Italian Futurism arose as part of the general artistic ferment that characterized the intellectual life of Europe in the period before 1914. In this period of spectacular advance of capitalism when exciting inventions crumbled the old world, Europe and the USA were industrializing rapidly. The idea about the new age of progress in which the machine was a king emerged, allowing for the cult of the modern to arise. At the time, Italy lagged, still representing the past. Frustrated by the country's declining status and believing that the “Machine Age” would result in an entirely new world order, a group of young Italian writers and artists were determined to celebrate industrialization. They sought to capture the idea of modernity through a celebration of technology, power and modern way of life. They did this by demonstrating the beauty of the machine and sensations and aesthetics of speed, movement, violence, industrial development, and change. Yet, Futurism also carried a dangerous strain of politics embedded in the movement that greatly overshadowed its artistic achievements.
The movement was officially launched with the Futurist Manifesto written by the Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. Published for the first time on February 5th, 1909 in La gazzetta dell'Emilia, the manifest has set a fiery tone. Marinetti expressed loathing of everything old and lashed out against cultural tradition, calling for the destruction of museums, libraries, and feminism. The poet was soon joined by painters Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Giacomo Balla, Gino Severini and the composer Luigi Russolo. Seeking to revitalize what they determined to be a static, decaying culture and an impotent nation that looked to the past for its identity, they celebrated originality, speed, youth, violence, technology, science, machines, and the triumph of humanity over nature in general. They disregarded everything that represented the past, as well as harmony and good taste, and dismissed art critics as useless. Beginning as a literal avant-garde that printed a series of manifestos, words-in-freedom poems, novels, and journals, it quickly embraced all the visual and performing arts, architecture, politics, and even advertising. As the founding manifesto did not contain a positive artistic program, they attempted to create one in their subsequent Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting published in 1914. Introducing something called “universal dynamism”, they suggested that objects in reality were not separate from one another or from their surroundings but should be blended in.
It took some time until Italian Futurists developed a distinctive style and subject matter. At first inspired by the color and optical experiments of the late 19th century, the contact with Cubism at the Salon d’Automne in Paris in 1911 completely changed their artistic direction. They adopted Cubist style and methods that offered them a means of analyzing energy in paintings and expressing dynamism. Aiming to represent an object’s sensation, rhythms, and movements in their works, they experimented with the fragmentation of form, the collapsing of time and space, and dizzying perspectives. They advocated the concept of the “total work of art” in which the viewer is surrounded by a completely Futurist environment in order to achieve “a reconstruction of the universe”. Their style evolved from fractured elements in the 1910s to a mechanical language in the ’20s, and then to aerial imagery in the ’30s.
Futurist artists often represented modern urban scenes. One of the most famous works of this kind is Funeral of the Anarchist Galli by Carlo Carrà that depicted a scene of police attack and riots that the artist himself had been involved in 1904. At first one of the leading painters of the movement, Carrà later completely broke with it in favor of artistic style known as Metaphysical Painting he founded with Giorgio de Chirico. Another prominent representative of the movement was Umberto Boccioni who had an important role in developing the movement’s theories. First emerging as a painter, Boccioni later produced significant Futurist sculptures such as Unique Forms of Continuity in Space from 1913. The artist Giacomo Balla was highly inspired by innovative experiments of the late 19th-century scientist and photographer Étienne-Jules Marey as it could be seen in his painting Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash where he playfully rendered the dog's (and dog walker's) feet as continuous movements through space over time. The artist Gino Severini was less attracted to the subject of the machine and frequently chose the form of the dancer to express Futurist theories of dynamism in art. He was also adept to rendering lively urban scenes. The composer Luigi Russolo is famous for his 1913 manifesto The Art Of Noises where he propagated the use of industrial and military noises to conceive a new kind of music. He has built noise machines that replicated the clatter of the industrial age and the boom of warfare, laying foundations for sound art.
As a slap in the face for existing society, its aesthetic norms and values, Futurism proclaimed that rotten foundations on which it stands on should be dynamited in order for the creative spirit of the people to be liberated. What began as an artistic message – the rejection of stagnation and inertia in art – became a clearly political one. This meant that, not just the old art, but all the other manifestations of the old society must be overthrown. Admiring violence and being intensely patriotic, these positions led the Futurists to support Italy’s entrance into World War I. Many of the movement’s members enlisted for the army, such as Umberto Boccioni who was trampled to death after falling from a horse during training. The disappointment of the Italian petty bourgeoisie with the result of the war gave rise to the fascist movement led by Benito Mussolini. As elements of a fascist and imperialist ideology were present in embryonic form in Italian Futurism long before it erupted fully formed onto the stage of politics, this led to an alliance with Il Duce and his National Fascist Party. The movement that had a certain raw energy and even semi-revolutionary overtones before the war, lost all its rebelliousness and placed itself completely at the service of the fascist and capitalist state. But, fascist art can never be great art. In order to flourish and develop, art needs full freedom that is unreachable while being regimented and censored by the totalitarian state.
Although it was largely an Italian phenomenon, parallel movements emerged in Russia, England, Belgium and elsewhere. In Russia, Futurism took precisely the opposite direction and placed itself at the service of the October Revolution. The reason for this lies in the different objective conditions of Russian and Italian society. Showing great promise and vitality in its initial phase, Italian Futurism completely degenerated under the fascist regime into mere propaganda and extended arm of the corporate state. The collapse of this ideology at the end of the World War II was also the end of Futurism that terminated in a dead end. Despite this complicated relationship between the movement and fascism, Futurists did create some influential artworks that inspired many other 20th-century movements such as Art Deco, Vorticism, Constructivism, Surrealism, Dadaism and much later Neo-Futurism that was a revival of sorts in theater in Chicago. Yet, Italian Futurism as a coherent artistic movement now exists in art history books only.
Editors’ Tip: Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe (Guggenheim Museum, New York: Exhibition Catalogues) by Walter Adamson, Emily Braun and Silvia Barisione
Explore further about the Italian Futurism. This book was published to accompany the exhibition Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 2014. Advancing the scholarship and understanding of this influential yet little-known twentieth- century artistic movement, the publication examines the historical sweep of Futurism from its inception with F.T. Marinetti's manifesto in 1909 through the movement's demise at the end of World War II. Presenting over 300 works created between 1909 and 1944, by numerous creatives, writers, designers and composers, this book encompasses painting, sculpture, architecture, design, ceramics, fashion, film, photography, advertising, free-form poetry, publications, music, theater and performance and features various academic essays discussing Italian Futurism's diverse themes and incarnations.
Featured images: Carlo Carrà - Il cavaliere rosso (1913), via pinterest.com; Umberto Boccioni - The Charge of the Lancers, 1915, via pinterest.com; Giacomo Balla - Landscape, 1913. All images used for illustrative purposes only.