Futurist images for your ear: or, how to listen to visual poetry, painting, and silent cinema

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Por un lado, los futuristas han sentido la ausencia del sonido en el nuevo arte del cine; pero, por otro lado, no problematizaron esta ausencia como una deficiencia o imperfección en su manifiesto de 1916. Cómo hacer que la película muda, sea audible y ruidosa; no es un tema que se haya abordado en el "Cine futurista".

Futurist images for your ear:  or,  how to listen

to visual poetry, painting, and silent cinema

Wanda Strauven*

Department of Media Studies, University of Amsterdam, Turfdraagsterpad 9, 1012 XT
Amsterdam, the Netherlands

This paper discusses the crucial tension between expression and experience in the Futurist art-action programme, by focusing on its noisy dimension. In the 1910s, the Futurists shocked the bourgeois audience with Clamorous happenings and educated their senses towards a new aesthetics of mixed sensations. Noise was a key ingredient in their avant-garde programme. The paper demonstrates how Futurist art even in its most visual expressions remains fundamentally an art for the ears. Three types of images – typographical, painterly, and cinematic – are analysed from an aural perspective, in order to highlight the synaesthetic mechanisms at work in the Futurist art experience. The main concern is to point out how the Futurists applied visual effects to actually enhance the auditory sensibility of people.  This leads to the conclusion that Futurism does not need sound in order to be noisy, because even in its ‘silent’ forms it is noisy in its essence. 

Keywords: synaesthesia; Futurist art; Futurist cinema; Marinetti; Russolo; Ginanni-Corradini brothers; chromophony; polyexpressiveness 

Introduction: art vs. action

Since its foundation in 1909, Italian Futurism profiled itself as a true ‘art-action’ movement. In contrast to other contemporaneous isms, such as Expressionism, Fauvism, and Cubism, Futurism aimed not only to impose a new artistic language, but also to act, that is, to bring radical changes, in (daily) life. Such an avant-garde programme culminated in Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s controversial aesthetics of war, to which Walter Benjamin makes reference in the epilogue to his famous essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1936), by quoting a lengthy passage from one of the countless Futurist manifestos. According to the founder of Futurism, ‘War is beautiful because it initiates the dreamt-of metalization of the human body. [ . . . ] War is beautiful because it combines the gunfire, the cannonades, the cease-fire, the scents, and the stench of putrefaction into a symphony.’ Besides mentioning the changed ‘sense perception’ brought about by (warfare) technology, Benjamin concludes that Fascism aestheticized politics, whereas Communism, in response, politicized art (2001, 64). 

At the time that Benjamin wrote his Artwork essay, Futurism had  indeed become more or less synonymous with Fascism and Marinetti had been institutionalized as a member of the Royal Academy of Italy. However, it should be stressed that it was Futurism, rather than Fascism, that turned politics into an artistic act. Especially during its ‘heroic period’ of the 1910s, more than a decade before the March on Rome and the rise of Fascism, Futurism excelled in conflating art and politics by means of provocative happenings, where the presence of the police soon became indispensable. A good illustration is the following scene:

The Assistant Commissioner: ‘You have announced an evening of poetry’.
Marinetti (without turning his head): ‘This is high-class poetry’.
Assistant Commissioner: ‘This is politics. I order you to stop this’.
Marinetti: ‘I won’t interrupt anything. One cannot cut a poem in half’.
Assistant Commissioner: ‘I’m not joking. Stop the proceedings, or I’ll have you arrested’.
Marinetti: ‘Free verses have feet that are much faster than those of policemen’. (Berghaus 1995, 51)

This dialogue allegedly took place in the wings of the Teatro Lirico of Milan, on 15 February 1910, while on stage, in front of a very full house, Michelangelo Zimolo was declaiming an ode to an anti-Austrian general. The poem was meant as the ‘final bomb’ of the Futurist serata (evening), which ended in a quite explosive way with skirmishes among the audience and the arrest of the two artists, Marinetti and Zimolo (Berghaus 1995, 49–52).

     Many scholars have underlined the political dimension of the Futurist evenings and the ‘new formula’ of arte-azione (art-action), thereby neglecting its meaning as an artistic act. In the above conversation between Marinetti and the police representative, the tension between politics and poetry is certainly meaningful. Yet Marinetti’s refusal to interrupt Zimolo’s recitation is more than just a political act; it is driven by the idea that Futurist poetry (and, by extension, Futurist art) only exists in its performance. For Marinetti, cutting a recited poem in half is like interrupting the projection of a film or suspending the execution of a ballet. Such an unplanned interruption or attempt to interrupt could, however, become an essential part of the happening, as it was the case on 15 February 1910 This brings me to the fundamental tension between art as a static work and art as a dynamic event, between (fixed) expression and (unpredictable) experience. This tension is not a conflict to be solved, but a necessary condition for Futurism, since its expression comes alive as it should only in and through the process of experience (i.e. engaging with the Futurist happening). 

     As I intend to demonstrate in this paper, the Futurist commixture between art and action is often multisensorial, if not strictly synaesthetic. I shall focus on the issue of sound, or rather noise, as one of the key ingredients of the Futurist artaction programme, by looking at – or should I say listening to – some of its most visual expressions in three different artistic fields: typography, painting, and cinema. On purpose, I shall limit my case studies to the 1910s, because this decade constitutes the most clamorous period of Italian Futurism. During these heroic days, the Futurists sought to shock the bourgeois audience (that is, épater le bourgeois in the tradition of the French Decadent poets) and educate their senses towards a Futurist aesthetics of mixed sensations, combining velocity, violence, and fisicofollia (body-madness), defined by Marinetti in his manifesto ‘The Variety Theatre’ (1913) as ‘action, heroism, life in the open air, dexterity, the authority of instinct and intuition’ (Apollonio 2001, 129). This echoes, or anticipates, Giacomo Balla and Fortunato Depero’s definition of arte-azione in their manifesto ‘Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe’ (1915): ‘With Futurism art has become action-art, that is, energy of will, aggression, possession, penetration, joy, brutal reality in art . . . ’ (Apollonio 2001, 198). 

