April 24, 2012
In 2014 the Guggenheim Museum in New York will open the biggest exhibition ever held on the Italian Futurists; the event has been foreshadowed by an article in Smithsonian, accompanied by an online photo gallery of Futurist masterpieces. It’s a good moment to reflect a bit on what Futurism represents, how it happened and how it has transformed the world we live in.
Today we think of Futurism as a visual style—a sort of animated Cubism that endows images and objects with a feeling of windblown movement. Remarkably, however, the movement began with a manifesto, and a series of “happenings,” before the artists associated with it had developed a new style.
The movement was first trumpeted in a manifesto by the poet Filippo Marinetti,which was published in the Paris newspaper Le Figaro on February 20, 1909. The intention of the movement, Marinetti explained, was to smash anything old, sentimental or conventional and create a new manly culture based on machines, speed and modernity. Hailing the “beauty of speed,” he argued that museums libraries, academies and “venerated” cities had to be destroyed, since they represented the culture of the past, and were stale and reactionary, as were “morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.” In a famous phrase, Marinetti declared that “a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace” (a reference to the second century Greek sculpture of the goddess Victory). Proud of their ability to irritate the public, the Futurists staged performances in Turin, Naples, Milan and other cities, at which they recited poetry and declaimed their manifestos while the audience responded by showering them with rotten fruit and vegetables and other objects.
Developing a Futurists style was clearly a necessary next step. In a later manifesto of April 11, 1910, the Futurists argued that “the construction of pictures is stupidly traditional,” but finding an appropriate visual language for their iconoclastic ideas about modern life was not easy. The early works of the Futurists used the techniques of divisionism, which created patterns with colored dots, and Post-Impressionism, which employed bold, decorative shapes. But they seemed to have quickly sensed that they needed to do something more visually exciting.
Gino Severini, who lived in Paris, was the first of the group to come into contact with Cubism, and after a visit to Paris in 1911, several of the other Futurist paintings also began to adopt a Cubist visual vocabulary. The Cubism of Picasso and Braque, however, was a strangely hermetic, inward-looking style, which focused obsessively on a small number of objects, such as pipes, newspapers, wine glasses and guitars, and seldom cast its gaze on anything outside the painter’s studio. The Futurists, on the other hand, were interested in life outside the studio: the world of cars, trains and other objects of modern life—particularly when they carried connotations of speed, modernity and movement.
In their hands, the language of Cubism took on new meanings. While the Cubists used fractured forms as a way of analyzing the object, the Futurists used fracturing to indicate “lines of force,” which marked patterns of energy rather than an actual physical object. What’s more, whereas Cubism was generally drab in its coloration, apparently deliberately so, the Futurists, in keeping with their Post-Impressionist antecedents, employed brilliant, electrifying, prismatic colors. The Futurists created a style that was bolder and brasher in its visual impact than Cubism, and also forged a new connection between the compulsive innovation of new styles in painting and the innovative world of new machines and inventions outside the painter’s studio.
On February 5, 1912, the Futurists staged an exhibition at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery in Paris, showcasing their new style and accompanied by a new manifesto by Marinetti. The result was a sensation. “We are beginning a new epoch in painting,” Marinetti declared, and then went on to describe the Futurists greatest visual innovation—the “lines of force.”
The manifesto, Gertrude Stein noted, “made a great deal of noise.” She wrote, “Everybody was excited, and this show being given in a well known gallery everybody went.” By this time, the Futurist painters had devised a style as memorable as Marinetti’s stirring words.
As a movement, Futurism did not last long, since it quickly degenerated in squabbles between its major artists. What’s more, many of the key Futurist artists were sucked into Fascist politics, and into positions that most art-lovers would hardly endorse today, such as love of war and violence, bigotry toward minority groups and contempt for women. What’s fascinating, however, is that through some strange aesthetic magic these unfavorable aspects of Futurism have faded away from our memories. As is often the case, history is as much a process of writing out some parts of what happened as writing up other parts that did. We’ve all been seduced by the Futurists. What has survived is the excitement and the dynamism of what they produced. We’ve conveniently forgotten the unsavory side of their activities. Futurism is still a language used in modern design—and a century after it was introduced it still looks modern.
November 17, 2011
It’s enough to make you want to start doing the Charleston: A masterpiece of earthenware, a Jazz Bowl by Viktor Schreckengost, has been newly acquired and newly displayed at the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama. In my view, the Jazz Bowl —several dozen of which were produced—has emerged in the last decade as not only the single finest example of American Art Deco, but as an icon of a new mode of American cultural identity.
Viktor was just 25 years old when he made the first piece at the Cowan Pottery Studio in Rocky River, Ohio, in 1930. One day at the studio’s office when he didn’t have an assignment, as the story goes, he pulled a letter out of a hopper. A woman in New York wanted a punch bowl with a New York theme.
Viktor started by making a plaster mold of the shape—a bold parabolic form. The next challenge was to decorate it. A few months before, he had spent Christmas Eve in New York City, where he was impressed by the skyscrapers, went to Radio City where an organ rose up out of the floor, and took in the music of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway at the Cotton Club in Harlem. He sketched all these images in a jazzy style. One of the last things he put in was a drum head with the word “Jazz,” which ended up providing a name for the piece.
To achieve his desired effect he developed a novel technique. First he covered the bowl with black engobe—watery clay mixed with glaze. He then scratched out the design, in a pattern of black and white; fired it; then covered the whole bowl with a glaze of “Egyptian Blue”—a sort of radiant turquoise, similar to that of some beads found in Tutankhamen’s tomb. He then fired it again. The result was richly decorative, since the irregular scratching of the design created a kind of glow, almost like stained glass. And the Egyptian Blue evoked a feeling he was trying to capture—his recollection of the strange blue light of New York at night.
