In her painting Synthesis of Maritime Communications, Benedetta seems to illustrate the “multicolored and polyphonic tidal waves of revolution in the modern metropolis” that her husband writes about in The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism (5). Benedetta’s painting both conforms to and challenges the definition of futurist art F. T. Marinetti asserts in his manifesto. Like a futurist, Benedetta is painting energy, but unlike most futurists, she is not painting exclusively masculine energy. She also paints feminine energy, signified by fluid, lyrical lines in nature and ethereal planes.
This painting’s exploration of femininity, nature, and spirituality deviates from Marinetti’s Futurist manifesto.
Benedetta, I will call her by her first name, since that is how she signed her paintings and writings, lived with F.T. Marinetti as domestic partners for many years, and eventually married (Conatay 21). She was a huge contribution to the futurist movement. Benedetta painted Synthesis of Maritime Communications by the commission for Mussolini and his state architect (Conaty 24).
Several other paintings were a part of this commission, and this specific painting was displayed in the same frame as two others. While an analysis of the other paintings in this set would certainly be fruitful, for the scope of this paper, I will focus on the Synthesis of Marine Communications.
One way Benedetta expresses the feminine in her works is through the shapes of her lines. Benedetta makes explicit the connection between lines and gender through a series of three sketches in her 1924 novel, Le Forze Umane. The first sketch, Forze femminile: Spirale di dolcezza + Serpe di fascino (Feminine Forces: Spiral of Sweetness + Serpent of Charm), is gently sloping, curvaceous, and voluptuous.
It is fluid, yet still robust and vital (Conaty 22). Even the name of the sketch asserts that femininity, just like masculinity is a force, as dynamic as a spiral or serpent. The second sketch, called Forze maschili: Armi e piume (Masculine Forces: Weapons and Feathers), is angular, harsh, jagged, and sharp, much like a weapon, though perhaps not particularly graceful on its own. The third sketch overlays the two previous sketches to create Fusione di nuclei= more, (Fusion of nuclei = love). While both energies are poetic and charismatic separately, they are most powerful in their union
Many of Benedetta’s paintings seem to be larger, more colorful, realized versions of Fusione di nuclei, as they combine both feminine curving lines and angular masculine lines. One of the most interesting ways Benedetta combines both types of lines in Synthesis of Maritime Communications is in the “X”. Perhaps not immediately apparent, a large asymmetric “X” cuts across the entirety of the painting. An “X” was often used for perspective in aeropittura, a futurist style that Benedetta helped found–she was the only woman to sign the aeropittura manifesto along with seven other men (Conaty 21). In aeropittura, futurist painters often used a large “X” near the center of the painting to form the perspective of an airplane moving rapidly to a single point in the center of the “X”. This is evident in Tullio Cralli’s Nosedive and Benedetta’s Il Grande X. The “X” symbol was salient in many futuristic contexts because the center of it represents the single point at which the most energy is directed. As Marinetti wrote in his manifesto: “the steering wheel, the ideal axis of which intersects the earth, itself hurled ahead in its own race along the path of its orbit” (4). The X was also significant for fascism. Conaty writes that “the Fascists had appropriated the Roman Numeral ‘X’ as an official symbol of their political revolution”. She also notes that the curvilinear X in Il Grande X serves as an “indirect critique of fascism’s hypermasculine” (24). The “X” in Synthesis of Maritime Communications, is not purely masculine as the fascist “X”, nor completely feminized as the Il Grande X, however equal parts of both. One line of the “X” is rigidly straight. It is harsh and violent, slicing the painting in half. The perpendicular line is curvilinear. It gently arcs outward from the center and seems to dissipate into the waves of the water and the pulsating atmosphere. This “X” represents the union of masculine and feminine as does Fusione di nuclei= more.
The center of the “X” also seems to be the exact point the machine intersects with nature (illustrated by the huge ship meeting the ocean). This is another important way that this painting pushes past the rules outlined in the futurist manifesto. Marinetti lauds the ability of technology to overpower nature, while Benedetta’s painting is imbued with a respect for nature as the source from which all energy originates. The relationship between technology and nature parallels the relationship between masculine and feminine. The shape of the boat is geometric, sharp, and weapon-like. As in Marinetti’s manifesto, the machine is linked to the masculine. While, the ocean and sky are composed of robust, curving lines, associating nature with the feminine. Though the ship cuts into the ocean in a violent, perhaps even sexual way, the ocean seems no less powerful. The ocean remains immense and mysterious and seems to support the ship on its journey. The union of the ship and ocean is forceful and passionate, yet results not in the domination of one over the other. If either element was to have the upper hand, it would certainly not be the machine, as the ocean and sky are far more vast than the distant cities or even the large ship. Though nature does not seem to dominate technology in this painting either. The interplay between machine and nature this work presents is not interested in conquest at all, but rather harmony. The ocean appears to support the ship on its journey. And the speed and dynamism of the ship flow into the ever-in-motion sea to produce rippling kinetic waves that glitter in prisms of sunlight, pure radiation of energy. The dynamism of the machine is a reflection and reverberation of the dynamism and vitality of the natural world. The implication is that while femininity and masculinity are different, neither is less important, and they are the most potent infusion. Likewise, the point of technology is not to conquer nature, but to harness the energy already present in nature in productive ways. The ship needs the ocean to sail, the plane needs air to fly, and the car needs ground to drive upon. Technology is not an example of man’s dominion over nature. Technology is created when man learns to obey the natural laws of the universe that govern motion, time, speed, space, and sound and learns to use these laws in productive ways. In this way, the machine borrows energy from the ultimate source of all energy: nature.