     For Marinetti and his followers, art was ‘inseparable from life’ and became therefore the privileged instance for the phenomenology of being (Marinetti 2001, 365). As I discuss below, Marinetti’s main concern was to bring Futurist life closer to the ordinary man, through the immediacy of the artistic expression. Thus, art was not some sort of (intellectual) mediation or reflection; on the contrary, it was thought of as ‘the most immediate and direct kind of experience’,  which corresponds to Richard Cytowic’s definition of synaesthesia (Cytowic 1993, 176; quoted in Sobchack 2000). Neglecting the vital tension between expression and experience inevitably leads to a one-dimensional (mis)reading of the Futurist project as a whole, which was instead – as it will hopefully become clear throughout this paper – multidimensional and multisensorial. 

Typographical excess: visual bombardment of bellicose sounds 

     One of the stereotypical (mis)readings of Italian Futurism concerns Marinetti’s words-in-freedom. Often considered as the forerunner of the concrete poetry movement, which was founded in Brazil in the 1950s, Marinetti’s literary work has become notorious mainly because of its visual dimension, that is, its typographical effects. His words-in-freedom are primarily seen as free words on the printed page, as visual attacks upon the traditional typeset. Instead, they should also and especially be heard, or listened to, as vocal compositions or ‘declaimable scores’ (Webster 1995, 28). As I shall try to point out, it is through the synaesthetic experience of acoustic typography (or typographical acoustics) that the true meaning of Marinetti’s poetics can be grasped.

     The words-in-freedom project was first sketched in theoretical terms in a series of manifestos: ‘Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature’ (11 May 1912), followed by ‘A Response to Objections’ (11 August 1912), ‘Destruction of Syntax – Wireless Imagination – Words-in-Freedom’ (11 May 1913), and ‘Geometric and Mechanical Splendour and Numerical Sensibility’ (18 March 1914). In 1914 the project found its full expression in the war epic Zang Tumb Tumb, but already in 1912 the Futurist reader got a preview through the extract ‘Battle: Weigh + Smell’ that Marinetti included in the supplement to his ‘Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature’. The words-in-freedom of which this ‘battle’ is composed are words-in-freedom stricto sensu: the extract consists of a flow of free words, liberated from the chains of syntax, punctuation, metrics, and even the free verse. These freed words are joined either by the nominal analogy (a Futurist figure of speech that assembles two substantives by means of a hyphen) or by the so-called ‘numerical sensibility’ (which is characterized by the use of mathematical signs). The structure stays old-fashionably linear, but because of the lack of punctuation and syntax the words cascade down like a turbulent stream. With certain regularity, typographical whites interrupt this inexorable flood of words; it seems as if some words were methodically deleted during the typesetting. These white spots produce a visual effect; they symbolize, as it were, the dynamic (zigzagging) rhythm of the text. The reader seems to be invited to make an abstraction of the linguistic signs in order to contemplate the ‘battle’. The act of reading, then, becomes similar to the act of watching an abstract film that offers the dance of small white rectangles on the black screen – a blueprint of the visual geometric music that Hans Richter, for instance, will achieve in the 1920s with his Rhythmus-series.

     Such an ocular reading, however, risks impeding the acoustic experience of the ‘battle’. As already said, the words-of-freedom are also destined for the ear, and not just for the inner ear (during the silent act of reading), but especially for the ear of the audience (during the clamorous performances of the Futurist evenings). Or to put it differently: the visual effects are meant, first and foremost, for the declaimer. Hence, the white spots of ‘Battle: Weight + Smell’ described above can be seen as pauses or breathing spaces for whoever is reading aloud. And the bold typeface, which is used for the onomatopoetic neologisms or sound-words such as boom-boom, tatatata, pic pun pan pan, tim tum tak tak, and tataratatarata, turns out to be a cue for a higher voice volume. In ‘Destruction of Syntax’, Marinetti affirms indeed that ‘boldface [shall be used] for violent onomatopoeias’ (Apollonio 2001, 105). The sound-words of ‘Battle: Weight + Smell’ are all ‘violent’ noises originated by military devices, such as machine-guns, rifles, howitzers, shrapnels, etc. Marinetti and his followers quickly became associated with these bellicose sounds, which stigmatized them as the ‘futuristi del bumbum’ (White 1990, 12), an epithet that refers not only to their militarism but also and especially to their provocative and (rather) empty vociferousness.

     In his war epic Zang Tumb Tumb, Marinetti introduced even more spectacular effects. Even if most of its pages still follow a linear flow and a traditional directionality, that is, from left to right, the text regularly explodes to become a real typographical battlefield. Not only are the words liberated from syntax, but also the single letters are set free, as is the case at the end of chapter ‘Forte Cheittam-Te´pe´’ where the letters MUTOHDRAL are spread over the page as if they were hanging, freely, in the void (Marinetti 2001, 707). Furthermore, the work contains various different typefaces, ideographic words, and schematic representations (or ‘synoptic tables’), among other things. The result is a book which invites its readers to look for sensation rather than for sense, which is – in other words – hard to read in a traditional sense: instead, reading becomes hearing or even feeling and smelling. Zang Tumb Tumb, like ‘Battle: Weight + Smell’ and other bellicose poems, was originally composed as a vocal score, as an onomatopoeic poem to be read loudly aloud. As Marinetti explains in the manifesto ‘Geometric and Mechanical Splendour’, the ‘free expressive orthography and typography’ support the word as a theatrical gesture, since they ‘serve to express facial mimicry and the gesticulation of the narrator’ (Apollonio 2001, 157).

