Buenos Aires as a Retro-Futurist Painting
paula soler-moya: Concrete Simplicity – Barracas, Buenos Aires, 2006 (CC)
by Arturo Desimone
Did Marinetti’s visit to Argentina contribute to the spread of Fascism? Or did the encounter only sharpen the contrasts between a European artist’s illusions, vs. the brutal realities of dictatorship that had already taken hold in South America?
Argentina’s capital is an adrenaline dream. It could have been well rendered by the canvas-blurs of a visionary Italian Futurist painter, one of those who implemented the poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s megalomaniacal aphorisms, such as We say that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed. Using a betting-horse’s phallus for a brush, a Futurist painter could depict such a celebration – bordering on death-worship – of noise, venerating the big fast machines which captured imaginations then.
In today’s ‘liquid’ economy, dominated by software and invisible technology, such modernist fancies as those of the Futurists seem like outdated, clunky monsters of the 20th century, that time of warring ideologies. They didn’t live to witness many of their predictions come true – the belief that electronic noise machines would make the music of the future, decades before suburban garage rockers customised the ‘distortion pedal’; or the idea that a celebration of animalistic rivalry between men and women should replace the romantic courtship once conceived by earlier poets and troubadours – those were some of the early Futurist patents, the royalties indefinitely deferred.
The artistic vanguard of the Italian Right believed in tearing apart whatever remained of the previous antiquated order and its values. That included the matriarchal undercurrent in Italian rural society, to be, as Marinetti saw it, ‘remedied’ by what he prescribed as ‘scorn for woman’ whilst glorifying war (a bohemian bellicosity he defended against Walter Benjamin in their famous debate-by-correspondence.) When Marinetti pre-announced his visit to Buenos Aires in 1926, it met with furore. He feared a greater retaliation than that of the Italian socialist exiles who disrupted his conferences in Sao Paolo.
Argentine newspapers’ bogeyman, the defamed Severino di Giovanni, then Public Enemy #1, was the author of poetic letters and of bombing sprees. Severino – the incubus who inhabited the nightmares not only of Fascists, but of all authorities, even those of more compliant socialists – had even attacked the US embassy to protest the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti and vowed to use his flaming sword to prevent Argentina from becoming an overseas Italian Fascist colony in the emerging Axis Empire.
Marinetti likely both feared and admired his enemy, the Promethean poet Severino, who lived on the run but who may have had Marinetti’s gig at the Coliseo Theater in his crosshairs. The Italian poet, associated with spreading extremist propaganda, vowed in letters to La Nación to specifically speak of art, insisting he was no foreign emissary of Mussolini’s. Argentine art periodical Martín Fierro released a special issue, celebrating the vanguardist’s arrival to our river-basin, while emphasising the alleged separation between his politics and aesthetics. Although, was it even possible to separate the aesthetics of Futurism from its frontman’s war-fetishising ideas?
Marinetti kept his word, as even brooding antifascists attending the speech at Coliseo Theatre acknowledged. He understood the extent to which his views on renewing poetry and visual art would resonate in Argentina – so much so that it may have seemed beside the point to be yet another fascist amongst the many local proponents of far-right ideology. One Argentine poet laureate, Leopoldo Lugones (author of poetry books such as “Sentimental Lunarium”, “Hymn to the Moon”) would soon become an armed participant in the 1930 coup to instate the military dictator Uriburu – who sent my great grandfather and other relatives to the arctic prison of Ushuaia for having proliferated socialist literature. Unlike Marinetti, Lugones had no fondness of Italian immigrants – a passionate proponent of their mass-deportation, he rallied for sending crammed boats of back to the Mediterranean.
Marinetti was a pragmatist. He knew that, while in other countries he may have seemed a cycloptic king in the land of the blind when it came to Fascism, upon arriving in Argentina he was, rather, an amateur. Why smuggle snow to the South Pole? Instead, he sought to prove his usefulness in his attempt to breathe renewal into Argentine art, to shed illusions – to help peel away its supposed spectral romanticism, to do away with sentimental clichés (so abundant in the poems of senior fellow Fascist, Lugones) and conservatism’s fondness for relics of antiquity – towards an avantgarde celebration of cruelty and grotesqueness as they are. Even if that seemed insane, it was an image he and his followers aspired to. No easy task. One notable Argentine autodidact painter had famously rejected his Italian counterparts: Benito Quinquela Martín, an anarchist from La Boca, had refused the blank check offered by none other than Benito Mussolini for his painting “Twilight” (Crespúsculo). Quinquela opposed all schools of art and of political thought that were imported from Europe. Mussolini had insisted that “Twilight” revealed the dynamism of industrial man. But upon closer inspection, Quinquela’s etchings depict the machines as gnashing monsters, devourers of men; while the silhouettes of labourers become like musical notes, signs of fleeting, asemic writing – a vision perhaps closer to his fellow anarchist-autodidact William Blake’s condemnation of the “Furnaces and Starry Wheels” of enslaving industry. Too-close familiarity with industrial drudgery prevented Quinquela from glorifying the mechanical age, setting him apart from middle class ideologues who envisaged euphoria in the “Starry Wheels”.
