Modernity's Sweep; the Art of Theological Truth

What the 20th Century Gave to Beauty

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, FEB. 26, 2009 ( As the great tournament to unseat traditional art got under way at the dawn of the 20th century, the Italians lacked a champion. The cubists in France redefined the construction of pictorial space; the Dadaists in Switzerland and America were preparing to exhibit a toilet; while the Expressionists were touting the colors of Germany and Russia.

Italy rallied however and on Feb. 20, 1909, Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti published a manifesto proclaiming a new Italian vision of the arts.

«The Manifesto of Futurism» decried traditional culture and called for total renewal in art, society and politics. Painters, architects and writers lent their voice to the movement that took off with the speed characteristic of the modern era.

This week in Rome celebrations began for a year-long commemoration of the centenary of Futurism. A major art show at the Quirinal exhibition center, literary events and musical performances are but a few of the myriad activities planned for the upcoming year.

The city has proposed a series of “Futurist Evenings” originally organized by futurist groups during the first decades of the 20th century. These soirees, through theater and music, were meant to jolt the bourgeoisie away from their conventional values and open them to the new era.

The exhibition of Futurist painting remains the highlight of the year with works reunited from all over the world. Italians will be able to reacquaint themselves with the principal artists of this movement, Umberto Boccioni, Giacomo Balla, Carlo Carrà and others, greatly gifted painters possessed of a unique artistic vision.

The first tenet of Futurism rejected tradition and what it considered outworn forms of artistic expression. In poetry, this translated into new grammatical structures in the works of Marinetti; and in art, to abandoning the carefully constructed perspective spaces and modeled human forms that had long distinguished Italian painting.

The Futurist painters tried to depict dynamism and movement in their canvases. Modern life, dominated by machines, and the active, forward-moving industrialized world was more worthy of representation than the antique subjects of old.

«A roaring automobile is more beautiful then the ‘Victory of Samonthrace,'» claimed Marinetti, and Boccioni set out to prove it. Umberto Boccioni, one of the Futurist leaders, produced one of the most emblematic works of the movement, «The City Rises.» Painted in the bright colors of city lights, anticipating the red, yellow and green of stop lights and the brilliant neons of marquees, the work overwhelms the viewer with color.

A lightly-traced cityscape of buildings under construction converge at the point where a flame red horse, drawn out of thousands of undulating lines, rears upward in a mass of concentrated energy. The horse, which would appear frequently in Boccioni’s work, represented horse power, the machinery that ran the city and increased the speed and dynamic of daily life.

The divisionist technique, an Italian version of impressionism, marked the early works of the Futurists. Small lines of color placed side by side were exploited by these artists to create the illusion of the blur of movement. Giacomo Balla produced a charming painting, «Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash,» where a small dog scurries across the white canvas, his paws and tail anticipating the modern movie technique of «bullet time.» The dog’s motions are echoed by the fluttering skirt of his owner, her only visible part.

Boccioni and Carrà went to Paris in 1911 to visit Marinetti and in the capital of artistic experimentation, the two Futurists encountered Cubism. The formulation of space in the works of Braque and Picasso opened the door to these Italian artists to render motion and vibrant life more effectively on canvas. Carrà produced the «Funeral of the Anarchist Galli» in 1911, where sharp contrasts between dark shadows and slices of vivid orange tones intensify the uncontrolled mass of movement of the figures. The currents of action, dubbed «lines of force» by the Futurists, were rendered more powerful by breaking up the objects into overlapping geometrical units.

Boccioni produced his «Unique Forms of Continuity in Space» in 1913, a Futurist sculpture. His larger-than-life size figure strides forward into the future, visibly displacing the space around it. The curvilinear plates that seem to trail behind as the figure projects forward are remarkably similar to the flowing draperies of the Victory of Samonthrace.

Boccioni’s «Dynamism of a Footballer,» drawing together Italy’s two great passions — soccer and art — looks more like an explosion caught on canvas than a poster of a sports star.

The Futurist movement was marked by nationalistic sentiment. For the Futurists, post-Unification Italy had never realized its promise as a truly modern nation. Still a kingdom, Italy seemed stuck in an antiquated past as the innovations of the new century passed it by.