     Marinetti himself was a brilliant orator and declaimer. During his entire career, even after the heroic period of Futurism, he impressed audiences all over Europe with his declamatory abilities. In January 1930 he still obtained applause at a conference on poetry in Paris for reciting his bellicose poems. According to Les Nouvelles Litte´raires: ‘Marinetti is a great actor: his gestures and voice “kick in” and he achieved the biggest success with the interpretation of Bombardment of Adrianopolis, imitating the noise of machine-guns and grenade explosions’ (Anonymous 1930, 2). That same evening, the ‘prophet of fascism’ even made an impression on the ‘apostle of communism’, Sergei Eisenstein, who happened to be in Paris on his way to the USA where he would study sound cinema (Anonymous 1930, 2). Eisenstein recounts in his memoirs how he remained stupefied by Marinetti’s presence and the recitation of his own poems with that very peculiar tone, that ‘extraordinarily “fat” chic’ (Eisenstein 1989, 265; for more details on this ‘accidental’ meeting between Eisenstein and Marinetti, see Strauven 2001). There is no doubt that Marinetti was a great performer, who sought interaction with his audience through provocation and expressive declamation. It should be noted that he dedicated an entire manifesto to the art of declamation, namely, ‘The Dynamic and Synoptic Declamation’ (1916), in which he introduced the concept of ‘lyrical sport’. A metallic voice, geometric gesticulation, and noise-machine operating hands are the key features of this new Futurist sport, which aims at dehumanizing the human body. 

     To a certain degree, Marinetti’s approach can be compared to the ‘verbivocovisual’ method of the concrete poetry adherents, who promoted a form of poetry that – according to James Joyce’s neologism – was addressed to both the eye and the ear (de Campos, Pignatari, and de Campos 1971, 72). But the visual qualities of Marinetti’s poetry are not to be found in the written word and its typographical excess (text as visual poem), but in the performance of the oral word and its accompanying gestures (text as musical score). Thus, unlike the work of the concrete poets, Marinetti’s words-in-freedom were not intended to be exhibited in art galleries or museums, even if that is where they eventually ended Nevertheless, it has to be said that Marinetti’s poetic creations and typographical experiments became all the more visually spectacular over the years. Especially with the introduction of the so-called tavole parolibere (freeword poster poems), the Futurist leader seemed to ignore his own warning to ‘avoid any pictorial preoccupation, taking no satisfaction in a play of lines or in curious typographic disproportions’ (Apollonio 2001, 157). The poster poem usually doesn’t fit on a normal-sized page of a book, but requires a foldable insert.

In this way, the page becomes a (mere) aesthetic object that even the most trained declaimer can difficultly recite. Two notable, often reprinted examples of poster poems are Mountains + Valleys + Streets x Joffre (1915) (aka After the Marne, Joffre Visited the Front in Automobile) and Softnesses Lie in Wait + Italian Bombardments (1917) (aka In the Evening the Young Girl Reads a Letter from her Infantr yman at the Front). They are both visual explosions of words and letters, depicting Joffre’s racing journey and the battle at the frontline, respectively. Various perspectives are combined, offering the reader a multidirectional view of the action, or – even better – putting him/her as a ‘spectator’ in the centre of the page, precisely as the Futurist painters proposed in 1910 in ‘Futurist Painting: Technical Manifesto’: ‘We shall henceforward put the spectator in the centre of the picture’ (Apollonio 2001, 28). Thus, although these poster poems cannot easily be recited or read aloud, they can still be experienced as feasts for all the senses. Especially, Softnesses Lie in Wait + Italian Bombardments transforms the military battle into a multisensorial spectacle, which can be taken for ‘a thinly disguised sexual metaphor’ (Drucker 1994, 135). In this typographical ‘orgasm’, the aural dimension prevails once more, thanks to the presence of bold typeset sound-words such as SCRABrrRrraaNNG, GRAAAAG, and TRAC.

    So, even Marinetti’s most excessive typographical experiment seems to intensify the acoustic dimension. What is at stake here is the immediacy os such dimension. With his new mimetic orthography and typography, Marinetti strove to re-produce and re-present his personal real-life war experiences in order to pass them on to his audience in their most direct form, or to say it with Marinetti’s own words ‘to grasp them brutally and hurl them in the reader’s face’ (Apollonio 2001, 105). Even without the declamatory act, the typographical effects are not ‘a goal but a means of increasing the expressive forces of the lyricism’ (Apollonio 2001, 157). The objective is to enhance the immediate perception and to bring reality closer to the reader. Michael Webster talks about the ‘semiotics of presence’ and stresses how Marinetti treated nouns as objects, as material reality, creating a form of phenomenological anti-literary literature (Webster 1995, 41).

     Such a poetics inevitably leads to the derailment of the relation between the signifier (or the acoustic image of the sign) and the signified (or themental image of the sign).According to the general linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure, this relation is based on conventions and therefore arbitrary (de Saussure 1922, 100–2). For Marinetti, the contrary is true: the free-word style actually dissolves the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign in favour of its iconicity or expressivity. It is important to stress that the Futurist poetics was developed exactly at the time that the Saussurian foundations started to have resonance in the science of linguistics. Marinetti goes against the grain by revaluing the representational capacity of the sign and by emphasizing the reciprocal dependence between signifier and signified, which de Saussure considered as inessential. Without going too much into detail, I would like to stress howMarinetti’s anti-Saussurian approach renders the status of the signifier rather ambiguous: if on the one hand the signifier seems to liberate itself from the signified by taking a concrete shape and by visually transforming itself, on the other it is more than ever determined by the mental image, or – even better – by the extralinguistic reality, that is, the referent.

