Futurism and Pop Art: from “the beauty of speed” to smoke, chaos and collapse

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“We wish to sing the praises to the men behind the steering wheel,”[1] proclaimed in 1908 the founder and a key figure of Futurism, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. Fascinated with the energy and the power of a racing car, and certain that the world has been “enriched with […] the beauty of speed,”[2] Futurists found their theme in depicting the abstract sensation of movement – the radiance of the moving object and its effect on the surrounding environment. Cars and motorised vehicles were celebrated as emblems of modernity and progress; modern machines par excellence, symbols of the technological ‘triumph’ of humanity over nature.[3] Fifty years later, cars reappeared as popular motifs in the Pop Art, this time as quintessential tokens of leisure and typical objects of consumerist desire. Like Futurists, Pop artists investigated the relationship between the machine and the body, a psychosomatic effect of the mechanized (and commercialized) modern life.

Three distinct images that feature the car – Giacomo Balla’s Futurist painting Abstract Speed and Noise (1914), Richard Hamilton’s Pop Art painting Hommage à Chrysler Corp (1957), and Andy Warhol’s Death and Disaster series (1960s) – reveal the similarity between Futurist and Pop Art, while also exposing the changed attitudes towards modernity and technological progress – from Futurists’ unclouded optimism and confidence in the machine to Pop Art’s disillusionment and even trepidation. With Andy Warhol, “the beauty of speed” turns into the ugliness of death; it is a collapse of the Futurist dream.

Hommage à Chrysler Corp. 1957 by Richard Hamilton 1922-2011

Richard Hamilton, Hommage à Chrysler Corp, 1957. Oil, metal, foil, and collage on panel, 48 x 32 in.

The convergence between the human body and the machine, once a central theme of Futurism, is explored in Richard Hamilton’s 1957 Pop Art painting Hommage à Chrysler Corp where we see a washed out contour of a female figure melting into the space of the car, becoming one with the machine. As they converge, the body and the car take on each other’s properties and the exchange is, in Hamilton’s view, reciprocal – what is left of the girl takes on the attributes of the machine (i.e. the left breast transforms into a headlight), while the machine takes on the attributes of the female body (i.e. the shape of a female bra replaces the left headlight). The symbiosis suggests a parallel, signaling to the shared status between these two objects, both of which are exploited by the ad-man as ultimate objects of desire and consumption. Apart from the parallel, the intermingling also suggests an interdependent relationship – the car both necessitates the female body (which is often used to sell the car) and erases it (in order to occupy its spot in the consumer consciousness). Hamilton is familiar with this logic of consumerism which sells products (such as cars) by associating them with other types of desire (i.e. the sexual desire).[4] Hommage à Chrysler Corp is a mimesis of this very logic, a metaphoric expression of the fact that in the dialectic of consumerism the machine effectively replaces the body only by imitating it and, paradoxically, by receiving an animate quality. Hal Foster writes: “The old Futurist dream of the inorganic world charged with a vital force, […], comes true, in a different way, in consumerist culture, and Hamilton evokes this uncanny life.”[5]

What Hamilton has painted in the Hommage à Chrysler Corp is a psychosomatic effect of the modern consumerist culture and this “mimesis of … impactful,”[6] as Foster describes it, could be likened to the Futurist concept of “painting of states of mind,”[7] as well as their assertion that “it is not simply by reproducing the exterior aspects of contemporary life that art becomes the expression of its own time.”[8] In other words, Futurists (much like Hamilton) were less interested in depicting a concrete scene and an obvious detail than capturing interior (abstract) sensation of modernity. This can be seen in Giacomo Balla’s Abstract Speed and Noise where he paints the dynamism of a moving vehicle and the speed, the energy and the noise of the urban industrial city.[9] The curved lines suggest the movement of the car’s wheels but also evoke a sense of the car’s speed and power – the car being a whirlpool of energy that sweeps and alternates everything around it. The energy and a sense of dynamism are also suggested by the progressive lines of force advancing across the surface of the painting, moving in all directions and breaking the confines of the frame.

Giacomo Balla, Abstract Speed and Sound, 1913-14

Giacomo Balla, Abstract Speed and Noise, 1913-14. Oil on unvarnished millboard, 54.5 × 76.5 cm.