They extolled the cities of Milan and Torino as the showcases of the nation where factories and urban development abounded and eschewed the ancient cities of Florence, Venice and Rome as stagnant museums of a dead past.

Technology was their great passion, and this love ultimately led them to believe that war was the «sublime experience of human life.» They strongly supported Italy’s participation in World War I even painting war propaganda posters. Umberto Boccione, however, died as a casualty of war at the age of 34, bringing the Futurist era to a close.

The nationalistic aspect of the movement and its glorification of war saw Futurism linked to the Fascist movement of the following century. Critics dispute Futurism’s influence on Mussolini who was a young man at the height of the movement.

For all its brilliant color and vibrant optimism, numerous elements of this movement make one wonder if it is a good idea to sweepingly glorify this period. On the positive side, the reaffirmation of the Italian national identity unites the Italian people in the face of an increasing uniformity in Europe and reminds the Italians of their long-standing leadership in the arts.

A more troubling note resounds in the rejection of tradition, including Italy’s long Christian past that permeates the fabric of the nation. The Futurists wanted to dismiss traditional values and force people to accept the new values of a utilitarian society dependant on machines and progress; given the present battle lines being drawn regarding the value of human life, it would be tragic to reawaken this optimistic artistic voice to promote an agenda of death..

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A Peek at Tradition

While the Quirinal Hill celebrated dynamism, the Vatican Hill showcased stability. The Icon Room of the Vatican Museums reopened this month after several years of reorganization and restoration.

Tucked away in a far corner of the Vatican Picture Gallery, the room of Byzantine icons contains 115 tempera-on-wood images dating from the 15th to the 19th century. In this often-missed section of the museum, the icons were once displayed in a dark space with a minimum of didactic information.

As of this year, the icon collection has its own curator and an improved display space. The illumination allows visitors to appreciate the fine detail that often characterizes these works of art.  

The most commanding piece in the room is an iconostasis from 1808. About five feet high and 10 feet wide, this screen between the altar and the faithful was covered with images. John the Baptist stands in glory in the upper panel while his decapitation sits below. St. Christopher meets a similar fate on the opposite side. The central images represent Mary and Christ including an image rarely seen in Western art, the Madonna and Child sitting in a chalice. Called «Mary, Font of Life,» it is a reminder of the theological basis of Eastern icons.

Icons represent a theological truth. Contrary to the art of the Renaissance where artists meditated on the holy stories and translated them into a visual language of the age, icons establish a teaching and maintain its continuity. The large eyes of Christ tell us he is all-seeing, his swollen throat emphasizes the Word. Purple establishes his regality, and his two extended fingers, his dual nature of God and man.

The static images freeze Truth for man to contemplate. The icons are of small format and many in cases for travel, so that as man journeyed through life, he could always find a moment of stillness with his Savior.

A charming icon of the funeral of Efron the Stilobate from 1630 shows a landscape of caves filled with meditating hermits. In each of these barren cells devoid of furnishings or comforts hangs an icon, a tribute to the devotional importance of this art.

A startling number of Marian scenes are dotted around the room, including the very popular image of the «Dormition of the Virgin.» The omnipresence of Mary in these works recalls that many of our most beloved devotions, the Immaculate Conception for example, originated in the East and was brought to the West during the age of iconoclasm.

The iconoclast controversy raged from 730 to 847 with a brief break at the end of the 8th century. During this period countless images were destroyed as some Eastern rulers feared that their losses against the Muslims were due to idolatry. Iconophiles fled to the west, many to Rome, deeply influencing the art of Italy until the age of the Renaissance.

The museum reopens in a very timely moment for the Byzantine Church. The first Sunday of Lent in the Byzantine rite is known as Orthodoxy Sunday to celebrate the definitive end of iconoclasm in 847. In celebration of the triumph of religious imagery, all moveable icons were traditionally carried in procession around the church.

In this Lenten time of preparation, icons offer a moment out of busy and distracting modern lives, to meditate in still silence on our faith and our salvation.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and the University of St. Thomas Catholic studies program. She can be reached at

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