     This is especially true for the so-called ‘designed analogies’ or ‘selfillustrations’, which are ideographic words-in-freedom that directly imitate their extralinguistic double. For instance, in the chapter ‘Mobilitazione’ of Zang Tumb Tumb, the verb ‘scendere’ (to descend) literally, that is, visually, descends in four steps (Marinetti 2001, 666): 





Another example is the ‘boredom-smoke’ analogy that Marinetti quotes in ‘Geometric and Mechanical Splendour’. Taken from Francesco Cangiullo’s freeword railway composition Fumatori IIa (2nd-class Smoker) (1914), this analogy consists of the letters of the verb ‘fumare’ (to smoke) which are typeset in a visual crescendo:


Although lacking an intrinsic acoustic dimension, both ‘images’ of descent and increase give nonetheless a clear direction to the declaimer who may decide to gradually lower the pitch of his/her voice in the first case and to progressively raise its volume in the second case. Other ‘designed analogies’ are straightforward sonorizations instead. For instance, in Cangiullo’s Piedigrotta (At the Foot of the Grotto) (1916), the letter O of the word ‘trombe’ (trumpets) is substituted by four concentric circles to visualize the vibrations of the blaring instruments. And in Marinetti’s Zang Tumb Tumb, in the chapter ‘War Correspondents and Pilots’, the increasing noise of an airplane entering a cloud ceiling is re-presented by means of the visually increasing letters vrrrrrr (Marinetti 2001, 681). Zang Tumb Tumb also contains the ‘pallone frenato turco’ (Turkish captive balloon) to which Marinetti refers in ‘Geometric and Mechanical Splendour’ as the ‘military balloon’ (Apollonio 2001, 157). This ‘self-illustration’ depicts the electromagnetic waves of the wireless telegraphy (TSF or telegrafo senza fili) that resonate in the air and pierce the lighter-than-air balloon, which is re-presented, or designed, by the words PALLONE FRENATO TURCO arranged in a circle (Marinetti 2001, 720). As Webster has suggested, it emblematizes the poetics of the wireless imagination by visualizing the fragmentary (non-linear) interception of messages sent by the wireless telegraphy; these messages consists of words that are literally liberated and ‘available, in the air for the taking’ (Webster 1995, 33). Timothy Campbell, in his remarkable study on ‘wireless writing’, insists on the graphic dimension, or rather  process, of the wireless telegraphy, by distinguishing it from the merely auditory radio. According to Campbell, one should not consider Marinetti’s poetics as ‘somehow less visual or more auditory’, but rather as a system wherein ‘both become mere data flows’ and wherein ‘a wireless imagination [ . . . ] dictate[s] the sense perceptions of objects that sound in the real’ (Campbell 2006, 81).

     To give a final example of Marinetti’s free-word poetry, an object that definitely ‘sound[s] in the real’ is the bomb that detonates at the end of the ‘explosive novel’ 8 anime in una bomba (8 Souls in a Bomb) (1919). Onomatopoeic handwritten words-in-freedom (‘TUM rrrrrrrrrrr . . . ua ua ua ua . . . ’) chart the bowing course of the explosive that bursts once it hits the ground and resounds as ‘SCRAAAAAAGRAANG BRAAANG BRAGRAA BRAAAN’ (Marinetti 2001, 918). Since the word ‘bomb’ is not used in this freeword composition, it is not a ‘designed analogy’ of the bomb itself but of the explosion, with the onomatopoeia imitating its own (visual and auditory)

trajectory as drawn in the extralinguistic world. It is an eye-catching, visually dynamic ending of a novel that as a whole provides us with good evidence of the acoustic basis of Marinetti’s poetics. 8 anime in una bomba is composed of eight sections, all typeset in a different font corresponding to the ‘soul’ in question. Except for the sixth section where gigantic words occupy entire pages, the novel follows a rather traditional linearity (at least in typographical terms). Towards the end, the eight souls unite to form the bomb that will eventually explode in the ‘designed analogy’ on the last page. But before the explosion, the eight souls sing together in the cacophonic ‘Chorus of the 8 Explosive Souls’ (Marinetti 2001, 909); each soul reciting its own part, which is typeset in its proper font. In short, this is an undeniable sample of ‘declaimable score’, with fonts corresponding to different keys and words becoming like musical notes on (typographical) staves.

From sound-painting to colour-music 

In 1913, Luigi Russolo laid the foundations for a non-harmonic, noise-based music with the publication of his Futurist manifesto ‘The Art of Noises’. Russolo embraced the Futurist movement in 1910 as a painter to become one of its major musicians and the inventor of the so-called intonarumori (noise intoners), for which he wrote noisy scores such as The Awakening of a City (1914). In June 1913 Russolo launched his first specimen of noise intoner, the so-called scoppiatore (burster), that could reproduce the sound of an internal combustion engine in a ‘scale’ of 10 whole tones. Together with his assistant Ugo Piatti, Russolo built subsequently a whole series of noise intoners, such as the gorgogliatore (gurgler), the crepitatore (cracker), the ululatore (howler), the rombatore (rumbler), the ronzatore (hummer), the sibilatore (whistler), the stroppicciatore (rubber), etc.

     Whereas in the field of literary theory Marinetti’s words-in-freedom are often taken as the first form of concrete poetry, in musicological terms Russolo’s ‘art of noises’ can be considered as the forerunner of Pierre Schaeffer’s musique concrète of the 1950s. Russolo was one of the first composers, if not the very first, who tried to use concrete sounds, of natural and mechanical origin, as music units: these sounds, taken from our daily life, were not just a source of inspiration but direct material. Indeed, although accused of ‘servile imitation’ of everyday life by contemporaries such as George Antheil and Piet Mondrian (Bijsterveld 2002), Russolo did not aim at imitating these concrete sounds, but at combining them in new sound montages, what would become the principle of Schaeffer’s technique 40 years later. To quote the Futurist composer: 

Although it is characteristic of noise to recall us brutally to real life, the art of noise must not limit itself to imitative reproduction. It will achieve its most emotive power in the acoustic enjoyment, in its own right, that the artist’s inspiration will extract from combined noises. (Apollonio 2001, 6)

     Unlike his colleague Balilla Pratella, to whom themanifesto ‘The Art of Noises’ is dedicated, Russolo was not a traditionally trained musician. This might explain why his approach was much more radical, not only in breaking with the principles of classical harmony, but also in composing exclusively for the intonarumori. In Pratella’s compositions for ‘mixed orchestra’, such as Gioia (Joy) (1914), the noise intoners were merely used for special sound effects and reduced to monotonality. Some of the noise intoners, such as the howler, the rumbler, and the rubber, could actually produce chords notated in two different keys. InMarch 1914, in the Futurist journal Lacerba, Russolo proposed a new notation system, which still relied on the traditional staves, but it replaced the musical notes by a numerical system and introduced boldfaced strokes to indicate tonal continuity and microtonality. 

