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A Futurist vision

First published in The Guardian, 3 September 2014.


Now this is the way to start an art movement.

In February 1909 the Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti published an eleven point plan in an Italian newspaper, which called for aggression, conflict and struggle, the praise of youth, speed and technology. This was the first Futurist Manifesto. Incredibly, two weeks later, it was published in one of the most important newspapers in the world, the Parisian journal Le Figaro – ON THE FRONT PAGE! How? I’m not sure. The writing is quite intoxicating, reminiscent of the poetry of Rimbaud. It has been described, quite accurately, as “beautiful, poetic, intense and insane” It was also a complete bluff. It says “we” throughout but there was no group. Futurism existed solely in Marinetti’s head. After this coup several young, like-minded artists were drawn to his cause and the movement soon became a reality.

To get some sense of Marinetti perhaps the closest modern figure was Malcolm McLaren, except that Marinetti was more radical and more influential. He was a brilliant publicist. In those early days of mass media he was very media savvy, which was highly unusual. Among other things he realised that getting arrested was an excellent way to guarantee publicity. At one point a bunch of Futurists stood on the roof of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice, hurled abuse at the people coming out from mass, while announcing, with trumpets, Futurist principles. One of many Futurist stunts.

 For more information on the very interesting birth of this movement, there is a very good article here.


I once had an encounter with a Futurist. For a number of years I worked at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney as a Registrar, which mainly involved looking after all the artworks in storage. I needed an assistant and interviewed this person for the position. I still have the transcript.


 What relevant experience do you have?


We are on the extreme promontory of the centuries! What is the use of looking behind at the moment when we must open the mysterious shutters of the impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We are already living in the absolute, because we have already created eternal, omnipresent speed.


Who’s we?


Oh, um…I meant me. Sorry.


Don’t worry. It’s ok to be nervous. Just take your time. Now…How would you deal with confrontation in the workplace?


We want to glorify war — the world’s only hygiene — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and contempt for woman.


 I see……Describe a situation in which you used initiative.


I spun my car around with the frenzy of a dog trying to bite its tail, and there, suddenly, were two cyclists coming towards me, shaking their fists, wobbling like two equally convincing but nevertheless contradictory arguments. Their stupid swaying got in my way. What a bore! Pffah! I stopped short, and in disgust hurled myself — vlan! — head over heels in a ditch.

Oh, maternal ditch, half full of muddy water! A factory gutter! I savoured a mouthful of strengthening muck which recalled the black teat of my Sudanese nurse!…When I came up—torn, filthy, and stinking—from under the capsized car, I felt the white-hot iron of joy deliciously pass through my heart!


What do you expect to be doing in 5 years time?


The oldest among us are not yet thirty: we have therefore at least ten years to accomplish our task. When we are forty let younger and stronger men throw us in the wastebasket like useless manuscripts—we want it to happen! They will come against us, our successors, will come from far away, from every quarter, dancing to the winged cadence of their first songs, flexing the hooked claws of predators, sniffing doglike at the academy doors the strong odour of our decaying minds, which will have already been promised to the literary catacombs.

But we won’t be there… At last they’ll find us—one winter’s night—in open country, beneath a sad roof drummed by a monotonous rain. They’ll see us crouched beside our trembling aeroplanes in the act of warming our hands at the poor little blaze that our books of today will give out when they take fire from the flight of our images.

They’ll storm around us, panting with scorn and anguish, and all of them, exasperated by our proud daring, will hurtle to kill us, driven by a hatred the more implacable the more their hearts will be drunk with love and admiration for us.


 Right. And lastly…Why do you want to work in an Art Gallery?


Museums, cemeteries! Truly identical in their sinister juxtaposition of bodies unknown to one another. Museums are public dormitories where you sleep side by side for ever with beings you hate or do not know. Museums: absurd abattoirs of painters and sculptors ferociously slaughtering each other with color-blows and line-blows, the length of the fought-over walls! That one should make an annual pilgrimage, just as one goes to the graveyard on All Souls’ Day—that I grant. We can even imagine placing flowers once a year at the feet of the Mona Lisa! But to take our sorrows, our fragile courage and our morbid restlessness to the museum every day, that we cannot admit! Do you want to poison yourselves? Do you want to rot?

We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.


It hardly needs to be said – I hired him on the spot. He seemed to be energetic and forward-thinking – exactly the qualities the Gallery needed as we entered the 21st century. 

I have since moved on but I hear he still works there. I think he may even be the Director now.


I have a new book coming out, mysteriously titled “Peter Duggan’s Artoons”! It’s available from the 29th of October, published by Virgin Books. A French version will be published by Flammarion in Spring 2016, with hopefully more languages to follow. You can pre-order here: (USA) (UK) (UK) (Australia) (New Zealand)


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First published in The Guardian, 20 August 2014


Naive Art, also known as Outsider or Primitive Art, is a label used to describe untrained, self-taught artists whose work is filled with awkward technical “deficiencies”. It seems weird but the most famous of these “naive” artists, Henri Rousseau, was championed by people like Picasso and Maurice Denis – some of the most intelligent and advanced artists of the late 19th and early 20th century. Why? His ambitions were completely different to the avant garde. Comically, the artist he aspired to be was the Academic painter par excellence Jean-Leon Gerome. But as he lacked all the taught skills of painting and drawing, of technically skilled “copying”, he made up simple, schematic visual equivalents. Rousseau depicted reality in an unusual, non-straightforward manner, and achieved a strange kind of beauty which was undeniable. You could say exactly the same thing of Cezanne.


