The Painting of Sounds, Noises and Smells

Carlo Carrà

Before the 19th century, painting was the art of silence. Painters of antiquity, of the Renaissance, of the 17th and 18th centuries, never envisaged the possibility of rendering sounds, noises and smells in painting, even when they chose flowers, stormy seas or wild skies as their subjects.

In their bold revolution, the Impressionists made some confused, hesitant attempts at sounds and noises in their pictures. Before them nothing, absolutely nothing!

However, we should point out at once that between the Impressionists’ swarming brush-strokes and our Futurist paintings of sounds, noises and smells there is an enormous difference, like the contrast between a misty winter morning and a sweltering summer afternoon, or to put it better, between the first signs of pregnancy and an adult man in his fully developed strength.

In the Impressionist canvases, sounds and noises are expressed in such a thin, faded way that they might have been perceived by the eardrum of a deaf man. This is not the place for a detailed account of the principles and experiments of the Impressionists. There is no need to enquire minutely into all the reasons why the Impressionists never succeeded in painting sounds, noises and smells. We shall only mention here what they would have had to drop to obtain results:

  1. The extremely vulgar trompe-l’oeil, a game worthy of an academic of the Leonardo da Vinci sort or a foolish set-designer of realistic operas.

  2. The concept of color harmonies, a characteristic concept and defect of the French which inevitably forces them into Watteau-style prettiness and an abuse of light blues, pale greens, mauves and pinks. We have said more than once how much we despise this tendency towards soft, feminine, gentle effects.

  3. Contemplative idealism, which I have defined as a sentimental mimicry of natural appearances. This contemplative idealism contaminates the pictorial construction of the Impressionists, just as it contaminated those of their predecessors, Corot and Delacroix.

  4. Anecdote and detail, which (although it it a reaction and an antidote to false academical construction) almost always leads them to photographical reproduction. As for the Post- and Neo-Impressionists, such as Matisse, Signac and Seurat, we see that far from perceiving the problem and dealing with the difficulties of sounds, noises and smells in their paintings, they preferred to withdraw into static representations in order to obtain a greater synthesis of form (Matisse) and a systematic application of light (Signac, Seurat).

We Futurists therefore claim that in bringing the elements of sound, noise and smell to painting we are opening fresh paths. We have already taught artists to love our essentially dynamic modern life with its sounds, noises and smells, thereby destroying the stupid passion for values which are solemn, academic, serene, hieratic and mummified: everything purely intellectual, in fact. Imagination without strings, words-in-freedom, the systematic use of onomatopoeia, antigraceful music without rhythmic quadrature, and the art of noises —these were created by the same Futurist sensibility that has given birth to the painting of sounds, noises and smells.

It is indisputably true that (1) silence is static and sounds, noises and smells are dynamic; (2) sounds, noises and smells are nothing but different forms and intensities of vibration; and (3) any succession of sounds, noises and smells impresses on the mind an arabesque of form and color. We must measure this intensity and perceive these arabesques.

The painting of sounds, noises and smells rejects:

  1. All muted colors, even those obtained directly and without using tricks like patinas and glazes.

  2. The banality of those velvets, silks and flesh tints which are too human, too refined, too soft, and flowers which are too pale and drooping.

  3. Greys, browns and all muddy colors.

  4. The use of pure horizontal and vertical lines, and all other dead lines.

  5. The right angle, which we consider passionless.

  6. The cube, the pyramid and all other static shapes.

  7. The unities of time and place.

The painting of sounds, noises and smells calls for:

  1. Reds, rrrrreds, the rrrrrreddest rrrrrrreds that shouuuuuuut.

  2. Greens, that can never be greener, greeeeeeeeeeeens that screeeeeeam, yellows, as violent as can be: polenta yellows, saffron yellows, brass yellows.

  3. All the colors of speed, of joy, of carousings and fantastic carnivals, of fireworks, cafe-chantants and music-halls; all colors seen in movement, colors experienced in time and not in space.

  4. The dynamic arabesque, which is the sole reality created by the artist in the depths of his feeling.

  5. The clash of all the acute angles, which we have already called the angles of will.

  6. Oblique lines which fall on the observer like so many bolts from the blue, along with lines of depth.

  7. The sphere, the ellipse that spins, the upside-down cone, the spiral and all the dynamic forms which the infinite powers of an artist’s genius are able to uncover.