This function of nature as a Source imbues it with a spiritual quality. This is the third and the final analogy I will explore: as masculine is too feminine, so is technology to nature, and so is civilization to the spiritual. Benedetta paints the fourth dimension, a spiritual plane that is defined by energetic vibrations. Furthermore, she paints it alongside the modern city. Painting the fourth dimension requires an alternate perspective. It seems that Benedetta borrowed this sort of perspective from Cubism. Cubists conceived of this dimension through “spontaneity” and “space-time relationships” as a plane of higher reality, freeing them from the confines of painting space and distance in a way that appeared ‘realistic’ (Henderson 15). Benedetta plays with simultaneity and space-time in Synthesis of Marine Communications by painting two cities represented simultaneously in two different planes. The modern city is positioned in the top left corner and an older city is positioned in the lower right corner. The spatial relationship between these cities is strange and unrealistic, much like the spatial relationships in cubist paintings. The relationship of time is also interesting in that the past and present (represented by the two different cities) seem to be in communication through vibrations. The space-time relationships are further complicated by the strange lines pulsating throughout the painting. It is almost as if Benedetta is trying to visualize the flows of energy that make up the 4th dimension. The entire painting seems to vibrate as if it is composed of sound waves. The atmosphere of the top right corner of the painting alludes to vibrations and ethereal planes in that waves of energy emanate off of the city into the ether. The nested rectangular planes connote parallel universes or dimensions. Benedetta is using a cubistic 4th dimension perspective to depict the invisible realm of the spiritual.
The spiritual function of nature seems more aligned with the Romantic concept of the “sublime”– as one would find in a Wordsworth or Coleridge poem– rather than Marinetti’s futurist manifesto. Yet, Benedetta’s vision of the sublime is also futurist because it is not only about nature but about the combination of nature and technology. The spiritual ecstasy a Romantic might find standing on the ledge of a mountain, overlooking a lake is perhaps not so different than the spiritual ecstasy a futurist feels whipping through the air in a plane or experiencing for the first time the speed of automobiles. Marinetti describes this adrenaline rush in his manifesto when he writes of the experience of wrecking his car and states that there are “far-reaching effects on the psyche” caused by modern technology (6). Benedetta’s painting articulates the relationship between the psyche (Latin for the soul) and modern technology more thoroughly than Marinetti’s manifesto because the scope of her understanding of human spirituality is not limited to only the masculine, the material, the or the mechanical. Her approach is more holistic in that it makes visible the invisible vibrations of energy connecting masculine and feminine, machine and nature, civilization and spiritual, and past and present.
These three analogies suggest that this painting is an experiment in finding unity. Like another modernist, Benedetta sensed the disjointedness of modernity– the same lack of unity that Yeats contemplates in his autobiography. Benedetta’s painting critiques a hegemony of dichotomies by showing the power of unity between polar categories like masculine and feminine, machine and nature, civilization and spirituality, and past and present. These unions create the most potent energies. In this way, her painting is more interested in co-creation and reproduction than destruction, unlike the futurism, Marinetti advocates in his manifesto, futurism of violent aggression, and “death domesticated”. In other words, Benedetta envisions a utopia rather than an apocalypse. This vision is further supported by the title of the painting. The word “synthesis” embodies the productive relationships between masculine and feminine, machine and nature, etc. The word “communication” suggests harmony. The “com-” root in this word is very important because it is based on connectivity. In this painting, the past is in communion with the present, as is masculine and feminine, machine and nature, and man and the universe. This communication is done through energetic vibrations that essentially show the connectedness and aliveness of all things. This vibrational communication between all things presents a vision of a utopian community. To find unity, Benedetta is challenging the patriarchal system that has led to the disjointedness of the individual’s psyche and the collective culture of man. She is contesting this Symbolic Order (as Lacan would later call it) at the very root, with pre-lingual tools such as color, shape, light, and texture in an attempt to address the psyche, the spirit, the energetic root of human consciousness.