Research title:

Just Imagine: Visions of the Future
in the American Metropolis 1890s-1930s

Abstract

It is clear that Modernism was an extraordinary combination of often contradictory aspects: the futuristic and the nihilistic, the revolutionary and the conservative, the naturalistic and the symbolistic, the romantic and the classical. It was a celebration of a technological age, the so-called ‘Age of the Machine,’ and a condemnation of it, a faithful acceptance of any new, exciting, cultural expression and the excuse for fearful and anxious reactions in face of it. In this monograph I will concentrate on Futurism, one of the many movements (Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism, Symbolism, Imagism etc.) which the term Modernism covers; more precisely, I shall try to define the ‘aesthetic of a futurist vision’, as it expressed itself in the American metropolis and through different media: a cinematographic screen, a painter’s canvas or the imaginative drawings of an architectural illustrator.

Given the European roots of Futurism (Italy, Germany, Russia), a comparative European/American dimension will run through the whole monograph, thus enhancing its relevance and its market potential for scholars who do not necessarily work in the field of American Studies. Secondly, its location in the very inter-disciplinary area of Visual Culture - broadly defined to include the pictorial, spatial, architectural, filmic, photographic - will make it appealing to any reader familiar with the methodologies of Cultural Studies.

In this book I intend to combine my previous research interest in Italian Futurism with questions of urban space and representation in the American metropolis, concentrating mainly on New York. The monograph will focus on three aspects of visual culture. The first is what I would call the ‘Art of architectural illustration’. I will examine in particular the work of the influential futuristic architect and renderer Hugh Ferriss who was able to use canvas to convey not merely ideas and architectural projects, but emotions and ‘real’ visions of the future. Since the publication of The Metropolis of Tomorrow (1929), a portfolio of drawings and a commentary on future trends in architecture, Ferriss has fallen into obscurity until, in the late 1980s, an exhibition at the New York Whitney Museum and the publication of some of his works revived critical interest in his oeuvre. Ferriss collaborated with many architects, Harvey Wiley Corbett among others. Interestingly, Corbett’s vision of a multilevel city which incorporated also air-travel facilities, so brilliantly depicted by Ferriss, bears a striking resemblance to Sant’Elia’s multi-layered structures designed for high-density living. The Italian Futurist architect Antonio Sant’Elia published his Manifesto of Futurist Architecture in 1914. His influence on Modernist architecture has been pointed out as early as 1932, but a specific aesthetic assessment of any ‘imaginative connection’ with architects like Corbett and Hood and renderers like Ferriss has never been attempted before. I wish to stress that this book is not primarily an ‘influence’ study; in fact this important area of scholarship is only partly what it offers.

My interest in Ferriss, Corbett and Raymond Hood will focus in particular on the work they did for a series of architectural and artistic exhibitions: The Titan City Exhibition (1925); The Machine Age Exposition (1927), a travelling exhibition that showed how a ‘machine age consciousness’ was making itself felt in the visual arts and the MOMA Exhibition (1932).

The second way in which futurist visions of the urban landscape could find expression was film. I will consider three films in particular, Metropolis (1926), Just Imagine (1930), and Things to Come (1936) which depicted, better than any other, the mythic aspect of New York’s skyscraper world and New York’s image as the paradigmatic modern metropolis. It was on the silver screen that Ferriss’s visions found their first, and in most cases unique, realization.

The third set of visual texts I consider are the works of artists such as Louis Lozowick, Joseph Stella and Fortunato Depero, all fascinated, although in different modes and degrees, by New York’s buildings and by the city’s vitality. Lozowick’s early lithographs are particularly interesting for the purpose of this monograph since they can be regarded as Futurist-inspired compositions. Not surprisingly, Lozowick had studied art in Europe, where he was certainly exposed to Futurist and Cubist influences.

The Italian-born American artist Joseph Stella drew directly from the vision of the Italian Futurist painters, whose work he saw while in Paris in 1912. For Stella the city on canvas was a stop-action motion picture, a celebration of its dynamism and of contemporary technology.

The Italian futurist artist Fortunato Depero was in New York for two years (1928-30), during which period several exhibitions of his work were held in the city. The impact that Depero possibly had on New York’s artistic scene at the time and the influence that the city itself had on his work is certainly worth evaluating, especially in the light of the fact that this artist experimented, in a truly futurist mode, with almost every visual art medium.

Although Futurism is only one of the many artistic movements that the term Modernism can encompass, by focusing on Futurism’s vision/visionary urban aspects as they developed in different visual forms, one can address one of the most engaging current debates: the hegemony of vision in the modern age. All the artists I am going to consider in this book were ‘characters’ in a comprehensive panoptic drama which unfolded on the urban stage. One of my underlying aims will be to look for signs and symptoms that might foreshadow a redeeming potential in this modern culture of vision in the firm belief that, as Benjamin thought, how we see the world can be instrumental in changing it.

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Last updated 1st December 2000
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