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Futurism | Meaning | Definition | 


In several respects Futurism was unique among modern art movements. It was Italian. It originated in a view of civilization and found expression first in words; rather than springing from some dissatisfaction with inherited idioms of art and from an ambition to create a new idiom, it started with a general idea and found artistic expression only with difficulty. 

In some ways it was the most radical, noisily rejecting all traditions and time-honored values and institutions

It propagated its ideas very rapidly throughout Europe, from London to Moscow, and it was short-lived — a meteoric episode, the lasting importance of which has usually been underrated. 

It chose its own name — unlike movements like Fauvism and Cubism which were so dubbed by antagonistic critics— and went to great lengths to provide its own rationale in literary form: the modern tradition of artists‘ manifestos stems primarily from here. 

The poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876—1944) invented the movement

In the autumn of 1908 he wrote a manifesto which appeared first as preface to a volume of his poems, published in Milan in January 1909. 

It was, however, its appearance in French on page one of Le Figaro on 20 February the same year that gave it the sort of impact he was after and that is usually taken as the birthdate of Futurism

Marinetti had hesitated between Dynamism, Electricity, and Futurism as the name of his movement. 

The alternatives suggest where his interests lay. More conscious than most writers and artists of the burgeoning world of technological power, he wanted the arts to demolish the past and celebrate the delights of speed and mechanical energy: ‘We declare’, he wrote in his manifesto,

that the splendor of the world has been increased by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car, its body ornamented by great pipes. a screaming automobile that resembles snakes with explosive breath .. that seems to run on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Winged Victory of Samothrace [the famous Hellenistic sculpture in the Louvre] Beauty now exists only in struggle. A work that is not aggressive in character cannot be a masterpiece … We want to glorify war the world’s only hygiene — militarism, patriotism, the destructive act of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas for which one dies, and contempt for women. We want to destroy museums, libraries, and academies of all kinds, and to make war on moralism, feminism and on every opportunistic and utilitarian vileness. We shall sing the great crowds excited by work, pleasure or rioting, the multicolored, many-voiced tides of revolution in modern capitals. We shall sing the nocturnal, vibrating incandescence of arsenals and shipyards, ablaze with violent electric moons, the voracious stations devouring their smoking serpents … the broad-breasted locomotives that paw the grounds of their rails like enormous horses of steel harnessed with tubes, and the smooth flight of the airplanes, their propellers flapping in the wind like flags and seem- ing to clap approval like an enthusiastic crowd. We launch from Italy into the world this our manifesto of overwhelming and incendiary violence, with which today we found Futurism because we want to liberate this land from the fetid cancer of professors, archaeologists, guides and antiquarians.

There is more in the same vein. Marinetti’s vehemence is commensurate with his impatience at Italy’s uncompleted national development, at the vast burden of grandiose tradition which pressed on Italian culture more inhibitingly than in any other country — Italy had contributed next to nothing to nineteenth-century developments — and also perhaps at the confusion in his own mind and in the minds of his friends that came from a rather sudden confrontation with a variety of contradictory trends in modern literature, and art. 

The first decade of the century had seen Italy made aware, through new magazines and through exhibitions, of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism of various sorts including early works of Matisse and Picasso, Symbolism, varieties of Art Nouveau, and so on. 

One way to overcome the confusion was to cut through it by proposing a new view of the world that would supersede them all. 

Much the same sentiments were expressed in much the same words in a manifesto addressed ‘to the young artists of Italy’. 

This was composed directly under Marinetti’s supervision by three painters: Umberto Boccioni (1882—1916), Luigi Russolo (1885—1947) and Carlo Carra (1881—1966). 

Dated II February 1910 though written in the last days of February, and made public for the first time by Boccioni’s declaiming of it from the stage of the Teatro Chiarella in Turin on S March, the Manifesto of Futurist Painters firmly demanded a new art for a new world and denounced every attachment to the arts of the past. 

What character this new art should have become clearer in another manifesto, Boccioni’s Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting, published as a leaflet early in April : 

Everything moves, everything runs, everything turns rapidly. A figure is never stationary before us but appears and disappears incessantly. Through the persistence of images on the retina, things in movement multiply and are distorted, succeeding each other like vibrations in the space through which they pass. Thus a galloping horse has not got four legs: it has twenty and their motion is triangular … At times, on the cheek of a person we are speaking to in the street, we see a horse passing in the distance. Our bodies enter into the sofas on which we sit, and the sofas enter into us, as also the tram that runs between the houses enters into them, and they, in turn, hurl themselves on to it and fuse with it. We want to re-enter life. That the science of today should deny its past corresponds to the material needs of our time. In the same way, art, denying its past must correspond to the intellectual needs of our time. 

