, the tumult of a dance floor or the accelerated trajectory of an automobile. Marinetti himself was a poet, however, and it's not the paintings but the pages that he and his cohorts were "blackening" that are the subject of the Getty Research Institute's terrific exhibition, "A Tumultuous Assembly: Visual Poems of the Italian Futurists."
First published on the front page of the Parisian newspaper Le Figaro on Feb. 20, 1909, Marinetti's manifesto speaks of a world that seemed to be rattling apart at the seams, with Europe barreling through the Industrial Revolution toward a future that looked nothing like anything the world had known -- and more specifically nothing like Italy's ponderous and by then somewhat dusty legacy of artistic and literary accomplishment.
"Mythology and the mystic ideal are finally overcome," Marinetti wrote. The age of the train, automobile, airplane, phonograph and cinema required an art defined not by contemplation and discipline but by speed, violence and the brawn of the machine. "We intend to glorify the love of danger, the custom of energy, the strength of daring," he wrote. "The essential elements of our poetry will be courage, audacity, and revolt."
It was, as you might gather from the language, a movement defined entirely by young men -- they were all under 30 -- and the machismo can be grating. (The manifesto includes feminism among those evils slated to be destroyed, along with museums, libraries, moralism and "all utilitarian cowardice.") That said, there's a thrill to the notion of throwing thousands of years of history to the wind with such precocious abandon, and something intoxicating about all that energy, palpable even after nearly a century.
The Futurists' name for their poetry -- parole in liberta, or words-in-freedom -- is an intoxicating concept, and the poems look like traditional compositions liberated by way of a hand grenade: The words come in all sizes and fonts, scattered around each page like pebbles cast across a table, sometimes pictorial but defiantly not linear. There's little narrative, scant punctuation, no prescribed continuity and few lines (if you could call them lines) more than three or four words long. Occasionally the words disintegrate altogether into stray strings of letters or sounds ("ssssss," "tta ttattatta," "aiiiiii!").
Despite -- or perhaps because of -- this syntactic "liberta," the effect of the poems is invariably clear and often either enchantingly or unsettlingly resonant, thanks in large part to their immersion in the life of the senses. Indeed, many of the poems come across like a little dose of sensation itself. Corrado Govoni's "Autoritratto" ("Self-Portrait"), is a verbal likeness composed in the shape of a face: "pale couch of lips / wet door to the mouth's dining / room where teeth day / and night like white guests / feast around the tongue's / red table."
Vincenzo Volt's brilliant "Deretani di case" ("Backsides of Houses") takes the form of an architectural elevation diagram, with the interior and exterior spaces filled with various impressions of two households' goings-on. In one chamber: "STINK of COOKING / sweat of an apoplectic cook / mockheroic poem of chicken in tomato sauce / dantesque inferno (Canto 22) of fishies in frying pan / mayonnaise gallantry = gardens of Versailles." In another: "A PIANO / CRIES! / anemic young lady / / dark parlormoldy smell / canned moonlight." And out of the window opposite: "DAMN / DAMN / DAMN / WHO CAN SLEEP!" while a dog below barks "death to Chopin"!
The exhibition includes several dozen poems, most in their original form, alongside translations that have been carefully arranged in identical compositions, as well as copies of Futurist publications, drawings, letters and so on. One unexpected treat is a sound recording of Marinetti's 1914 poem "Dune" ("Dunes"), performed by Arrigo Lora Totino and Luigi Pennone and presented alongside the text version. There's no translation for this one, but it's hardly necessary: The musicality of the language is so absorbing that it's tempting to regard the literal sense of the words as secondary.
In another manifesto, published in 1912, Marinetti spoke of wanting not to suggest ideas or sensations but rather to "grasp them brutally and hurl them in the reader's face," and there's no doubting that here. Hearing the text spoken -- or at times chanted, bellowed or wailed -- in its original Italian gives a better sense of what this brute force meant within the context of the language.
Italy had been unified for less than 50 years when Marinetti wrote the first manifesto (there were more than a dozen to follow by various members, on painting, sculpture, cinema, architecture, music, war, and lust, among other topics). Several years later, as if fulfilling a Futurist prophecy, the country descended into war and then into the grip of Fascism. For all their bravado, Marinetti and his compatriots weren't far off the mark, and their work resonates today as a prelude to a violent and technologically revolutionary century.
'A Tumultuous Assembly'
Where: Getty Research Institute Exhibition Gallery, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles
When: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, Sundays; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays; closed Mondays. Ends Jan. 7. Free.
Contact: (310) 440-7335; www.getty.edu