Like Hamilton, Balla uses abstraction to come closer to the reality. Like Hamilton, he shatters and converges otherwise unique, enclosed forms[10] following on Futurist notion that in reality things do not exist separately but “cut through”[11] one another so one object begins before the other ends. Furthermore, the shattered forms and fractured planes in Balla’s painting mimic the scattered gaze and the blurred vision caused by the velocity of a moving vehicle in real life. In addition, the curved lines create a sensation of vortex and vertigo for the viewer, resembling the schizophrenic effect of modernity. Apart from the free form, both Balla and Hamilton use colour free from imitation of objects and things, expressing instead the experience and “enhance[ing] the emotion of the spectator.”[12] The red dominates Balla’s painting to create a sense of energy, passion, and exuberance of modernity (as well as Balla’s own excitement about it). In contrast, Hamilton restricts his palette, opting for the dominance of cream white suggesting a sombre, almost fatiguing effect of modernity and, perhaps, his own unenthusiastic relationship towards it. Of course, white could also have a pacifying affect; perhaps suggesting the acceptance of modernity, even an approved marriage between the body and the machine.

There is no doubt, asserts Foster, that Hamilton “delighted in the machine[‘s] […] affective power, its mythic force.”[13] However, while Futurists unequivocally celebrated the machine, Hamilton, in Foster’s view, took on a more cautious, if not critical stance. Whilst the commingling of the car and the female body might appear congenial – “a car is (like) a female body, a female body is (like) a car, and the two commingle as if naturally”[14] – the conflation might be better understood as naturalised, rather than natural. In other words, the car and the female are conditioned to mingle by the process of consumerist logic.[15] Rather than pleasant and enhancing, the giving into the machine is, thus, crippling and wearing. While “the car appears almost animate,” notes Foster, “the woman appears almost spectral, drained of life, her carnality all but given over […] to the Chrysler.”[16] Hamilton, in fact, almost entirely wipes out the female figure as to suggest her erasure; only the sensuous red lips hover untouched drawing attention to her otherwise barely noticeable presence (and, of course, to her status as an object of desire).

Hamilton’s viewpoint of modernity, consumerism, and the machine is never overtly didactic or obvious, and one could question whether there is a viewpoint at all or whether is Hamilton simply documenting conditions of modern life. Foster admits that Hamilton could be understood as nothing else but “a mad iconographer of Pop representations of everyday life,”[17] or could even be accused (as Pop artists generally are) of redoubling and perpetuating its values. However, Foster insists that Hamilton speaks critically of popular and consumerist culture, and associates human with inhuman “with his usual ironism of affirmation,”[18] a strategy borrowed from Duchamp and described by Hamilton himself as a “peculiar mixture of reverence and cynicism.”[19] As he replicates (and, thus, arguably affirms) the logic of advertising, he also exposes, however subtly, its fallacy.[20] The mirror is at the same time a magnifying glass, or at least a frame that directs our attention. As he puts two fetishistic objects side by side, Hamilton both records and highlights the connection between the two. “Fetishization, both sexual and technological, might not be challenged, but it is underscored, even parodied through an excessive elaboration,”[21] writes Foster. Even if we accept Foster’s proposition that there is, indeed, an irony in Hamilton’s image, it is so subtle and non-pedagogical that it is also plausible to argue that Hamilton tests and questions, rather than concludes.[22]

With Warhol’s Death and Disaster series the collapse of the Futurist dream and the abolishment of the indiscriminate faith in the machine seems to be complete – objects sacred to Futurism embody destruction in Warhol’s art. If objects “cut through” one another, as Futurists suggested, here they do so in a violent manner. Unlike Marinetti who found himself revived by the machine, by “the steering wheel […] that menaced [his] stomach,”[23] Warhol fears this menacing and, thus, condemns the machine. Rather than empowered and “revived” by the machine, here the body is wounded, even destroyed by it. As noted by Thomas Crow, in the Death and Disaster series Warhol displays “the reality of suffering and death;”[24] his “photographs of automobile accidents […] commemorate events in which the supreme symbol of consumer affluence, the American car of the 1950s, lost its aura of pleasure and freedom to become a concrete instrument of sudden and irreparable injury.”[25] Warhol, thus, exposes the tragedy lurking underneath the sleek machinery and the glamorous surface of commodity culture. Here, one can no longer speak off the smooth and acceptable integration between the body and the machine but of a dramatic triumph of one over the other. Unlike Futurists who capture the car in movement, Warhol captures it in stasis; his image is an aftermath of the movement, an aftermath of “the beauty of speed” that Futurists glorified. Warhol’s is a catastrophic view of the impact of the restlessness and velocity of modern life; a catastrophic view of the impact of technological progress and the consumerist culture which produces and validates this destructive machine.