     Russolo’s music was no music for a ‘mixed orchestra’, but a ‘network of noises’, inspired by the tumultuous city life and meant to tune the ears of the bourgeois audience to the new sound waves of modernity. By the time Russolo developed his revolutionary ‘art of noises’, noisy modernity had already visually been captured in Futurist painting; most famously by Umberto Boccioni in La cittá che sale (The City Rises) (1910), but also, for instance, by Carlo Carrá in Cio` che mi ha detto il tram (What the Tram Told Me) (1911), or by Gino Severini in Il treno Nord–Sud (The North–South Line) (1912) and L’autobus (The Bus) (1912), or by Giacomo Balla in his numerous studies of ‘roaring automobiles’, such as Velocitá astratta (é passata l’automobile) (Abstract Speed – The Car Has Passed) (1913) and Velocitá astratta + rumore (Abstract Speed + Sound) (1913).

     As already mentioned, Russolo also started off as a painter. Together with the above-cited artists, he formed the initial group of Futurist painters, who in 1910 joined Marinetti’s movement as first, and published subsequently ‘Manifesto of the Futurist Painters’ and ‘Futurist Painting: Technical Manifesto’. It is remarkable how the Futurist painters refer in their technical manifesto to the ‘harmony of lines’ and the ‘polyphony in music’ (Apollonio 2001, 29 and 30). 

     They advocate a singing and screaming form of painting: ‘The time has passed for our sensations in painting to be whispered. We wish them in future to sing and re-echo upon our canvases in deafening and triumphant flourishes’ (Apollonio 2001, 29). Carlo Carra` elaborated the idea of clamorous painting in his manifesto ‘The Painting of Sounds, Noises and Smells’ (1913), that takes a position against the concept of colour harmony, against the charming beauty and gracefulness of the rococo style á la Watteau. According to Carra`, it is high time to trade ‘the soft, the effeminate, the gentle’ of Watteau’s chromatics for ‘shouuuuuting’ reds and ‘screeeeeaming’ greens in order to sensitize people to the new Futurist reality (Apollonio 2001, 111–2).

     One of Russolo’smost famous paintings, titled Musica (Music) (1911), is a good example of loud sound-painting. Accomplished on a huge canvas of 225 cm x 140 cm two years before the publication of Carra`’s manifesto, this composition is an – according to some ‘clumsy’ (Tisdall and Bozzola 1977, 57) – attempt at giving a pictorial rendition of a sound wave produced by a keyboard musical instrument. In this painting Russolo visualizes what is imperceptible for the eyes of non-synaesthetes; he uses ‘shouting’ colours (or coloured sounds) in order to intensify both the sense of vision and the sense of hearing and to make one feel the experience of wave propagations. The sound wave is rendered in a dark blue undulating shape, while the resonance is suggested by means of concentric circles that are interrupted by rays in four ‘loud’ colours: red, green, yellow, and violet. These colour beams, which find their origin in grimacing, possibly shouting faces, cross the sound wave that gradually grows and enlarges. In the foreground, one sees the pianist playing the keyboard with five hands. Such a duplication of body parts is typical of the Futurist ‘cinegraphy’ or motion painting, practised mostly by Balla. This pictorial style is a literal application of one of the most famous dictums of ‘Futurist Painting: Technical Manifesto’: ‘a running horse has not four legs, but twenty’ (Apollonio 2001, 28). Limbs are duplicated, quadrupled, and multiplied in order to give the impression of movement. Furthermore, Russolo’s painting shows an interesting effect when the brightly coloured rays penetrate the dark blue sound wave; in these intersections, there is a kind of transparency that strongly reminds the cinematic technique of dissolve or superimposition, and that could be seen as the visualization of joined or cross-modal perception.

     During the time that Russolo was working on his immense sound-painting, other attempts to render music into colour were taken in the margins of the Futurist movement. I am referring to the pioneering research of the brothers Arnaldo and Bruno Ginanni-Corradini, which was ‘notated’ not on canvas, but on celluloid. Between 1910 and 1912 these two noble brothers from Ravenna made six abstract colour films that can be reckoned, both nationally and internationally, among the first expressions of abstract film art (Rees 1999, 28). Unfortunately, no single frame has been preserved of this early colour cinema that was realized by painting directly onto the filmstrip; that is, a very simple form of animation. The two brothers split up the colour spectrum into chromatic units or colour tones, which each stood for a certain musical tone. Bruno, the younger of the two, described the various phases of the colour-music experiment in his essay ‘Abstract Cinema – Chromatic Music’ (1912) (Verdone 1968, 242–51). On the basis of Bruno’s description, the titles of the first four shorts have been reconstructed post factum: (1) Accordo di colore (Colour Chord), inspired by a painting by Giovanni Segantini, who was an adherent of the late nineteenthcentury divisionism, the Italian variant of the French pointillism; (2) Studio di effetti tra quattro colori (Study of Effects between Four Colours), based on a play between two colour couples, red–green and blue–yellow; (3) Canto di primavera (Spring Song), a visual translation of Mendelssohn’s Frühlingsliedand (4) Les Fleurs (The Flowers), an adaptation of the homonymous poem by Ste´phane Mallarmé. Bruno does mention the titles of the two last films, which are a bit longer than the first series (about eight minutes) and which were made in 1912: L’Arcobaleno (The Rainbow), a visual symphony of the rainbow colours against a contrasting grey backdrop; and La Danza (The Dance) with carmine, violet, and yellow (Apollonio 2001, 69–70).

