A Brief History of Futurism
On the morning of February 5, 1909, the cultural elite of Italy was astounded by an article entitled “Il manifesto del futurismo” (Futurist Manifesto) published on the front page of the French daily Le Figaro. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, an Italian poet and art theorist, had announced the birth of a new movement - Futurism.
A 20th century Italian avant-garde art movement, Futurism sought to dismantle older forms of culture and celebrate the beauty of modernity that included the machine, speed, violence and change.
The movement included anarchist and Fascist elements. Marinetti would later become an active follower and supporter of Benito Mussolini, known as Il Duce (The Leader) and founder of Italian Fascism and prime minister of Italy from 1922 to 1943.
Some passages from Marinetti’s manifesto read:
We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath ... a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.
Beauty exists only in struggle. There is no masterpiece that has not an aggressive character. Poetry must be a violent assault on the forces of the unknown, to force them to bow before man.
We want to sing the man at the wheel, the ideal axis of which crosses the earth, itself hurled along its orbit.
We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.
Futurism was the complete rejection of the past and the celebration of the future. A notion that took Europe by storm and “contaminated” the world; Armenian intellectuals in Constantinople, Tbilisi and Yerevan were no exception.
The first public debate of Futurism in the Armenian media took place in Constantinople in 1910 in publications such as the literary weekly Shant and literary periodical Mehyan. Poet, editor and translator Hrant Nazaryants, who had a personal correspondence with Marinetti, published the book “F. T. Marinetti and Futurism,” which is considered one of the first studies of Futurism in world literature.
This ignited heated pro and anti-Futurism discussions in well known Armenian newspapers in the midst of Turkish aggressions against the Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire. The Futurist Manifesto, as a way forward, had become an inspiration for some Armenian intellectuals, while others would not allow for the demise of classical Armenian cultural heritage.
Hakob Gendjian was a poet, a well-known journalist, translator, literary figure, and theatrical director in Tbilisi. Gendjian was also the editor of the Hnchakyan party’s weekly magazine Shepor (Trumpet). Trained as a massage therapist, he moved among Bohemian circles and was known for being a subscriber to the kind of “obnoxious” behaviour futurists were often described by.
During his life, he used unusual pseudonyms, about 35 of them including, V. Nuryan, Altalena, Gendj-oghli, Gendjiev, Bedrosov…and Kara Darvish, which would forever be synonymous with Futurism in the Armenian context.
Darvish’s fascination with Futurism started in 1913. This period coincided with Marianetti’s visit to Moscow and the visits of Russian futurists to the Caucasus who said, “We alone are the face of our Time.…Throw Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, etc., overboard from the Ship of Modernity.” (“A Slap in the Face of Public Taste,” Futurist Manifesto,1912)
In 1914, Kara Darvish published a book titled, "What is Futurism?" and announced the beginning of the futuristic movement in (eastern) Armenian circles.
Following closely in the footsteps of fellow futurists, Kara Darvish argued that in a fast developing world, literature had to catch up: “It is clear that the contemporary person requires alternative literature, alternative art with corresponding reflections, the kind that in discussion would correlate with the mind and the soul of the contemporary person and not the kind of literature that is caught in the draft of a specifically Armenian romanticism.”
Darvish would also reject the idea of love and most importantly, the glorification of women saying that "women are like poison" and love is a "grand and dangerous" concept.
Kara Darvish rejected Sayat-Nova and Armenian bard/troubadour culture. He insisted that Khorenatsi, Byuzand and other giants in Armenian cultural life be left in the past because the 20th century was a time for new ideas and movements; it was the time of the constantly moving and developing individual, like the machines of the time.
In “What is Futurism” he writes: “And it is surprising that we supposedly have literature and art, but they have always been protected from ‘harmful’ external influences by dusty traditionalists. In this case, the role of our ignorant and domineering press, which has always been an opposing force against new currents; every sprout, blossom of a new literary wave or influence would be asphyxiated at its inception, while keeping mouldy medieval dusty covers pressed up to its chest. This is the reason why our lives have become a rotting, stinking swamp with a layer of green on its surface, which to the unfamiliar, to the visitor, may look like a meadow but it only takes a step onto this deceitful pasteur for the naive stranger to sink and drown.”
While Tbilisi, during the 1920s, was the center of futuristic events and lectures, articles and criticism in the Caucasus, a group of Armenian intellectuals in Yerevan - poets Yeghishe Charents, Gevorg Abov and Azat Vshtuni - internalized futuristic ideas.
Together with Abov and Vshtuni, Charents created, "The Manifesto of the Three," a union of avantgard/futurist intellectuals. In June 1922, they published their declaration in the daily newspaper Soviet Armenia, which had an immediate response in the cultural and literary life of Armenia.