Warhol_Death and Disaster series

Andy Warhol, from Death and Disaster series, 1962-64. Silk-screen ink and synthetic polymer paint on canvas.

While Warhol is more explicit in expressing his critical stance than Hamilton, he also (in the usual Pop Art fashion) complicates the reading of his image. For instance, he lessens the shocking effect by endlessly repeating the image so the initial disturbance and significance dilute into indifference. He is fully aware of the anesthetizing effect of this repetition and notes: “the more you look at the same exact things – the more the meaning goes away, and the better and emptier you feel.”[26] Is Warhol really wishing to create apathy? Or is he simply mimicing the state of mind that already exists in the modern, mass-mediated society? Seriality, notes Foster, replicates the logic of the consumerist culture where everything, death included, is exploited as a spectacle.[27] In this culture, the society is already aestheticized and careless; Warhol simply repeats this logic. Endlessly repeated within a single artwork, “the image approaches the point of abstraction,”[28] and the resulting blurriness simulates the ‘real-life’ sensation of obscurity caused by the excessive visual stimuli. This simulation of “vernacular glance” and “distracted spectatorship,”[29] is similar to the scattered gaze and blurriness Balla used to replicate the ‘real-life’ sensation of velocity and restlessness.

1w

Andy Warhol, from Death and Disaster series, 1962-64. Silk-screen ink and synthetic polymer paint on canvas.

Although it could be argued that Warhol, like Hamilton, simply recreates and mirrors already existing condition of modernity without inserting his own stance, Foster again insists on a different kind of reading. He suggests that repetition can cause a contradictory effect – there is at once “a defending against traumatic affect and a producing of it.”[30] The repetition imprints an image into our consciousness so the image haunts us and we are forced to confront it, rather than ignore it. Furthermore, the repetition of an image and the resulting blur, notes Crow, “can increase rather than numb sensitivity to it, as the viewer works to draw separate elements into a whole.”[31] Because the image is unclear, we are teased to unpack it. The inability to see at the first glance intrigues our curiosity. Once we are drawn in, we pay attention and begin to see the previously unnoticed “reality of suffering and death,”[32] the monstrosity of the machine and the tragedy lurking behind the consumerist culture.

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Of course, Warhol himself famously acts indifference and superficiality, stating that there is nothing behind the surface of his artwork and that he himself is not interested in anything except the external appearance of things. Like a machine he simply records and repeats what is in front of him.[33] But art historian Stephen Koch argues that despite his apparent superficiality, Warhol’s “art always suggests something about life, that could be formulated in philosophic terms.”[34] As to prove Warhol’s investment in the image and his interest in digging below the surface, Crow notes that Warhol “far from limiting himself to newspaper photographs that might have come his way by chance, […] searched out prints from the press agencies themselves, which only journalistic professionals could normally have seen,” and which “were apparently deemed too bizarre or horrific ever to be published.”[35] Warhol is, therefore, not simply an indifferent iconographer, but an inquisitor. Like Hamilton, argues Foster, he “treat[s] the artistic image as a mimetic probe to explore this given matrix of cultural languages – to take apart its clichés and to put them back together, with differences that, though “not great,” may yet be “crucial.”[36]

Futurists, too, were no doubt more than just documenting the sensation of modern, urban life; their images were also expressive of their own attitudes towards modernity[37] as evidenced, for example, by the subjective use of colour. But while Futurists relation to the modernity and technological progress, as explicated through their relationship with the car, is enthusiastic and celebratory, almost romantic; both Hamilton and Warhol, complicate and disturb this celebration. Like Futurists, they are fascinated with the machine, but the fascination is often traumatic. When Warhol states that “everybody should be a machine,”[38] he might, notes Foster, “indicate less a blank subject than a shocked one, who takes on what shocks him as a mimetic defense against that shock.”[39] While Futurists wanted the viewer to embrace the modernity as a way to awake from the slumber of tradition, Pop artists wanted the viewer to question the implications of modernity which was itself, in their view, leading to slumber. In order to raise questions, they replicated and exploited the logic of consumerism. On the surface, their images thus appear supportive of this logic and it is only through consideration of the effect of this excessive replication – which has a potential to expose and subvert – that we can come to a different reading, the one that reveals the criticality in their work. The ambiguity is, no doubt, central to the Pop Art;[40] their images are never overtly didactic, leaving the formation of opinion to the viewer who may (but also may not[41]) delve deeper into the work and question his/her own relationship to the modernity, the technological progress, and the consumerist pop culture.