Apparently, these early colour films have never been shown to an audience, not even to intimate friends. In other words, they remained expressions without (Futurist) experience. For the Ginanni-Corradini brothers, the cinema was merely a method, or research tool, to reach a better understanding of the relationship between the arts. As Arnaldo testified in the 1970s:

I haven’t had the frames of the 1910 experiments for years. Maybe someone else has them? Maybe they went lost? Or maybe they were destroyed? [ . . . ] We didn’t attach importance to them [ . . . ] these experiments, especially the short film after Segantini, were executed to obtain ‘chromatic music’. (Bendazzi 1978, 26)

     One could say that the Ginanni-Corradini brothers’ ‘chromatic music’ was strictly speaking a form of painting. Indeed, in this specific context, ‘chromatic’ does not refer to the musical meaning of semitones, but pertains solely to colour (as a plastic, visual quality). Like in the case of Russolo’s Musica, the intention was to notate sound in colour-in-motion. Whereas Russolo opted for the method of plastic dynamism with ‘cinegraphic’ effects such as the duplication of the pianist’s hands and the widening of the sound wave, the two brothers relied on the cinema, which at a projection speed of 16–24 frames a second renders true movement, or at least the illusion of true movement. Clearly, motion is an important element in the interrelationship between colour and music, since colour is a product of (moving) light waves and music is a product of (moving) acoustic waves. As a result, we can synaesthetically see/hear the acoustic waves as the constituent parts of colour (and colour waves as the constituent parts of sound). Or as the Futurist set designer Enrico Pampolini put it in his remarkable manifesto ‘Chromophony – The Colours of Sounds’ (1913):

. . . it is known that humans have an optical awareness of the chromatic vibrations of sources of light; so we should also accept the scientific principle, which shows that the chromatic vibrations emitted by a source of sound also exist in the atmosphere and are susceptible to our optical sense. Both powers are able to influence the atmosphere, and hence the human senses. (Apollonio 2001, 116)

     This principle of ‘chromophony’ was at the core of the Ginanni-Corradini brothers’ research. Before their cinematic experimentation, the brothers also built a chromatic piano, with a keyboard consisting of 28 keys, each of which being  connected to a colour light bulb; the musical effect of this instrument was a Lichtspiel of colours, comparable to Alexander Skrjabin’s compositions for light organ, such as Prometheus (1910), and Léopold Survage’s colour study for film Rythme coloré (1912–14). The search of transposing music into colour was indeed quite common in those years and can be linked to specific synaesthetic studies (see, for instance, Joshua Yumibe’s paper in this issue) as well as to a general tendency of Wagnerianism at the turn of the century (Lista 1987) (for a historical overview, see Berghaus 1986). 

     Yet the colour-music research of the Ginanni-Corradini brothers was not restricted to the interrelationship between colour and music. The brothers believed in an exact correspondence (or proper proportion) between all the arts. As they declared in their pre-Futurist treatise Arte dell’avvenire (Art of the Future) (1910, revised in 1911): ‘The essence of all the arts is one, many are the means of expression’ (Verdone 1968, 176). In order to seize this unique essence, the brothers chose music as their base, and distinguished four ‘pure’ (i.e. essential) forms of art: (1) the Chord or ‘mishmash of simultaneous tones’; (2) the Motif or ‘mishmash of successive tones’; (3) the Image-Chord which consists in ‘presenting simultaneously the idea and the chord that the idea expresses’; and (4) the Image-Motif which equals ‘action (put on stage or otherwise represented), plus motif, or motifs that express this action’ (Verdone 1968, 197). Subsequently, these four basic forms are applied to the art of colours (=painting), the art of forms (=sculpture), the art of lines (=architecture), and the art of words (=literature). 

     Wagner’s influence is unmistakeable in the Ginanni-Corradini brothers’ theory formation, as one can already assume from the title of their treatise, which is an obvious reference to Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft (The Art Work of the Future) (1860). Still, the Ginanni-Corradini brothers’ opinion about the great German composer is far from being unambiguous. In certain passages of their treatise, they openly ridicule him, claiming for instance that Wagner was lacking a ‘correct knowledge of the correspondences between the different arts’ and citing his ‘Zukunftsmusik’ as a ‘blatantly erroneous’ theory in connection with the reciprocal relationship between the arts (Verdone 1968, 183 and 178). But, on the other hand, their central concept of correspondence between all the arts remains very Wagnerian. Unlike Wagner, however, the Ginanni-Corradini brothers did not aim at the synthesis of the arts; instead, their objective was to arrive, via the essence of music, at the ‘purification’ (i.e. essentialization) of the other arts. Such was the idea behind their colour-music experiment, combining colours – by means of the chromatic piano or the cinema – simultaneously in a chord or successively in a motif, just like musical tones.

The ‘silent’ art of cinema 

Although the Ginanni-Corradini brothers did not mention cinema in their 1910 treatise, their findings about the ‘art of the future’ indirectly gave way – as I shall discuss in this last part – to Futurist cinema. First of all, it should be stressed that the brothers’ colour-music theorization and experimentation date from before their official recruitment into the Futurist movement and, therefore, cannot be considered as fully fledged Futurist. Once accepted by the Milanese core of Futurist painters, the brothers were re-baptized as Arnaldo Ginna and Bruno Corra. This denomination not only discarded their noble origin, but also referred to the Futurist concepts ginnastica (gymnastics) and correre (to run), respectively. Under these new names, Arnaldo and Bruno became important figures in the so-called second Florentine Futurism. 

The first Florentine Futurism had been animated by Giovanni Papini and Ardegno Soffici, two editors of the Lacerba journal, who in December 1914 openly attacked Marinetti. This had led to a definitive rupture between Lacerbians and the Milanese Futurists. The second Florentine Futurism was formed in 1916 by a group of young friends, among whom Emilio Settimelli, Mario Carli, Remo Chiti, and the Ginanni-Corradini brothers. They launched a new journal, L’Italia Futurista, in which particular attention was given to the arts of spectacle, that is, theatre and cinema. It is within this specific context that Futurist cinema was born, not only in practical terms through the realization of the ‘art-action’ film Vita Futurista (Futurist Life), but also theoretically through the publication of the manifesto ‘Futurist Cinema’ (11 September 1916), that was co-signed by Marinetti. Whereas the film unfortunately got lost, the manifesto can (still) be read as a programmatic text for avant-garde filmmaking, containing 14 propositions for the cinema of the future.