Ironically, in the cartoon Rousseau’s The Sleeping Gypsy is juxtaposed alongside a painting by Peter Paul Rubens, who was probably the most technically expert painter who ever lived. He is like the Kelly Slater of painting, in total mastery of every aspect of his craft. Surprisingly, Picasso loathed Rubens. His main beef was that everything in a Rubens painting, whether it be a breast, a plant, or a fold in a robe, is described in the same way – as a curve. Picasso’s comments on art are always very astute – it is a very good point. But it is only a flaw if you want to see it that way. Rubens’s art was one of dynamism, and filling his canvases with flaming S-shaped curves was the main way he achieved it. Look at any drawing Rubens made of someone else’s work; his “copy” is invariably more dynamic, more (perhaps superficially) thrilling. Picasso’s view on Rubens is as instructive on his own work as it is about Rubens. It reveals his love of opposition and contrast. It reveals why there is often something unpalatable and jarring about his work, why it sticks in your craw. If Picasso was Mondrian I’m sure he would have put a squiggle in there.


Well that was a digression.


Back to the cartoon. I was going through an art book which listed artists in alphabetical order and noticed that Rousseau and Rubens were on facing pages. The Rousseau depicted was the one in the cartoon, “The Sleeping Gypsy”. I immediately thought of Rubens’ painting The Lion Hunt and wondered what the lion-hunters in that painting would think of Rousseau’s lion sniffing around nearby (and also how anxious that lion would be). Initially I had the lion-hunters racing across the page, out of their own painting and into the Rousseau. The sniffing lion would now be in a raging battle, and the Gypsy rudely awoken by horses trampling him into the dust. How grumpy and pissed off would the Gypsy be? I really liked that idea but soon realised that not enough people would recognise the Rubens painting. If I used it I would have to show it complete. I could have done it over 2 panels, first showing both paintings (on their own pages) and then the punchline in the 2nd panel, but the paintings would have been illegibly small. The solution I eventually arrived at, a curator of Naive Art hanging a show in the most insensitive, bone-headed manner possible, gives the joke another dimension. His mode of curating is very naive (see what I did there?)


Just a quick word about “The Sleeping Gypsy” (I’m trying not to digress again but it is one of my favourite paintings so bugger it). As I said before, Rousseau compensated for his lack of technical ability by finding simple visual equivalents to represent reality. His main formal device was his way of painting every thing in a single straightforward fade from light to dark. If he painted a tree he would paint each leaf individually, shading it in one single fade from light to dark. Repeated over and over, this shimmering pattern, combined with his beautiful colour sense, is quite ravishing. This way of shading is fine with objects that could conceivably be represented as one simple, smooth shape, but he would get very muddled with complicated, bumpy shapes like a face. It’s funny scanning a Rousseau picture. Look at the Gypsy’s “pillow”. The vertical stripes are light at the top and get darker as they go down. The stripes along the Gypsy’s legs are also shaded separately from top to bottom, but because they are horizontal they turn into thin tubes. His hair is the same. It’s great. These repeated glowing stripes throughout the picture – lion’s mane, cloak, lute strings, hair, even his tube-y toes – create a lovely visual rhythm. The twinkling of the stars continue in the scattering of small circles of light throughout – toenails, fingernails, the tuners of the lute, the eye of the lion. This visual magic is unloaded onto a scene pregnant with possibility – threat, stillness, animal mind, human mind, curiousity, intensity, relaxation, danger, dream. This is what visual poetry looks like.

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Smarty Dali

First published in The Guardian, 6 August 2014.


Leons have been ponted and collapsed. Again. LMVQ!


Above is an ordinary statement, picked at random, from the future. Specifically 2039, twenty five years from now. I managed to get this because of my fairly rare ability to see forward in time. It’s kind of like a Google Street View in my head, but of the future. Sometimes I check out how my friends are doing. So sad.


Anyway, the reason I bring this up is that this cartoon is based on the most famous selfie of all time, which has been retweeted more than any other image. Think about that statement. Salvador Dali died in 1989; a mere 25 years later, in 2014, the language is already incomprehensible. Selfies, retweets, camera-phones – it’s quite surreal.


In case you are unfamiliar with the photo, the host of the 2014 Academy Awards, Elen DeGeneres, got a few people from the front rows to be in a selfie with her. It was stacked with the A-lister “In” crowd – Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Meryl Streep, Kevin Spacey, Julia Roberts, Henry Darger; the list goes on. She immediately tweeted it and it quickly became the most retweeted photo in the history of bird noise.


However, due to the Future Street View in my head, I often get my time zones muddled. That may have happened here. But it is entirely appropriate Dali appears in a cartoon about selfies. A monumental narcissist, he believed in the “prideful exaltation of self’’. Dali has obviously traded in his old lobster phone for a brand new smartphone. Knowing Dali’s love of money (the poet André Breton once coined an anagram of Salvador Dali – “Avida Dollars’’. Avida means greedy) there is no way he would have opted for a pay-as-you-go plan. He would have locked himself into a 2 year contract and got the phone for free. That’s a canny money saving move on his part. He won’t make a single call – he’s been dead for 25 years! So he gets the phone for free and can take as many photos as he likes. Smart.