Boccioni gave little in the way of specific instructions as to how this multiplicity of sensations was to be incorporated in a picture, but he did stress as an essential basis the system of color divisionism developed a quarter of a century earlier by the Neo-impressionists

It was to take some time for the futurist painters, early on augmented by Giacomo Balla (1871—1958) and Gino Severini (1883—1965), to find the pictorial vehicle for their ideas. 

When Boccioni showed forty-two works in Venice in July they were quite well received by the critics, not striking anyone as particularly revolutionary; indeed, one commentator noted the wide gap between Boccioni’s bold words and his temperate pictures. 

At this point the Futurists’ knowledge of avant-garde artnorth of the Alps was negligible. 

For lack of more adventurous forerunners they admired the pictures of Segantini and Previati, and they stirred their imaginations through reading Nietzsche and Bakunin. 

Their paintings of this time prove their interest in urban and preferably violent subject matter, and there were some interesting experiments (particularly by Boccioni, Carri and Russolo) at painting electric light, but their methods were entirely those of the 1890s. 

Meanwhile Marinetti and they, together a growing variety of other adherents to the basic futurist beliefs such as the musician Pratella, effectively propagated their theories through publications and personal appearances. 

In a lecture of 1911, Boccioni formulated the painters’ concept in these words: ‘We want to represent not the optical or analytical impression but the psychical and total experience,’ undoubtedly the most clearsighted definition of, at least, his own intentions, stressing his divergence from the essentially visual concerns of so many modern developments. 

He went on to speak of the possibility of temporary forms of painting, such as might be executed with searchlights and colored gas. 

The first major showing of futurist paintings took place in Milan, opening on 30 April 1911. 

Boccioni, Russolo and Carra sent fifty works to an open exhibition (that included also a show of child art). 

It was still the subject matter rather than the idiom of their work that was new. 

Subjects like A Brawl in the Milan Galleria (Boccioni), A Moving Train (Russolo) and The Funeral of an Anarchist (Carra) are emphatically futurist, but they were presented in more or less traditional ways. 

Ardengo Sofiici’s cutting criticism of their pictures, published in the Florence magazine La Voce was characteristically dealt with by violence: Marinetti, Carra, and Boccioni descended on Florence and attacked Soffici as he sat outside a cafe. 

After the police had delivered the Milanese raiders to the railway station the next morning, the editorial staff of La Voce appeared on the platform to expedite their departure and the police had again to intervene in the ensuing battle. 

The outcome, surprisingly, was friendship between Soffci and most of his colleagues and the Futurists, but this in itself did not give greater substance to futurist art

Severini, who had for some time been working in Paris, at this point arrived in Milan and insisted that it was essential for Boccioni and the others to familiarize themselves with recent developments. 

Marinetti was persuaded to finance the trip and so Boccioni, Russolo and Carra followed Severini to Paris for a fort- night’s visit. 

Severini introduced them to Picasso, Braque, and others, and showed them some of the galleries. 

The three visitors were deeply impressed by what they saw, especially Boccioni who’ now a warm friend of Severini, stayed on for a few days after his friends had left. 

Back in Milan they all worked feverishly, bravely re-orientating their efforts in accord with what they had learned, especially about Cubism which at that time was almost totally unknown outside Paris. 

They now pinned less faith on the power of new subject matter and strove to complement their color divisionism with formal fragmentation of a cubistsort. 

They painted new pictures and repainted old ones, and with astonishing speed and foolhardiness, they assembled an exhibition to appear in Paris itself. 

It opened in the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune on 5 February 1912. Subsequently, it traveled around Europe. 

In March it was at the Sackville Gallery in London; in April and May it showed at the Der Sturm gallery in Berlin, where a banker bought twenty-four pictures out of the thirty- five shown. 

The exhibition went on to Brussels (May—June), and the banker’s futurist collection was subsequently seen in Hamburg, Amsterdam, The Hague, Munich, Vienna, Budapest, Frankfurt, Breslau, Zurich, and Dresden. 