Two of these 14 propositions are Futurist reformulations (or reductions) of the Ginanni-Corradini brothers’ pioneering work of the early 1910s:

  1. Cinematic musical researches (dissonances, harmonies, symphonies of gestures, events, colours, lines, etc.).


  1. Linear, plastic, chromatic equivalences, etc., of men, women, events, thoughts, music, feelings, weights, smells, noises (with white lines on black we shall show the inner, physical rhythm of a husband who discovers his wife in adultery and chases the lover – rhythm of soul and rhythm of legs). (Apollonio 2001, 218) 

Whereas the latter clearly refers to the concept of chromatics and to the plastic dimension of the two brothers’ research (cinema as painting), the former anticipates the idea of visual symphony or ‘music for the eyes’ as developed for instance by Germaine Dulac in ‘L’essence du cine´ma – l’ide´e visuelle’ (1925) (Dulac 1994, 62–67) or the 1920s abstract film experiments by Viking Eggeling, Oskar Fischinger, Hans Richter, and others (cinema as music). At the same time, the formula ‘cinematic musical researches’ implies that cinema is a research tool, as it was for the Ginanni-Corradini brothers.

     Despite their scepticism about Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, the Ginanni-Corradini brothers introduced within the context of Futurism the fundamental principle of correspondence between all the arts, which allows for synaesthetic art (expression and experience). Since all the arts are sharing, according to the authors of ‘Art of the Future’, the same four ‘pure’ forms (Chord, Motif, Image-Chord, and Image-Motif ), cross-modal interactions are very likely to take place. Moreover, with their colour-music research the two brothers laid the basis for the Futurist ‘polyexpressiveness’, a concept that Bruno outlined together with Emilio Settimelli in 1914 in ‘Weights, Measures, and  Prices of Artistic Genius – Futurist Manifesto’ as ‘chaotic, unaesthetic and heedless mixing of all the arts already in existence and of all those which are and will be created by the inexhaustible will for renewal which Futurism will be able to infuse into mankind’ (Apollonio 2001, 146). What they were aiming at was a kind of total artwork, a spectacle wherein all possible forms of expression (‘words, colours, notes, indications of shape, of scent, of facts, noises, movements and of physical sensations’) (Apollonio 2001, 146) interact with one another in a very free – that is, disharmonious and clamorous –way; in short, a subversive version of the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk.

     The idea of Futurist art as a messy ‘mixing of all the arts’ is reformulated in the 1916 manifesto that declares (Futurist) cinema as ‘a new art, immensely vaster and lighter than all the existing arts’ (Apollonio 2001, 208). With this new art, the Futurists aspired to create the ‘polyexpressive symphony’, which again can be seen as a kind of total artwork, wherein the ‘most varied elements will enter [ . . . ] as expressive means’ and interact among one another: ‘from the slice of life to the streak of colour, from the conventional line to words-in-freedom, from chromatic and plastic music to the music of objects’ (Apollonio 2001, 208). Once more, the Ginanni-Corradini brothers’ colour-music research is recuperated, re-integrated as one of the possible types of visual music, together with the ‘music of objects’, which might be a reference to Marinetti’s theatrical technique of ‘drama of objects’. For these various forms of visual music, the Futurists supposedly planned to use basic animation techniques, such as stopmotion and hand-drawn animation.

   Despite its obvious musical qualities or potentialities (as polyexpressive symphony), the Futurists considered the cinema as ‘being essentially visual’ and, therefore, fulfilling the same evolution of (Futurist) painting by ‘detach[ing] itself from reality, from photography, from the graceful and solemn’ (Apollonio 2001, 208). Such a claim of visuality is understandable from the perspective of the silent cinema. Nonetheless, the cinematic Futurist Gesamtkunstwerk was not merely thought of in visual terms, as one can infer from the above ‘polyexpressive’ citations as well as from the mathematical equation with which the 1916 manifesto concludes: ‘Painting + sculpture + plastic dynamism + words-in-freedom + composed noises [intonarumori ] + architecture + synthetic theatre =Futurist cinema’ (Apollonio 2001, 218). Futurist cinema, as the sum of all the other Futurist arts, incorporates aural means of expression from at least three different art disciplines: literature (words-in-freedom), drama (synthetic theatre), and music (noise intoners). Then again, it is unclear how their acoustic dimension is actually integrated in the (silent) cinematic work of art, or – to put it differently – how the sound expression becomes a sound experience. Especially for Russolo’s noise machines, one wonders whether they should be used as direct sound and thus as live accompaniment of the silent image, or rather as filmed and therefore soundless sound, by means of a visual representation of the instruments, as it was commonly done in the era of silent cinema (for instance, in La dixième symphonie (The Tenth Symphony) (1918) by Abel Gance we see the Beethovenian composer play his new symphony on a piano and in Man with the Movie Camera (1929) by Dziga Vertov an orchestra visually accompanies the film-within-the-film).

    As Dominique Noguez observes, sound is a lacuna of film art that the Futurists ‘sensed and suppressed’ at the same time (Noguez 1978, 289). On the one hand, they felt the absence of sound as a void that could be filled up with ‘dissonances, harmonies, symphonies of gestures, events, colours, lines, etc.’ or ‘linear, plastic, chromatic equivalences, etc.’ of music and noises, according to the above-cited formulas of ‘Futurist Cinema’ that re-proposed the Ginanni-Corradini brothers’ colour-music research in Futurist language. The Futurists also intended to use ‘cinematic analogies’ to enliven – the manifesto actually says ‘add colour to’ (!) – the mute dialogues and to make the film characters ‘as understandable as if they talked’ (Apollonio 2001, 217). The manifesto gives some ‘speaking’ examples:

Example: representing a man who will say to his woman: ‘You’re as lovely as a gazelle’, we shall show the gazelle. Example: if a character says, ‘I contemplate your fresh and luminous smile as a traveller after a long rough trip contemplates the sea from high on a mountain’, we shall show traveller, sea, mountain. (Apollonio 2001, 217)

Unlike the Kuleshov effect where meaning is created in between the shots (A + B = C) (e.g. man plus plate of soup means hunger), the cinematic analogies are individual shots with a significance of their own (A = B) (e.g. gazelle equals woman); they are visual words, that is, images that must be listened to. One could say that the Futurists conceived here an original, synaesthetic blueprint of the talkie.