 

 

[TEXT: Ira Ferris]

REFERENCES:

[1] Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, “The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism (1908),” in Chipp, Herschel B. Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics, pp 284-288. Berkeley: University of California Press: 1968, p286.

[2] Marinetti writes: “We declare that the splendour of the world has been enriched with a new form of beauty, the beauty of speed. A race-automobile adorned with great popes like serpents with explosive breath … a race-automobile which seems to rush over exploding powder is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.” Ibid.

[3] Marinetti’s manifesto, in fact, begins with a eulogy of sorts to cars, to which he refers to as “snorting beasts”, and whose “torrid breasts” he and his friends “pat lovingly.” Furthermore, he writes that with the car “Mythology and the Mystic Idea are finally overcome. We are about to witness the birth of the centaur and soon we shall see the first angels fly!” Marinetti, “The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism (1908),” p284.
He also celebrates the car for its indestructability. After describing a car accident he had, Marinetti concludes: “They thought it was dead, my fine shark [this is how Marinetti refers to his car], but the stroke of my hand was enough to restore it to life, and there it was living again, speeding along once again on its powerful fins.” Marinetti, “The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism (1908),” p286.

[4] Foster writes that with Hommage a Chrysler Corp Hamilton “began his intrigue with the automobile as the core design commodity of the twentieth century […], and for Hamilton, the car was more metaphoric ‘vehicle of desire’ a la Banham than Platonic type-object a la Le Corbusiere.. ‘It adopts its symbols from many fields and contributes to the stylistic language of all consumer goods,’ he [i.e. Hamilton] wrote in 1962. ‘It is presented to us by the ad-man in a rounded picture of urban living: a dream world, but the dream is deep and true – the collective desire of a culture translated into an image of fulfilment.’” Hal Foster, The First Pop Age: Painting and Subjectivity in the Art of Hamilton, Lichtenstein, Warhol, Richter, and Ruscha, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2012, p25.

[5] Foster, The First Pop Age, p34.

[6] Foster, The First Pop Age, p81.

[7] Umberto Boccioni, “ “The Exhibitors to the Public (1912),” in Chipp, Herschel B. Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics, pp 294-298. Berkeley: University of California Press: 1968, p297.

[8] Umberto Boccioni, “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture (1912),” in Chipp, Herschel B. Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics, pp 298-304. Berkeley: University of California Press: 1968, p299.
In “Exhibitors to the Public”, Boccioni also writes: “We declare, … , that painting and sensation are two inseparable words..” Boccioni, “Exhibitors to the Public (1912),” p295.

[9] In “Exhibitors to the Public (1912),” Boccioni explains Futirist interest in depicting the sensation of movement in the following words: “… what must be rendered is the dynamic sensation, that is to say, the particular rhythm of each object, its inclination, its movement, or, to put it more exactly, its interior force.” Boccioni, “Exhibitors to the Public (1912),” p296.

[10] I.e. a form of the car and a form of the landscape; or, in Hamilton’s case, a form of the car and the form of the female body.

[11] In “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture,” Boccioni writes: “… no one can any longer believe that an object ends where another begins and that our body is surrounded by anything […] that does not cut through it.” Boccioni, “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture (1912),” p300. This is why, explains Boccioni in another text, “not only have we radically abandoned the motive fully developed according to its determined and, therefore, artificial equilibrium, but we suddenly and purposely intersect each motive with one or more other motives of which we never give the full development but merely the initial, central, or final notes.” Boccioni, “Exhibitors to the Public (1912),” p297.

[12] “One may remark, also, in our pictures spots, lines, zones of color which do not correspond to any reality, but which, … enhance the emotion of the spectator. We thus create a sort of emotive ambience, seeking by intuition the links which exist between the exterior (concrete) scene and the interior (abstract) emotion. Those lines, those spots, those zones of color, apparently illogical and meaningless, are the mysterious keys to our pictures.” Boccioni, “Exhibitors to the Public (1912),” p297.

