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The Futurist Contagion: British Cartoons and the 1912 Futurist Exhibition in London

W. K. Haselden, “How to Paint a Futurist Picture,” Daily Mirror, March 15, 1912

W. K. Haselden, “How to Paint a Futurist Picture,” Daily Mirror, March 15, 1912

Charles Sykes, “The Hysteria Wave Spreads to Art: Influence of the Futurist Exhibition on a Bystander Artist,” <i>Bystander</i>, March 13, 1912 © Illustrated London News Ltd/Mary Evans

Charles Sykes, “The Hysteria Wave Spreads to Art: Influence of the Futurist Exhibition on a Bystander Artist,” Bystander, March 13, 1912 © Illustrated London News Ltd/Mary Evans

Charles Harrison, “The New Terror,” Daily Express, March 4, 1912

Charles Harrison, “The New Terror,” Daily Express, March 4, 1912

Futurism officially arrived in the UK on March 1, 1912, when the traveling exhibition of works by Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo, and Gino Severini organized by the movement’s theorist and impresario, F. T. Marinetti, opened at the Sackville Gallery in London. This was the second stop of a tour that eventually touched several European capitals and that aimed to showcase the achievements of Futurism in the figurative arts and to stake its territory against such competing artistic currents as Cubism. Forewarned by reports on the show’s earlier mounting in Paris—“Weird Paintings Exhibited in Paris,” blared the Daily Mirror on February 7, as if that were news—British reviewers braced for the impact of the “Art Anarchists,” as the Illustrated London News dubbed the Futurists, and met their works with the requisite suspicion and puzzlement. If serious critics limited themselves to expressing their skepticism with a few well-aimed barbs—Roger Fry spoke, for instance, of their “strangely Nihilistic creed”—satirical cartoonists felt no such need for restraint and seized upon the subject with gusto.1

In the March 15 issue of the Daily Mirror, W. K. Haselden used his trademark multipanel cartoon to imagine “How to Paint a Futurist Picture.” Here his “Futurist” artist—a shaggy-haired bohemian figure more indebted to the stereotype popularized by Puccini’s La Bohème than to the impeccably dressed and groomed man-about-town that we see in pictures of Marinetti—engages in all sorts of odd behavior, from eating and drinking in excess to staring at the sun to, of course, painting upside down as part of the creative process. Futurist art is thus the product of a voluntary derangement that the artist brings upon himself: in one panel, he does not hesitate to get punched in one eye by a thuggish brute while in search of “inspiration.”

The danger is that this aesthetic sickness might be contagious and twist the perception of the viewer in the same manner that it distorted that of the artist. This is the situation envisioned by Charles “Rilette” Sykes, an illustrator and commercial artist who provided humorous drawings for the weekly the Bystander. An editorial caption accompanying his “The Hysteria Wave Spreads to Art” (March 13) explains that Sykes was dispatched by the magazine to make a sketch of the exhibition, and that he carried out his assignment “in what he himself thinks to be the Futurist style.” Succumbing to the Futurist virus, Sykes thus produces a drawing in which the visitors at the Sackville Gallery appear as multilimbed figures in motion, illuminated by an explosion of lights that recalls the garish lighting of Boccioni’s Laughter, one of the paintings on view. Readers of the middlebrow publication need not worry about further contamination, though: Sykes’s cartoon, the editorial noted in a reassuring tone, would be not only the first but also the last “Futurist” work to grace the pages of the Bystander for the time being.

The most original satirical take on the movement, however, was probably Charles Harrison’s “The New Terror,” published in the March 4 Daily Express. Using a six-panel grid, Harrison envisages what British art might look like under the influence of Futurism. The results, which include a night scene—complete with a bobby and a black cat—that turns into a jumble of sharp angles and jagged lines, and a portrait of a bourgeois couple appearing more than a little baffled at finding themselves fragmented into collections of small blocks, are amusing, but also suggest that behind the laughter there might be some real anxiety about the threat posed by the avant-garde to traditional British art.

Italian Futurism is on view at the Guggenheim February 21–September 1. View upcoming Italian Futurism events, visit the exhibition website, and buy tickets to the museum.

  1. “The Futurists,” Nation, March 9, 1912, 945