Charents and his fellow futurists strongly believed in their new found ideology. They rejected classic poetry, de-pedestalized platonic love. They enthusiastically ridiculed their predecessors as well as their contemporaries. It is a little known fact that Yeghishe Charents gave a lecture rejecting Vahan Teryan, a well known and respected poet of the time despite having previously revered Teryan as a “brilliant poet and a mythical personality” in one of his diary entries where he describes seeing Teryan at a cafe in Tbilisi in 1917: “He was sitting with someone, drinking tea and reading a newspaper. Kara Darvish approached him. Darvish was the only Armenian writer that I knew personally at the time. I was boundlessly jealous of him, because he was conversing with a brilliant man…. Soon he [Teryan] stood up, went to the closet near the door, put on his coat, stuffed the newspapers in his pocket and left. I went out to the street and stared after him for a long time…”
The Manifesto of the Three
by Yeghishe Charents, Gevorg Abov, Azat Vshtuni
Contemporary Armenian poetry is afflicted with tuberculosis and is inevitably sentenced to death. The only justification for its existence is the fact of it being on its deathbed. Its traditions are like children with tuberculosis, they do not generate anything more than rhythm.
“Motherland,” “Pure love,” “Desert and solitude,” “Fragile twilights,” “Forgetfulness and slumber,” these are the cells of your literary tuberculosis and their fruits are nationalism, romanticism, pessimism and symbolism.
We are acting as disinfectors.
We bring clean air and iron health.
We counter bourgeois nationalism with proletarian internationalism.
We counter “pure love” with a healthy sexual instinct.
For us the deserts are busy cities.
And in our veins we feel the emotion of the masses.
The crimson daybreak has come to replace the fragile twilight and the battle trumpet of the struggling class has woken us up from forgetful slumber.
In us the tempo of the masses is creative and we channel our creation towards the masses.
Set poetry free from studies (rooms) to the streets and the masses and from books to the living word.
Export that which is contemporary; movement, class struggle, iron and red.
To reach this goal, poetry should implement:
Rhythm as movement.
Image as an indicator of daily routine.
Style and language as an expression of the given subject and character.
Our motto is:
Death to aristocratic literary schools, to poets writing in their studies, to books asleep in libraries and to women in salons.
Long live the living creative word in the creative masses.
Long live the creative masses with their powerful rhythm.
Long live the proletarian revolution.
In the 1920s, "The Declaration of the Three" was rather popular. Their lectures always attracted excitement. People were writing articles with titles such as, “The Three and Us,” etc. A passage from one of those articles stated, “Only they show the new road of our poetry: the youth should perceive their ideas deeply and take the Three seriously.“
Back in Tbilisi, Kara Darvish was well aware of the Declaration of the Three. He heavily criticized the Futurist trio, but he would also often call them “my spiritual followers.”
The Fall of the Armenian Futuristic Movement
The Armenian futuristic movement took off at a very critical period for the Armenian nation - war, massacres and the absence of independence. Though it did not have a long life in the Armenian art world, it had a great impact on young intellectuals and their future work.
Tension between futurists and anti-futurists was so great that it resulted in a mock literary trial. On November 15, 1923, at the Hayartan Theater in Tbilisi, futurists and anti-futurists gathered to put Kara Darvish’s literary works on trial. Darvish himself was one of the two “defendants” who took the stand. He was also his own attorney. The most unusual part of the trial was it’s structure and makeup - three laborers and a stenographer. It started with opening remarks by Darvish himself; his main defence was based on the fact that “Futurism is a revolutionary art, and its essence is proletarian.” The prosecution accused Futurism of being an international, old-fashioned literary genre. Futurism was also criticized for being essentially Russian. Kara Darvish was being accused of being a futurist-fundamentalist and an extreme individualist.
The trial found Darvish guilty. The verdict published in a Russian newspaper said that the court had found Futurism to be a form of bourgeois culture and the “ literary works of Armenian futurist Kara Darvish are not perceptible to nor suitable for the working class. Therefore, those works are sentenced to isolation and death.”
In 1924, while Yeghishe Charents was in Moscow studying at the Institute of Literature and Arts, together with architects Mikael Mazmanyan and Karo Halabyan he established the publication of the first Armenian avantgard, futurist magazine Standard. He aimed to continue the activities of the Declaration of the Three through the new magazine.
Standard had only one issue but it literally shred the art world into pieces. It rejected anarchic-Futurism and extreme individualism pointing a finger at Kara Darvish. In the visual arts, Standard accepted posters, caricatures, illustrations, in short, only the forms that were meant for mass consumption, were utilitarian in context and could be machine reproduced. Regarding architecture, Standard was against any form of restoration of any genre. Instead of psychology, the magazine recommended physical exercise and watching films.
After the publication of the first issue, Alexander Myasnikyan advised Charents and his friends to burn all the copies of the magazine. Fortunately, three samples managed to survive - one in the Mazmanyan family archive, one in the Yeghishe Charents Museum of Literature and Arts and one in National Library of Armenia.
In 1924, after Standard was published, Charents embarked on a seven month trip to Europe. While travelling to the centers of world literature, he returned to the classical ideas of literature, although, as stated by literary critic Davit Gasparyan in the 1930s, the impact of futuristic ideology still remained in his later work.