Tubantia: Marinetti “Zang tumb tumb” on a wall of the building at the Hoge Rijndijk 8, Leiden, The Netherlands, 2008 (CC)
In retrospect, Marinetti had attained partial success. After all, his was more attainable than those of the utopian dreamers often killed or imprisoned by such designs.
For Italian Futurists – who were not exclusively or always of the Right, and whose more anarchist members had also exerted their transatlantic influences on the societies of the river La Plata – beauty was a race-car suicide, a ceremony of velocity and airplane turbine din, a doing away with all that was quaint and nostalgic that fills whining tangoes.
Perhaps, without shedding a single tear (Marinetti denounced all sobbing), Futurism meant to protest at the hanging of Benito Mussolini, capo di tutti capo dangled from a meat-hook in the celestial slaughterhouse on a clear jubilant day, alongside his courtesan Clara Petacci, after the partisans’ ambush that took place in the hapless tourist-trap town of Dongo.
Futurists regarded Da Vinci’s blueprints for war machines as the greater of his artworks, dwarfing his paintings into irrelevance.
The poet of the tango-lyricists, Enrique Santos-Discépolo, had said that “a tango is a sad thought, which can be danced.” To date, no better definition exists of tango. Some sad thoughts may be asinine or banal, and others profound, but in tango they can all be translated into dance. Such translation had no place in Futurist ideology, which remained abrasive to all sentimentality.
An unfortunately prophetic, then-new value system had begun to compete with previous layers of culture in Argentina, a still unresolved and inconclusive match.
Argentina would have been an ideal of the Futurists, had their vanguard lasted. This is the country where the ignominious president of the 1990s fled the presidential palace via helicopter, as the streets and May Plaza erupted with bread riots – in itself, a Futurist painting, in which (in the words of Umberto Boccioni) “sensations…re-echo upon our canvasses in deafening and triumphant flourishes.”
It was in Buenos Aires that the last military dictator declared an insane, unwinnable war against Britain – an Old-World Empire (representing the autumnal Victorian world opposed by vanguardists) and former friend to all Argentine dictatorships – over the cold and windy Falkland archipelago. Galtieri’s unpredictable act took the regime’s North American backers by surprise, as Washington politicians – a young Joe Biden amongst them – openly turned against him. This doomed struggle, too, could have potentially qualified as Futurist theatricality. Marinetti had once prophesied: “We want to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness.” Even if it meant singing off-key into one’s own destruction.
The most celebrated Argentine visual artist of the postmodernist current, León Ferrari (1920-2013) known for his unlimited tongue-in-cheek playfulness and mockery of the Church, only reached fame when his depiction of Christ crucified upon a fighter jet plane incensed various religious communities. Its public display at the Recoleta Culture Centre drew the ire of the then-bishop of Buenos Aires, future Pope Francis, who supported demonstrators demanding the museum’s closure.
Of course, Ferrari explained it as a pro-peace, anti-clerical statement. Yet his object’s true aesthetic, independently of authorial intentions, slates closer to the heritage of Italian Futurist idyll: that of remaking the machine into a new aluminium Christ. For Marinetti, war and terrorism were the highest expressions of modern art. How would he have responded to the September 11th attacks in New York? Or, before that, to the death-flights committed by South American juntas?
One of the many unfortunately accurate divinations by the Futurists, “Continuous Portrait”, a head-bust sculpture by Renato Bertelli, shows a silhouette shaped after the rough-ridged head of Mussolini, in black terracotta resembling obsidian, ironically taking on the form of the pawn chess piece – the most basic and expendable chess character, nevertheless endowed with special powers if it reaches the end-square of its flat world.
Buenos Aires ranks among those capitals that have been diagnosed as “macrocephalic”, this condition occurs when a country has too much power and resources disproportionately concentrated in the capital, while the provinces go neglected. The curse of the “macrocephalic” was explored by Argentina’s most resounding and celebrated essayist, Ezequiel Martínez Estrada, who defended the cause of the neglected and colonised provinces. Estrada called Buenos Aires “The Head of Goliath” in his long later-canonised essay of that name, wherein he accuses the capital of being a labyrinth that desensitises, kills the libido and wastes the talents and youths of hopeful young internal migrants, with the capital’s infinite gimmicks, its pretentious micro-cultures, its discriminating, seeming cosmopolitanism which at long last turns out to be insular, and, not least, Estrada laments the city’s enveloping cement, grey as the shot-dead brains of Goliath.
But rather than the allegorical head of Goliath, would it not be more apt to see in Buenos Aires the resurgence, or the silhouette, of Bertelli’s sculpture – the “Continuous Portrait” of rock-browed aviator Benito? BM’s clones, human statuesque doubles, persevered in Argentina for much of the 20th century, leaving footprints bigger than their coffins.
