At Performa: Valentine de Saint-Point, the Feminist Futurist

11/09/2009 1:41 PM |

Valentine de Saint-Point

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

Given this statement in Filippo Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, the 100 year old document that this year’s Performa biennial takes as its inspiration, you wouldn’t think that there were many women involved in the movement. In fact, it would be fair to assume that the Futurists’ headquarters had a “no girls allowed” sign hammered to its door with strict rules of enforcement should one dare to show up. You can imagine my surprise, then, to learn that there were indeed two women involved in the very early days of Futurism. One in particular is the primary inspiration for an exhibition running until November 20 at the Italian Cultural Institute.

The exhibition, Feminine Futures, takes as its primary subject the dancer, thinker, and poet Valentine de Saint-Point (pictured). Saint-Point is not well-known at all, not even by those who study Futurism. RoseLee Goldberg, the founder of Performa, in a short speech at the opening reception for the exhibition, admitted to a long-standing fascination with this little known woman, though she had been unable to find a great deal of information about Saint-Point. Enter Adrien Sina, the French artist, art historian, and curator who provided the materials for the exhibition.

The exhibition comprises Sina’s personal collection of books, photographs, letters, posters, films, manifestos, and other ephemera from Saint-Point as well as other female performers that were influenced by the Futurists. In a direct response to Marinetti’s words, Saint-Point argued in a manifesto of her own that “Humanity is mediocre. The majority of women are neither superior nor inferior to the majority of men. They are all equal. They all merit the same scorn.” She was searching for a radical way forward that dismissed gender roles for either sex and escaped the male fantasies of Futurism. Initially she was caught up in the movement’s fascination with war, but as she quickly defected from the Futurists she also defected from the embrace of violence when she witnessed its effects during World War I. She still retained the Futurist’s abiding desire to reshape civilization completely.

In terms of her art, Saint-Point played a key role in applying the Futurist explosion of form to the world of dance. Her work sought to escape the narrative and formal constraints of ballet and push toward what she termed Metachory, which, taken from Greek, literally means “beyond the dance.” She was the only Futurist to bring her work to New York in the early days of the movement, mounting a new production of her work Festival de la Métachorie: Poême Drames Idéistes at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1917. By claiming dance performance as her medium for expressing a new vision for the world and lust as the driving force for stepping outside herself and embracing the dynamism of life, she took a radical role among radicals. It was likely this difficult-to-assimilate standpoint, aside from her gender, that made it easy for art historians to trim her from their narratives of Futurism. It would have taken them too much time to explain and integrate her complex viewpoint into their categorizations. That said, Sien seems to represent a shift and hopefully his will not be the only scholarship to embrace Saint-Point.

Aside from the chance to learn about this intriguing figure and her work, you’ll also get a chance to see images and film clips of work by other early female dance pioneers from the 20th century such as Loie Fuller, Hedwig Hagemann, Martha Graham, Josephine Baker, and Mata Hari. One of the highlights of the exhibition is the series of short films of work by some of these women, as well as others. These fleeting images, particularly those of Hedwig Hagemann’s work, are a reminder of just how unique and beautiful dance can be, and what a radical departure the avant-garde of the form was. Hagemann’s work, like Saint-Point’s, references classical themes and images of the body, but then repositions them in a contemporary world of forces acting upon the body, between bodies, and within the body. Dancers balanced on their toes in great curving shapes, without touching one another, push and pull each other into new forms and new potentials, evoking the cataclysmic shifts the world was undergoing in the early 20th century, along with the changes that women were experiencing in the society.

The work on display in this exhibition constitutes a rare glimpse into a part of and perspective on history that has received little attention. Along with its importance there is also compelling beauty in the bits that remain from the fleeting performances of these early leaders.

(image credit: Performa)

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