These tours, backed as they were by publications and lectures, were to amount to the most emphatic act of proselytism modern art has witnessed. 

It was further extended in 1913—14. The banker’s collection was shown in Chicago; Marinetti lectured with great success in Moscow, and there were several futurist demonstrations and appearances of various kinds in Italy and elsewhere. 

As a result, Futurism found disciples and effective supporters in other countries and its basic ideas were applied to an ever-increasing range of concerns. 

A Frenchwoman. Valentine de Saint-Point, in spite of Marinetti’s original dismissal of women in general, joined the movement, wrote a Manifesto of Futurist Women Instead of putting men under the yoke of miserable, sentimental needs, drive your sons, your men, to excel themselves. You create them. 

You can do everything with them. You owe humanity heroes. Provide them! ‘), and followed it up with a Manifesto of Pleasure. 

Others wrote new statements of futurist views on politics, literature, music, but more important than these from the point of view of art was the support the movement got from the leading avant-garde critic and poet, active in the chief citadel of modern art: in June 1913 Apollinaire wrote his essay The Futurist Anti-Tradition, published in the magazine Lacerba, Florence, the following September. 

It set out very graphically the hates and loves of Futurism and the means whereby the cultural the world might be renewed, and ended by wishing merde on the heads of almost everybody, from critics to Siamese twins via Dante and Bayreuth, and by blessing u list of people that joined such artists as Picasso, Delaunay, Kandinsky and Matisse to the Futurists themselves.

What was Futurism offering to the world? Its basic views, amounting to an insistence that the growth of technology and concurrent developments in society and thought required expression in new, bold, art forms, were not unique but had never been presented so vehemently. 

Moreover, there was an art movement that put the idea before style, thus challenging not only traditional artistic values but also the aesthetic ambitions of most avant-garde art

Futurist paintings tested and proved the possibility of using art as a means of capturing non-visual as well as visual aspects of an environment recognized as dynamic rather than static. 

They also, by showing bright color joined to cubist broken forms, encouraged the lesser Cubists of Paris to move away from the more or less monochromaticidiom of Picasso and Braque, and may also have pushed these two into the less limited, more outgoing manner of Synthetic Cubism

Sometimes their compositions offered viable alternatives to the centralized arrangements of the Cubists, and there are a few futurist works that, in describing specific movement, turn the picture area into a section only of what must seem a continuous motion: the action passes through the painting and has no center. 

But it is dangerous to generalize too much about the productions of the Futurists: they varied in their interests as in their abilities. 

Balla’s work, for instance, tends more readily to abstraction. 

Although he was the painter of the famous Dog on a Leash (1912; Goodyear Collection, New York), the closest Futurism ever came to imitating the photographic studies of movement done by Muy- bridge, and others in the last decades of the nineteenth century, a great proportion of his work is devoted to finding more or less intuitive evaluations of movement through abstract patterns. 

In a series of paintings entitled Iridescent Interpenetrations (about 1913— 14) he even turned from the movement of things to the optical mobility or instability of contrasting tones and colors, an isolated forerunner of the Op Art of the 1960s. 

Carra remained closest to Cubism, Analytic and Synthetic, until, during the war, he moved to a poetic sort of realism, subsequently attaching himself to the giants of the early Renaissance

Severini also, more involved in Paris than the others, was deeply attached to Cubism but for a while combined cubist planes with divisionist color notation for pictures that look abstract but have explanatory titles such as Ballerina -I- Sea. 

Several of Russolo’s paintings explore what we have learned to call shock-waves as symbols of movement and energy, but his contribution to history was less as a painter than as a revolutionary composer. 

He aimed at creating a music fit for an age of mechanical power by inventing various noise machines and composing pieces for them with such titles as The Awakening City and The Meeting of Aeroplanes and Motorcars. 

Concerts of this music were given in Italy, provoking the predictable fury of critics and audiences, and in June 1914 the first noise music concert outside Italy took place at the Coliseum in London.

Boccioni was undoubtedly the most gifted artist amongst them, and also the most inventive. 

His paintings vary a great deal. At times, in pictures like the night scene Forces of a Street (1911—12; Hangi Collection, Basle), he seems to give perfect expression to the basic themes of Futurism: metropolis, light, energy, mechanical movement and noise, urban pleasure-seeking, all fused into one visual experience. 

He also researched into more limited themes, such as the interpenetration of single, stationary figures and their environments. 