Peronism, the long-triumphant and ever-resurgent Argentine political ideology, is often accused of being an heir to such 1930s trends. From its origins, though, Peronism was an amalgam, a borrower of the aesthetics of all pre-existing political movements, as it rejected the racial ideology of the right – seeing as such discrimination was clearly the preferred practice of landowning elites, the self-declared anti-Peronists, who exaggerated and even fabricated their European (British and French) heritage. Tellingly, the Peron’s favoured a broad spectrum of art and artists: Juan Domingo sent a warm letter to surrealist poet Leónidas Lamborghini and dispatched child prodigies of classical piano like Martha Argerich on scholarships to Vienna; Eva fomented popular tango orchestras and commissioned social-realist muralists.
In politics, Peronism assuaged the more rightward leaning, as well as the leftist popular tendencies among Argentine majorities, luring the firebrands to a moderate centre with Evita Peron’s pacifying pact, a project of unification owed to her electrifying charisma. Once a widower, Juan Peron, unmitigated by Eva, returned from exile a divisive figure, reviving political persecutions of dissenters and unorthodox Peronists – mostly the left-leaning youth – who had supported him, only to succumb to his campaigns of arrests and killings. Thereon, Peronism as the first post-ideology failed to arrest the internal battle of ideas that coursed through the fabric of an ever-diverse Argentine society, a culture nonetheless still prone to the predations of imported and homegrown Fascism. Later, movements emerged during the quarantine period to reinforce that pattern.
The distant Futurists, who influenced generations of Argentine artists and ideologues, betrayed their great naiveté in a quest for the degradation of the values and beauty-oriented aesthetics inherited from their ancestors. Such archetypes haunted them. Thus they sought an exorcism, partly in vain. Underlying it all was the youthful certainty that the divine is not fragile, that one can lash out with blades, spray-cans and the paintbrush, defacing the alabaster of powerful gods, of the illustrious dead, whilst holding an internal belief in the invincibility of these very targets, these loathsome objects – a faith which, paradoxically, justified and invited the blasphemer’s desperate attack in the first place. As such, defacements of lasting hegemony seem likely to be as futile and damaging as an adolescent’s rebellion against a parent, or swinging a hammer at waves in the sea. Perhaps the Futurists would be surprised to what extent their prophecies won.
They championed the machine, concrete and cement; declared that mechanical noise would become music and replaced amoré’s clichéd romances and moonlit love stories, to be subverted by a modern theatre of cruelty, of barking impulses and insensitivity. In that sense, the Futurist vanguard proved visionary, yet also overly optimistic: for they heralded the emergence of a society that was to allow almost no place for artists or poets such as themselves, merely the commodification of their products, consumed ungratefully by an irritated and media-addled middle class.
Buenos Aires seems at war with its own heritage: the art nouveau statues and buildings stand self-defaced, truncated; next to these, the new architecture of stress emerges. Techno rivals tango. As poet Emiliano Bustos, son of the abducted and disappeared poet Miguel Ángel Bustos, suggests in his critical essays, the celebrated generation of Argentine writers and poets since the 1990s believed in depicting mundane unordinary acts of consumption, or, in uncritically borrowing the language of mass media; newer generations follow the previous models of success. Perhaps what sets the reigning neoliberal aesthetics apart from Marinetti’s, one that he had hoped and clamoured for, is the total absence of that which Marinetti had found pivotal to his quasi-mystical worldview: passion. Rather, the triumph of cultural forces he predicted culminated in flippancy and jadedness, not ecstasy. The result, like a microwave meal (a likely subject of contemporary poetry from Buenos Aires), is bereft of such Mephistophelean muses. As sentenced by the Argentine poet Juan Gelman, who rejected his opportunity to return from exile: “We inhabit times of Dispassion.” Vivimos en tiempos de la Despasión.
Our current pundit-mediated culture seeks the overthrow of the sensuality and poetry to which it ultimately resorts as its last hope or refuge. Thirty-year-olds, under advice of their Lacanian psychoanalysts, watch online pornography to surpass the webbings of their inhibitions; then, later that night or the next, they dig into their trove of mildewy old love letters sent or received during the first years of secondary school, even back to those from the last years of primary; those bad rhyming poems of borrowed beauty; a plagiarism here and there (maybe a bit of Lugones, used by a second generation Sicilian, or our Chilean neighbour Neruda) and similar letters exchanged by their parents, and, if lucky, by those who could read or write amongst our grandparents.
About the Author
Arturo Desimone (1984) is an Aruban-Argentinean writer and visual artist, born and raised on the island Aruba, at 22 he emigrated to the Netherlands. He later relocated to Argentina while working on projects related to his Argentinean family background. Desimone’s articles, poetry and fiction pieces previously appeared in Nueva York Poetry Review, Círculo de Poesía (Spanish,) Island (Tasmania), the Drunken Boat, Anomaly and in the poetry collection Mare Nostrum/Costa Nostra (Hesterglock 2019). He performed at international poetry festivals in Granada, Nicaragua, Buenos Aires and Havana and has exhibited drawings in galleries in Amsterdam and Ciudad la Plata (Argentina). This essay is related to Desimone’s longer project “Notes on a Journey to the Ever-Dying Lands”, a series on lesser known movements in recent and contemporary Latin American poetry.