Visions of cities– the multisensory city

Umberto Boccioni's (1911) 'Futurist' painting, The Noise of the Street Penetrates the House attempts to reproduce the multisensory experience of the modern city, with its noise and endless movement, within the frame of a two-dimensional work, with a fracturing of the traditional Renaissance fixed-point perspective. (The way in which this is also a painting about 'a view' somehow reinforces the point that perspectival representation is inadequate for conveying this multisensory experience).

Literature is a medium well capable of conveying this multisensory experience of the city.

See how
Charles Dickens achieves this in this excerpt from Great Expectations (first published 1860-1), Pp 163-4, describing Pip's experience of the City of London:

'When I told the clerk that I would tke a turn in the air while I waited, he advised me to go round the corner and I should come into Smithfield. So, I came into Smithfield; and the shameful place, being all asmear with filth and fat and blood and foam, seemed to stick to me. So, I rubbed it off with all possible speed by turning into a street where I saw the great black dome of Saint Paul's bulging at me from behind a grim stone building which a bystander said was Newgate Prison. Following the wall of the jail, I found the roadway covered with straw to deaden the noise of passing vehicles; and from this, and from the quantity of people standing about, smelling strongly of spirits and beer, I inferred that the trials were on.'

An earlier example, from the Romantic era, is to be found in William Blake's poem 'London' (Songs of innocence and of experience, 1794), which, as in Dickens, includes appeals to the ear and touch as well as the eye, along with an embodied feeling of walking in the City.

I wander through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness,
marks of woe.

In every cry of every man,
In every infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear:

How the chimney-sweeper's cry
Every blackening church appals,
And the hapless soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down palace-walls.

But most, through midnight streets I hear
How the youthful harlot's curse
Blasts the new-born infant's tear,
And blights with plagues
the marriage-hearse.


London Archaeologist and the Windowless Consultant said...

And, what's more, there's a whole genre of literature that does something very much equivalent to what Boccioni does in the fantastic Noise of the Street: for 'hypertexts' like Roubaud's The Great Fire of London or Perec's Life, a User's Manual, for instance, the usual linearity of the novel is exploded in a way exactly parallel to Boccioni's explosion of linear perspective (though with, behind it, a less violent, more nuanced ideology!).

S. Lee said...

Dear Adrian,

I'm writing on behalf of Tengen, a creative writing magazine affiliated with University College London.

I was wondering whether you might be at all interested in submitting this piece to the magazine? I think it would be a very interesting article to feature.

If you would be interested please email me at tengenmagazine@gmail.com. My name is Sing, and I hope to hear from you soon.

Best wishes.

Adrian Holme said...

London Archaeologist
Many thanks for your comment and for the literary recommendations And I agree that Marinetti's Futurist ideology, followed by Boccioni and others, was violent and not very nuanced. The Italian Futurists' Manifestoes - there were many of course - provide a good insight into fascism.
Interestingly Futurism in Russia tended to take a more leftist / communist route, and I think that says something very interesting about the complex relationship between art and ideology...

Sing - many thanks also for your comment.

London Archaeologist and the Windowless Consultant said...

True, what you say about how Futuristic methods aren't necessarily linked to the ideology of the Italian founders. It clearly was a massively liberating movement in terms of expression, and, what's more, it feels like a reaction against much that's potentially oppressive in the rigid space of fixed-point perspective - as Lefebvre would say, a space of state power, a representation of space rather than a space of representation.

Adrian Holme said...

Arising from this post, an article was published in Tengen Magazine in March - see http://issuu.com/tengenmag/docs/tengen_issue_3