When it was done, Guy Cowan sent the piece to New York—and promptly heard back that the woman who had commissioned it wanted two more. Only then did Viktor learn that the woman was Eleanor Roosevelt.
After Viktor produced the Jazz Bowls for Roosevelt, Cowan Pottery put it into production. But the company folded in 1931, done in by the Depression. It’s not known exactly how many Jazz Bowls were made, but probably about 50 large ones similar to the original and perhaps as many as 25 of a different design that was less expensive to make, sometimes known as “The Poor Man’s Bowl.” Since the decoration was scratched out by hand the large bowls all differ a good deal in execution. It’s not known what happened to the bowls that were made for Eleanor, although her role in providing the commission is documented in newspaper articles from the 1930s, so I believe that the story is true.
The son of a potter, Viktor Schreckengost was born in Sebring, Ohio, and died in 2008 at the age of 101. (Two of his brothers, Don and Paul, were also major figures in ceramic design.) Viktor was one of the founding figures of modern industrial design in the United States. His credits include the first modern mass-produced American dinnerware, the first cab-over-engine truck, the first inexpensive children’s pedal cars and the first bicycle welded in a single step in an electric brazing chamber—an innovation that cut production cost by 50 percent and was used in some 50 million bicylces. He also designed costumes, stage sets, lighting fixtures and lawn furniture; produced watercolors and oil paintings, many of which won prizes in museum exhibitions, and monumental sculpture, for the Cleveland Zoo and the high school in Lakewood, Ohio; and founded the industrial design program of the Cleveland Institute of Art, where he taught for over 50 years. Among Viktor’s students were the designer of the Ford Mustang. (A museum dedicated to Viktor’s work was scheduled to open in Cleveland this past June, but the debut has been delayed.)
Artworks derive meaning not only from the thought and feeling that the artist put into them, but from where they are placed. There’s poignancy to having a Jazz Bowl in Birmingham, which as everyone knows was the site of one of the most ghastly atrocities of the Civil Rights era, when the Klu Klux Klan placed a bomb in the 16th Street Baptist Church and killed four young African-American girls. But Birmingham is also a city that has gone to great lengths to atone. The art museum has built up an important collection of works by African-American artists, and it’s not far from the Birmingham Civil Rights District, where the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Kelly Ingram Park, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame are located.
In this context, Viktor’s Jazz Bowl has a special resonance. Viktor’s central goal in creating Jazz Bowl was to find a visual analogue to black jazz music. Indeed, he himself was something of a musician (he played the clarinet) and a personal friend of such jazz greats as Art Tatum. Let’s not pretend that this sort of cross-over can be achieved in an absolutely perfect way, based on perfect understanding, or entirely liberated from the cultural norms of a period. Nonetheless, Jazz Bowl marks a significant turning point in American culture, when a white artist could look to black jazz music as a paradigm of great artistic achievement—as something to ardently celebrate, a model for what he hoped to achieve in the visual arts.
In short, Jazz Bowl marks step toward a new kind of cultural conversation—one that needs to be continued further. What’s more, it’s stunningly beautiful. It’s something not to be missed.
October 31, 2011
The town of Belfry, in Carbon County, Montana, lies on the route from Cody to Billings, just 11 miles north of the Wyoming border. It is chiefly known for cattle and sheep ranching, and for growing sugar beets, alfalfa and feed corn. With a population of just 219, it’s not a place that you usually think of for an art pilgrimage.
In fact, Belfry contains an outstanding work of public sculpture, The Bat in Belfry, which stands in front of the public high school, whose sports teams are called the Belfry Bats. The piece carries no label or inscription. But I heard it was fabricated in the school’s shop. And the Smithsonian Institution Research Information System says that the sculptors were Dale Cristman and Doug Brost and that the sheet-metal work was erected in 1980.
Anyone who has bats in his belfry will quickly grasp the concept. In addition to the piece’s rich verbal innuendos, it has remarkable formal qualities: what’s wonderful is how the “battiness” of the animal is reduced to a geometric essence. The piece’s handling of crisp angles reminds me of the famous statue of The Pharaoh Khafre, in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, with his head being protected by the wings of the falcon-god Horus. And there’s also a hint of early Cubism, reminiscent of Picasso’s Bread and Fruit Dish on a Table of 1908 in the Kunstmuseum in Basel.
Belfry’s Bat is American folk art at its best. It’s well worth a pilgrimage, particularly since it’s only a short distance from Bear Creek, where you can attend the pig races at the Bear Creek Saloon and Steakhouse.
Bat sculpture is a fascinating sub-genre of the art form, and one of the greatest masters of bat sculpture was the relentlessly romantic and melodramatic 19th-century French thespian Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923). Most actresses of her era were distinctly chubby; Sarah was gaunt and haggard (batlike?) and pioneered a look that was the 19th-century’s equivalent of Goth.
For some reason she identified with bats. This was an age when huge hats helped define a woman’s personality, and when Sarah was not declaiming on the boards she paraded on the boulevards of Paris with a stuffed bat on her hat.
She also made sculpture of bats. And she was gifted—no kidding. I’m particularly fond of a wonderful sculpted bronze inkwell that she made; dated 1880, it’s a self portrait with bat wings in the Museum of Fine Art in Boston. (The work is in tune with The Bat in Belfry, for there are elements of visual and verbal punning in both.) Bernhardt’s sculpture, Self-Portrait as a Sphinx, seems to caricature her batlike appearance and play on the fact that bats are as black as ink. Why would men be attracted to this vampire look? I won’t attempt to explain this, but Bernhardt knew how to captivate and manipulate men.
So far Bernhardt’s inkwell and Belfry’s Bat are my two favorite bat sculptures, but I’d be interested to learn of other examples. I must confess that I’ve only recently started to focus on this genre.