Futurism was an avant-garde art movement which was launched in Italy, in 1909, although parallel movements arose in Russia, England and elsewhere.
It was one of the first important modern art movements not centered in Paris – one reason why it is not taken seriously in France.
Futurism exalted the dynamism of the modern world, especially its science and technology.
However, most of its major exponents were painters and the movement produced several important 20th-century paintings. It ceased to be an aesthetic force in 1915, shortly after the start of the First World War but lingered in Italy until the 1930s.
Futurism in Italy 1909-1914
The instigator of Futurism and its chief theorist was the Italian writer Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944).
It was he who launched the movement in an article published in the Italian newspaper La Gazzetta dell’Emilia and the French paper Le Figaro, in February 1909.
This general Manifesto was followed in February and April 1910 by two further bulletins: the Manifesto of Futurist Painting and Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting.
As well as Marinetti, they were signed by the painters Carlo Carra (1881-1966), Giacomo Balla (1871-1958) and Gino Severini (1883-1966), the sculptor Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916), and the painter and musician Luigi Russolo (1885-1947).
There was also a Manifesto of Futurist Architecture, written by Antonio Sant’Elia (1886-1916).
The Futurism movement was highly aspirational, though its ideas were neither original nor revolutionary.
In general, 20th-century painters associated with the Futurist movement worshipped scientific progress, glorifying speed, technology, the automobile, the airplane and industrial achievement.
Established traditions were thrust aside in pursuit of victory over nature. When it came to establishing a new Futurist aesthetic, however, a visual idiom with which to express their concerns, Marinetti and the other artists were more hesitant.
To begin with they borrowed the methods of Neo-Impressionism (a general reference to Divisionism), in which forms are broken down into dots and stripes capable of depicting the glitter of light or the blur of high-speed movement – see The City Rises (1910-11, Museum of Modern Art, New York) by Boccioni, and Leaving the Theatre (1910-11) by Carlo Carra.
Both painters were influenced by Italian Divisionism and the paintings of Vittore Grubicy De Dragon (1851-1920).
Following this, Carra and Boccioni visited Severini and Marinetti in Paris (to get a better feel for the avant-garde), where they fell under the influence of analytical Cubism, after which they adopted the methods (fragmented forms, multiple viewpoints, powerful diagonals) of the Cubists – see Dynamic Hieroglyphic of the Bal Tabarin (1912, MoMA NYC) by Gino Severini, as well as his masterpiece Pan-Pan at the Monico (1911-12, original lost, copy in the Pompidou Centre, Paris).
Often, Cubist techniques would be combined with urban and political subject matter, often on a large scale – see Funeral of the Anarchist Galli (1910-11, MoMA NYC) by Carlo Carra.
Although some Futurist works were relatively static, such as Woman with Absinthe (1911) by Carra, and Matter (1912) by Boccioni, the phenomenon of speed is a constant Futurist theme – see Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash (1912, Allbright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, USA) by Giacomo Balla.
However, Balla eventually went over to abstract art, producing work with no obvious reference to the idea being expressed – see his The Car has Passed (1913, Tate, London). For this kind of geometric abstraction see concrete art.
In 1912, Umberto Boccioni, the only sculptor among the Futurists, published his own Manifesto – Futurist Painting Sculpture: Plastic Dynamism (Pittura Scultura Futuriste: Dinamismo plastico), which expounded his Bergson-type ideas on intuition, inner being and the relationship of form, motion, and space.
The following year Boccioni produced his masterpiece Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913, casts in MoMA New York, Tate London and elsewhere).
This work vividly depicts the movement of the body and illustrates his theory of “dynamism“, a theme he also explored in other works like Synthesis of Human Dynamism (1912), Spiral Expansion of Speeding Muscles (1913) and Speeding Muscles (1913).
Futurist art was first exhibited at a show of modern art in Milan (1911). The first purely Futurist show was in early 1912 at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris.
The show then traveled to the highly influential Sturm Gallery Berlin, founded by Herwarth Walden, and afterward to Amsterdam, Zurich, and Vienna, generating widespread publicity for the movement, thanks largely to Marinetti’s promotional flair.
Influence on Contemporary Artists
Italian Futurism had a visible impact on artists across Europe. In France, the ‘machine aesthetic‘ of Leger was closest to Futurism – see, for example, Soldiers Playing at Cards (1917, Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterlo), The Mechanic (1920, National Gallery of Canada), and Three Women (Le Grand Dejeuner) (1921, Museum of Modern Art, New York).
In Russia, Futurism had a strong effect on Rayonism and Constructivism. The movement began in 1912 with the publication of its manifesto A Slap in the Face For Public Taste.
Members included Vladimir and David Burlyuk (1882-1967), Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930), Mikhail Larionov (1881-1964), Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962), Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935) the founder of Suprematism, Velimir Khlebnikov and Alexei Kruchenykh (1886-1968).
The movement endured longer in Russia, becoming closely associated with revolutionary politics, and influenced several other Russian art movements.
By 1914, Italian Futurism was in decline. Personal rifts and artistic disagreements between the Milan group, comprising Marinetti, Balla and Boccioni, and the Florentine group, around Carra, Giovanni Papini (1881-1956) and Ardengo Soffici (1879-1964), led to ructions.
In particular, the Florence group objected to the leadership of Marinetti and Boccioni. Meantime, to the satisfaction of the nationalist Marinetti, war broke out: an event from which Futurism never recovered.
Both Boccioni and Sant’ Elia perished, Carra was wounded and turned to Metaphysical Painting (Pittura Metafisica), while Severini turned to Neoclassicism.
After the war, Balla, based in Rome, led a younger group of Futurists (il secondo Futurismo) including Fortunato Depero (1892-1960) and Enrico Pampolini (1894-1956) whose painting became increasingly abstract.
Marinetti too remained an active participant, though his political activities took center stage, causing Futurism – somewhat unfairly – to be associated with Fascism.
For details of European collections containing works by Italian and French artists belonging to the Futurism movement, see: Art Museums in Europe.
*This article was originally published at www.visual-arts-cork.com.