In his great triptych entitled States of Mind (No. 1: The Farewells; No. 2: Those who go; No. 3: Those who stay. 

1911—12) he fused the futurist interest in trains, crowds, movement, and multiple sensations into a poetic work of remarkable epic power.

Even more impressive, however, is Boccioni’s triumphant venture into sculpture. In March 1912 he again visited Severini in Paris. 

This time he was thinking about sculpture. He met Archipenko, Brancusi, Duchamp-Villon and others, and soon after he wrote his Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture, backdating it to II April 1912. 

Revolted by the jungle of bronze and stone statues and monuments which sculpture seemed to be stifling itself, and also by the Greco-Michelangelesque tradition behind it, he demanded total renewal :


Thus a figure may have one arm clothed and the other naked, and the varying lines of a vase of flowers may chase each other freely between the lines of a hat and of a neck. 

Thus can the transparent planes of glass, of sheet metal, wires, electric outside, and inside lighting indicate the planes, the directions, the tones and the halftones of a new reality.

To this end all sorts of materials should be brought into sculpture: ‘We list only a few: glass, wood, cardboard, iron, cement, horsehair, leather, cloth, mirror, electric light, etc.’ He mentions the possibility of built-in motors to give sculptures actual movement.

His sculptures were almost as revolutionary as his words. Already in June/July 1913, he held an exhibition of sculpture at the Galerie La Boetie in Paris. 

He used the occasion to develop his manifesto in a catalog introduction and to give a lecture (in bad French). 

Several pieces have been lost and are known only through photographs. 

Some of them use much the same kind of interpenetration of dissimilar objects (head, window, frame, light) that we find in futurist painting. 

Others, like Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913; really a statue of a man striding forward, and not at all unlike Marinetti’s maligned Winged Victory of Samothrace), and development of a Bottle in Space (1912), show a more essentially sculptural attempt to open form out in order to reveal the energies implied in its structure and to fuse it with the surrounding space. 

The most impressive work is the Horse + Rider + House in wood and cardboard (1914), a colored sculpture of abstract appearance whose open, spatial forms belong to the world of Constructivism. 

One other extension of futurist creativity remains to be recorded. In 1914, in the person of Antonio Sant’Elia (1888—1916), architecture entered the futurist sphere. 

A Manifesto of Futurist Architecture, dated II July 1914, presented his ideas, which were also more graphically expressed in a large number of imaginative drawings, some of which were exhibited under the title The New City. 

With a vision that suggests science fiction — which is not to say that, it, wag unpractical or impracticable — Sant,’Elia proposed a new kind of metropolis, designed without backward glances to historical Btyles but in accord with the new materials and structural inventions of engineering to meet new concentrations of population in an age of rapid transport. 

His drawings suggest a sense of form owing much to the influence of Art Nouveau and this is supported by his rejection (in the Manifesto) of perpendicular and horizontal lines, static bulky forms, and his demand for an architecture of ‘reinforced concrete, iron, glass, textiles and all those substitutes for wood, brick and stone that permits the greatest elasticity and lightness’. 

The 1914—18 war spelt the end of Futurism. The ‘world’s only hygiene’ removed Sant’Elia and Boccioni in 1916. 

The remaining futurist artists moved into more traditional styles and attitudes. 

Marinetti fulfilled his political ideals by helping Fascism to take power in Italy. 

Some younger adherents of the movement, such as Prampolini, were able to carry aspects of Futurism into the 1930s but various attempts to refurbish Futurism after 1918 had little impact. 

Yet its influence was of fundamental and long importance. Because Futurism was deeply involved in Cubism, its conquests were conquests also for Cubism. 

Without the Italians’ activity, Cubism could never have played so big a role in modern art. 

More specific echoes of Futurism can be found in a variety of artists and movements: 

Vorticism in London (in 1914 Marinetti and the English Vorticist C. R. W.
Nevinson collaborated on a manifesto, Vital English Art), some forms of Expressionism in Germany, avant-garde painting and typography in Moscow around 1913—15, the architecture of the twenties in Holland, Germany, and France. 

Russia may be claimed a.s futurism’s greatest immediate debtor. Mayakovsky’s literary Futurism owed much to Marinetti’s, even if their political views were largely opposite, and the revolutionary art of Russia, especially the architecture, in several respects, is the fulfillment of what the Milanese men had attempted.

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