The masculine avant-garde that fostered feminism

The masculine avant-garde that fostered feminism

Futurism practically cleared the way for feminism, according to Madeleine Gedde Metz.
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The futurists wanted to create art that included the technical and social changes that took place in the early 1900s. Here represented in a painting by Tullio Crali (1910–2000).

Madeleine Gedde Metz claims that the English author and futurist Mina Loy was among those who best expressed the ideas of futurism.

“What is most interesting about Mina Loy is that she is so hard to define. She wrote and worked within several artistic movements and changed her style of writing throughout her life,” says Metz.

“Moreover, very little is written about her in Norway.”

Metz has a master’s degree in literature and has an article in the last issue of the Norwegian Journal of Gender Research. Her method has been to carry out a close reading of poems written by Mina Loy between 1914 and 1925, with particular emphasis on how she and other female futurists relate to futurism’s ambivalent view on women.

Paradox

“The futurists represented a schism in almost every possible way. They wanted out of the institutions, also stylistically. They were experimental, and this made them recite their poems in a very particular way, with emphasis on sounds,” she says.


Madeleine Gedde Metz has looked closely into the futurist paradox. (Photo: Susanne Dietrichson)

“The basic futuristic concepts – future, velocity, technology, and progress, are integral to all of Loy’s art, which is also experimental in terms of form. To her, progress wasn’t a goal in itself; it had to benefit something or someone, for example the feminist movement.”

Metz is particularly interested in what she calls the futurists’ paradox.

“Contempt for women was one of the pillars of futurism. Women represented the institution of marriage, romantic love, and chaste sexuality; everything that the futurists wanted to break away from. Moreover, they claimed that women derailed men and prevented them from artistic activity,” she says. 

“Yet they nevertheless welcomed women as active members of their movement. They believed that women might add new perspectives and additional voices to art. The fact that women didn’t have access to many institutions was regarded as an asset, since they represented something outside the establishment.”

The futurists also had equal pay and women’s suffrage as part of their agenda, which according to Metz further indicate the ambivalence.

See also: Portrait: An eye for the unseen

Ambivalent

“The futurist women were themselves ambivalent to their own womanhood. Many of them, including Loy, criticised Marinetti’s view on women,” she says.

The Italian-French poet and art critic Filippo Tommaso Marinetti is regarded as the founder of futurism. His manifesto, Manifesto del Futurismo, was published in leading newspapers in Italy and France in 1909. Among other things, he writes here that he wants to combat moral and feminism.

“Contempt for women was one of the pillars of futurism.”

“According to the futurist women, the connection he makes between the female essence and real flesh and blood women did not make any sense.”

At the same time, many of the female futurists promoted the same view on women as Marinetti’s.

“They considered themselves more masculine than other women. They were against marriage, they wanted women to work, and they promoted a more libertarian sexuality.”

Many of Loy’s texts shocked her own contemporaries, because they revolved around sexuality and women’s emancipation on this area. She wrote about marriage, sexuality, pregnancy, and birth, all based on her own experiences.

“Loy linked art to sexuality. For example, she recommended surgical removal of the hymen for all teenage girls as a part of the liberation from the chastity ideals of the romantic period,” says Metz.

“The female futurists were interested in pregnancy and birth as an image of the artistic process of creation.”

Praised the war

Loy and her female like-minded also shared futurism’s cultivation of violence and aggression.

“They wanted to participate in the war on the same level as men, and they were envious of the male futurists who were allowed to fight in the war.”

At the same time, the First World War created a new space for women in society. By the end of 1916, seventy per cent of Italy’s industrial workers were women.

“Most men were soldiers in the war while the women were cultural and industrial workers.”

“It is important to demonstrate the diversity among women also a hundred years ago.”

“Can we learn anything from Mina Loy and futurism’s view on women today?”

“It is important to demonstrate the diversity among women also a hundred years ago. There is a tendency to present history as only consisting of male, and no female, writers,” says Metz.

“I would claim that major parts of the modernist movement excluded women. By studying this period more closely, we can learn how such exclusion mechanisms worked and hopefully prevent them from working today.”

See also: The forgotten philosophers

Stood out

According to Anne Birgitte Rønning, professor of comparative literature at the University of Oslo, futurism stood out from other contemporary literary currents in a number of ways.

“With its cultivation of velocity, progress, machines, and war, futurism is explicitly – and extremely – male gendered in a way that no other avant-garde movement is,” she says.


According to Anne Birgitte Rønning at UiO, futurism is extremely masculine gendered.  (Photo: Ellen Engelstad)

“Surrealism, for example, explores and praises the dream, the unconscious, and love, and here the woman, often the childlike woman, plays a special role as inspirer, motif, and muse, if not as an independent artist.”

“Would you say that modernism in general excluded female artists?”

“It is difficult to say that modernism as such, as one artistic movement, excluded female artists. There are female artists and writers within modernism, and our understanding of modernism might be much broader if it was based on women’s literature and women’s art,” she says.

“At the same time, there are good reasons to regard modernism as a response or countermove to ‘the feminisation of culture’ around the turn of the century. And when it comes to various avant-garde movements, these have often been close-knitted homo-social, self-proclaiming, and self-confirming male communities.”

Sources: Metz, MG: “Mina Loy and the futuristic paradox” in Journal for Gender Research, no.3-4, 2016, 40, pp. 215-230.
Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Encyclopædia Britannica.

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