     On the other hand, the entire project of the Futurist cinema remained very much attached to the pictorial orientation of the Futurists and the absence of sound is not really missed: it suffice that music is transposed into chromatic chords and that words-in-freedom cease to be literature and become a form of painting. Therefore, the Futurist emphasized the ‘less verbal character of the word, that is its typographical being’ (Noguez 1978, 288) and the possibility to directly, immediately, connect the word and its referent. As formulated in ‘Futurist Cinema’: ‘We shall set in motion the words-in-freedom that smash the boundaries of literature as they march towards painting, music, noise-art, and throw a marvellous bridge between the word and the real object’ (Apollonio 2001, 208). Although this statement seems to undermine Marinetti’s declamatory intentions, the main concern persists: to bring the (new, Futurist) reality closer to the audience, to create an immediate connection between art and action. 

     This brings me, finally, to the ‘art-action’ film Vita Futurista, which was produced during the summer of 1916 under the (artistic) supervision of Marinetti. On the basis of various historical documents, such as the announcements in L’Italia Futurista, the fragmentary testimonies of spectators and Futurist collaborators of the film, the official file compiled for the censor office, the programme of the first screening, and some surviving film frames, one can try to reconstruct this mythical motion picture (Strauven 2006, 161–88). Vita Futurista can be considered as an autobiographical film, a ‘self-illustration’ of the Futurist way of living. It consisted of various short sketches that instructed the audience on how to live like a true Futurist (that is, by sleeping upright, by discussing with boxing gloves, by insulting old ‘passe´ist’ people at restaurants, by falling in love with a chair, by organizing Futurist evenings and skirmishes, etc.). Several scenes relied on the hearing capabilities of the eye: the spectator was invited to listen not only to poetry declamation (accompanied by expressive gestures) and a theatrical synthesis ridiculing Romanticism by means of a pathetic conversation between ‘He’ and ‘She’ (and intertitles, supposedly), but also to an eggplant serving as a telephone and a pre-Surrealist ‘discussion between a foot, a hammer and an umbrella’. Furthermore, there was the ‘Dance of the Geometric Splendour’, which according to Ginna was performed by ‘girls dressed entirely in pieces of tinfoil’ who moved in a ‘dynamic-rhythmic’ way. Strong spotlights were pointed at the aluminium-covered dancers, provoking ‘intersecting light flashes’ (Ginna 1965, 158). Besides this application of geometric (light) music, Vita Futurista was also endowed with chromatic (musical) effects that were achieved by manual colourization of the filmstrip. 

   In sum, Vita Futurista was not lacking of acoustic expressions. Yet in order to fully grasp its aural dimension, it should be kept in mind that Futurist cinema wanted to be tumultuous in its performance, that is, in its (cinematic) experience. In this perspective, the premie`re of Vita Futurista on 28 January 1917, in Florence, was a flop: over the years the audience had become more receptive to Futurist provocation and did not react to the film with much hullabaloo. As reported the day after by Nuovo Giornale: ‘Not much whistling, not much ironic laughter and no food thrown’; that is, no clamorous protest as the Futurists had hoped for. According to Ginna’s memory, other more successful shows followed where the audience actively (and aggressively) took part in the Futurist happening, by throwing tomatoes and shoes to the silver screen and by provoking skirmishes (Ginna 1965, 157; Verdone 1968, 108). Thus, the Futurist film was not just a print to be projected and watched, but rather a ‘declaimable score’ comparable to Marinetti’s words-in-freedom, or a script to be performed, aloud and loudly. For the first screenings in Rome, which took place on 14–15 June 1917, Ginna contacted composer Pratella with the request to send a Futurist score to accompany the film (Lista 1987, 24). We have no further details whether or not Ginna’s request was complied with. But the intention to add a noisy soundtrack to the silent film stock was there as well.

Conclusion: synaesthetic noisiness 

On the one hand, the Futurists obviously did feel the absence of sound in the new art of cinema; on the other hand, they did not problematize this absence as a deficiency or imperfection in their 1916 manifesto. How to render the silent film audible and loud was not a question that was addressed in ‘Futurist Cinema’.

When the issue of ‘sound’ was raised, it was clearly thought of in synaesthetic terms. Both musical tones and spoken words were transferred to the audience through vision, in the form of chromatic chords and cinematic analogies, precisely as took place in Marinetti’s free-word poetics and Russolo’s soundpainting: noise was ‘muted’, de-noised, in favour of a visual depiction. However, such visualization does not undo Futurism from its noisiness; instead it offers a new (synaesthetic) channel to tune our ears onto. Or to put it differently, Futurism did not need sound in order to be noisy, because its essence was and remains noisy. Therefore, its paintings continue to ‘re-echo [ . . . ] in deafening and triumphant flourishes’ and its words-in-freedom still cry out to the twenty-firstcentury reader, in crescendo.


This text is a revised version of ‘Futuristische geluiden: vloekende kleuren+chromatische akkoorden+lawaaikunst+zang tumb tumb+gefilmde analogiee¨n’, published in the Dutch media historical journal Tijdschrift voor Mediageschiedenis 6, no. 2 (December 2003): 10–33. I would like to thank my fellow editors for allowing me to re-use the material in a new context. I also would like to thank Tarja Laine for her critical feedback.


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https://www.academia.edu/8702291/Futurist_images_for_your_ear_or_how_to_listen_to_visual_poetry_painting_and_silent_cinema 15/07/2019

New Review of Film and Television Studies
Vol. 7, No. 3, September 2009, 275–292

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ISSN 1740-0309 print/ISSN 1740-7923 online
c 2009 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/17400300903047045

To cite this Article Strauven, Wanda(2009) 'Futurist images for your ear: or, how to listen to visual poetry, painting, andTo cite this Article Strauven, Wanda(2009) 'Futurist images for your ear: or, how to listen to visual poetry, painting, andsilent cinema', New Review of Film and Television Studies, 7: 3, 275 — 292To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/17400300903047045URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17400300903047045

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