[13] Foster, The First Pop Age, p21.

[14] Foster, The First Pop Age, p27.

[15] Hamilton, notes Foster, “exposes the breakup of each body on display – the new Chrysler in the foreground and the vestigial showgirl behind it… […] Not only does Hamilton show these different body parts to be subject to the same process of fragmentation and reification (associated =, since Georg Lukacs, with industrial production), but he also relates these various parts by analogy […] he demonstrates a conflation of the sexual fetish with the commodity fetish…” Foster, The First Pop Age, p25.

[16] Foster, The First Pop Age, p27.

[17] Foster, The First Pop Age, p37.

[18] Foster, The First Pop Age, p50.

[19] Hamilton quoted in Foster, The First Pop Age, p21.
Foster writes: “Hamilton never purported to be strictly critical […] but neither was he merely celebratory.” He was ‘stepped in both popular culture and high art, […] at once reverential and cynical, he seeks to explore, indeed to exploit, the changed relationship, the charged overlap, between the two.” Foster, The First Pop Age, p21-22.

[20] “The tabular pictures allow us to step back from this process and to see it analytically,” writes Foster. Foster, The First Pop Age, p55.

[21] Foster, The First Pop Age, p43.

[22] Hamilton “does not attack […], yet neither does he submit to it. […C]ommitted to the figure […], he knows that it is also transformed – not only rearticulated by machines and confused with commodities but designed and redesigned as an image-product as well. Yet here again he neither embraces nor rejects this condition.” Foster, The First Pop Age, p55.

[23] At the beginning of “The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism (1908),” Marinetti describes how he “stretched out on [his] machine like a corpse on a bier; but […] revived at once under the steering wheel, a guillotine blade that menaced [his] stomach.” Marinetti, “The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism (1908),” p284. The violence of the machine, its power to transform and even scar the human body is, thus, praised and applauded by the Futurists who believed that the human body itself should become more machine-like, i.e. strong and indestructible.

[24] Thomas Crow, “Saturday Disasters: trace and reference in early Warhol,” in Crow, Thomas. Modern art in the common culture, pp 49-65. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996. p51.

[25] Crow, “Saturday Disasters,” p60.

[26] Hal Foster, “Death in America,” in October, Vol. 75 (Winter, 1996), pp. 36-59. The MIT Press, 1996, p40. In addition, Foster notes Warhol stating: “When you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn’t really have any effect.” Foster, “Death in America,” p40.

[27] The seriality, notes Foster, resembles “the compulsive habits of repetition enforced by a capitalist society.” Foster, The First Pop Age, p110.

[28] Foster, The First Pop Age, p130.

[29] Foster, The First Pop Age, p69.

[30] Foster, “Death in America,” p42.

[31] Crow, “Saturday Disasters,” p61.

[32] Crow, “Saturday Disasters,” p51.

[33] “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface: of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it. I see everything that way, the surface of things, a kind of mental Braille, I just pass my hands over the surface of things. The reason I’m painting this way is that I want to be a machine, and I feel that what ever I do and do machine-like is what is want to do.” Andy Warhol, “Warhol in His Own Words: Untitled Statements (1963-87),” in Stiles, Kristine and Selz, Peter H. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings, pp 340–46. Berkeley: University of California Press: 1996, p340.

[34] Ric Burns, “Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film,” Chestershire Films: 2006, 4’47’’

[35] Crow notes that “Certain of these [photographs] were apparently deemed too bizarre or horrific ever to be published; that is, they were barred from public distribution precisely because of their capacity to break through the complacency of jaded consumers.” Crow, “Saturday Disasters,” p61.

[36] Foster, The First Pop Age, p101.

[37] These attitudes were clearly and unambiguously stated in their manifestos.

[38] Foster, The First Pop Age, p109.

[39] Foster, The First Pop Age, p110.

[40] Foster notes that “Developed in Dada, this strategy of mimetic exacerbation was performed ambiguously by Warhol [and other Pop artists] – ambiguously because its different degrees of complicity and criticality are notoriously difficult to measure.” Foster, The First Pop Age, p110.

[41] While he argues that “an art of affirmatory intention,” practiced by both Hamilton and Warhol, “is not necessarily uncritical,” Foster also admits that “this paradox often promotes a tension between investment in the image and distance from it, one that carries over to his viewers too.” Foster, The First Pop Age, p52.

 

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