  8. Perspective obtained not as the objectivity of distances but as a subjective interpenetration of hard and soft, sharp and dull forms.

  9. As a universal subject and as the sole reason for a painting’s existence: the significance of its dynamic construction (polyphonic architectural whole). Architecture is usually thought of as something static; this is wrong. What we have in mind is an architecture similar to the dynamic musical architecture achieved by the Futurist musician Pratella. Architecture is found in the movement of colors, of smoke from a chimney, and in metallic structures, when they are experienced in a violent, chaotic state of mind.

  10. The inverted cone (the natural shape of an explosion), the slanting cylinder and cone.

  11. The collision of two cones at their apexes (the natural shape of a water spout) with flexible or curving lines (a clown jumping, dancers).

  12. The zig-zag and the wavy line.

  13. Ellipsoidal curves considered as straight lines in movement.

  14. Lines and volumes seen as plastic transcendentalism, that is, according to their characteristic degree of curvature or obliqueness, determined by the painter’s state of mind.

  15. Echoes of lines and volumes in movement.

  16. Plastic complementarism (for both forms and colors), based on the law of equivalent contrasts and on the opposite poles of the spectrum. This complementarism derives from an imbalance of forms (which are hence forced to move) The consequent elimination of the complements of volumes. We must reject these because like a pair of crutches they allow only a single movement, forward and backward, and not the total movement that we call spherical expansion in space.

  17. The continuity and simultaneity of the plastic transcendency of the animal mineral, vegetable and mechanical kingdoms.

  18. Abstract plastic wholes, corresponding not to our sight but to the sensations which derive from sounds, noises, smells and all the unknown forces that surround us.

These polyphonic and polyrhythmic abstract plastic wholes correspond to a requirement of inner enharmonics that we Futurist painters believe to be indispensable to pictorial sensibility.

These plastic wholes have a mysterious fascination and are more meaningful than those created by our visual and tactile senses, being closer to our pure plastic spirit.

We Futurist painters maintain that sounds noises and smells are incorporated in the expression of lines, volumes and colors just as lines, volumes and colors are incorporated in the architecture of a musical work. Our canvases will therefore express the plastic equivalents of the sounds noises and smells found in theaters, music-halls, cinemas, brothels, railway stations, ports, garages, hospitals, workshops, etc., etc.

From the point of view of form: sounds, noises and smells can be concave, convex triangular, ellipsoidal, oblong, conical, spherical, spiral, etc.

From the point of view of color: sounds, noises and smells can be yellow, green, dark blue, light blue or purple. In railway stations and garages, and throughout the mechanical and sporting world, sounds, noises and smells are predominantly red; in restaurants and cafes they are silver, yellow and purple. While the sounds, noises and smells of animals are yellow and blue, those of a woman are green, blue and purple.

We do not exaggerate in claiming that smell alone is enough to create in our minds arabesques of form and color which can constitute the motive and justify the necessity of a painting. In fact, if we are shut in a dark room (so that our sense of sight no longer functions) with flowers petrol or other strong-smelling things, our plastic spirit gradually eliminates the memory sensations and constructs particular plastic wholes whose quality of weight and movement corresponds perfectly to the smells found in the room. These smells, through an obscure process, have become an environment-force, determining that state of mind which for us Futurist painters constitutes a pure plastic whole.

This bubbling and whirling of forms and lights composed of sounds, noises and smells has been partly rendered by me in my Anarchist’s Funeral and Jolts of a Taxi-cab by Boccioni in States of Mind and Forces of a Street, by Russolo in Revolt and Severini in Pan Pan, paintings which aroused violent controversy at our first Paris Exhibition in 1912. This kind of bubbling over requires a powerful emotion, even delirium, on the part of the artist, who in order to render a vortex must be a vortex of sensation himself, a pictorial force and not a cold logical intellect.

This is the truth! In order to achieve this total painting, which requires the active cooperation of all the senses, a painting which is a plastic state of mind of the universal, you must paint, as drunkards sing and vomit, sounds, noises and smells!

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