Futurism Art Essay

November 16, 2015

Bob Lansroth

Bob Lansroth loves to explore the boundless diversity of artists and the various ways in which they strive to escape the quotidian life. It is through the creative force within us that we must attempt to connect with one another and share our ideas with the world. Writing for Widewalls, Bob Lansroth makes an effort to bring the world of art to as many people as possible. “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”

As it often occurs in the ever-changing world of art, through rejection and destruction of older forms of culture; new concepts, perspectives, ideals and ideas are born. Futurismartmovement was a 20th-century product of the need for breaking off with the traditional styles and the insatiable desire for modernity. It was a celebration of technology, power and modern life and an attempt to demonstrate the beauty of the machine, speed, violence and change. Aside from the artistic perspectives, Futurism also carried a strain of politics embedded within the movement, in fact, it was one of the most politicized art forms of the twentieth century. Even though the movement did create some architecture, most of its artist worked in traditional media such as painting, sculpture graphic design, interior design, film, theater, music, ceramics or industrial design, and their eclectic style was much inspired by Post-Impressionism.

Another unique aspect of this radical movement is that it wasn’t immediately identified with a distinctive style, its adherents worked in an eclectic manner, displaying influences from various aspects of Post-Impressionism, Symbolism and Divisionism. It was Marinetti’smanifesto from 1909 which announced Futurism and its goal of discarding the art of the past and celebrating change, originality, and innovation in society. Alas, the over-empowered enthusiasm for modernity and the machine ultimately led to the celebration of the arrival of the First World War and welcomed Fascism. The entire movement in art began attaining a different context as its founder, Marinetti, collaborated with Mussolini. A direct relationship between politics and art, such as this one, could never last long. Even though some ideologies may share similarities, in their basic principles they are two completely different spheres of life that should remain apart. The example of Futurism is a lesson on how art and politics can become inextricably linked, and how this arose from a social and class basis. So, let’s examine how Futurism started, developed and dissipated, and what were the key ideas which lit the flames that burned a bit too bright and too close to the violence of war.

Art and Politics Usually aren’t a Good Mix

Manifesto of the Futurist Art Movement and the Origins

The front page of the French newspaper Le Figaro published the “Futurist manifesto” in 1909 by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. With its launch, Futurism came to life. Marinetti was previously a member of Abbaye de Cretail, the community that was founded by several artists  in order to publish works, but it was closed down by its members early in 1908. Marinetti’s manifesto set a rather fiery tone where he openly attacked cultural tradition and lashed out against the pre-conceived notions of art. He even called for the destruction of museums, libraries and feminism. Sick of Italy’s reliance on its classical heritage, the Futurists proclaimed their burning desire for the abandonment of the past and embracing of the future. Countless manifestos, leaflets, art and poetry periodicals were published in the period between 1909 – 1944. Their provocative agenda was spread throughout the cities globally in the attempt to awaken the new aesthetics of modern life. It is through this entrepreneurial method that the Futurists influenced people with the mass promotion of their ideas. In addition to the manifestos, the followers often self-published books and ran art and literary journals, magazines and newspapers. Their goal was to conquer the international stage and approach people through poetry, politics, language, entertainment and art. The movement initially centered in Milan, but it spread quickly to Turin and Naples. Soon, what started as a calling for the Italians to break through the paralyzing obsession with the glories of the past, quickly progressed into an international endeavor.

Style and Development

This founding manifesto didn’t contain a positive artistic programme, which was later attempted to be made in the subsequent Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting. They committed themselves to ‘universal dynamism’, which meant that objects in reality were not separate from one another or from their environment. Some of the Futurist artists were so fervent about the ideology that one of the painters actually named her daughter Propeller. Their obsession with the technology of the modern age was becoming evident everywhere. Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo, Gino Severini, and Giacomo Balla were the painters who first signed their first manifesto in 1910. But, it was only until the next year that Marinetti and the Futurist painters would visit the Salon d’Automne in Paris and witness Cubism in person for the first time. This experience left an immediate impact which can be seen in Boccioni’s Materia from 1912 for instance, but the Futurists claimed their work to be completely original. 19th-century scientist and photographer, Étienne-Jules Marey, is considered as one of the precursors to the cinema. His innovative experiments with time-lapse photography studied the mechanics of animal and human movement. Fascinated by this idea of the “dynamic”, the Futurists aimed to represent the rhythms and motion of an object in their images, poems and manifestos. They glorified the idea of combining the human with the machine, with many of their works depicting an amalgamation of the two concepts. Dynamism seemed to be a recurring concept at the early developments of the movement, but later on, in 1913, the unified nature of it started to fall apart. Members of the movement began developing their own personal positions, and as the war came along, the center of happenings shifter from Milan to Rome, and even though the movement remained active in the 1920’s, the initial energy had dissipated.

Futurism and Fascism

The ideal embodiment of Futurism was critically related to the larger social and political crisis in Italy. Both before and during the war, Futurism played a significant role in the dissemination and support of the central values and ideology from which proto-fascist sentiments were constructed. The brilliant agitational propaganda and the crowd-stirring spectacle of Futurists were almost a model for the Fascists. Mussolini adopted many ideas and influences of Marinetti’s innovations in his performances and public speeches. Nationalism, militarism, irrational violence and a general aestheticization of violence appeared in both Futurists’ and Fascists’ propaganda. The literary genre and narrative form of a manifesto has been used before by the artists, but the members of Futurism used it as a political weapon, thus establishing its precedence among the subsequent Avant-movements. The founder, F.T. Marinetti was a political figure from the start. Before the end of the war, Marinetti founded the Futurist Political Party, putting the entire movement at the forefront of the support for Mussolini and the idea of a unified Italy.

Aftermath of a Vision of the Future

The direct links between Futurism and Fascism remain a huge embarrassment for Italians. Viewed by some as the source of national pride, Futurism represented a brief moment when, once again, Italy was at the forefront of art and culture globally. Critics and historians often use this connection with Fascism to depreciate modernism in general. The obvious influence of Cubism is also another variation of the criticism, claiming that the entire movement was nothing more than a crude provincial version of other forms. Ultimately, Futurism was a major force in the art world and a bona fide social movement. Its followers called for the anarchy but found themselves often aligned with Mussolini’s Fascists. As the movement’s founder, Marinetti, gathered zealous adherents, the whole ideology was very similar to the propaganda of the far right-winged parties, which would prove to be fatal for the arts movement in the future. Nevertheless, Futurists created artwork which was incredibly influential up until Marinetti’s death in 1944, the later movements like Art Deco , Vorticism, Constructivism, Surrealism, Dadaism and much later Neo-Futurism were heavily inspired by the works of the Futurists. Their ideals and emphasis on youth, speed and technology remained as significant components of Western culture. Marinetti’s thoughts are still existent in Japanese culture and their mangas and anime. A relatively new literary genre called cyberpunk, treating technology with a critical eye, is often connected with the ideas of Futurists. In 1988, there was a revival of sorts in theater in Chicago labeled Neo-Futurism, utilizing focus on speed and brevity in order to create new forms of theater. Still, as an organized artistic movement, Futurism is regarded extinct ever since the death of its leader Marinetti.

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 Futurism movement. 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 artists, 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.

All images used for illustrative purposes.Featured images: Left: Mostra della Rivoluzione Fascista / Right: Umberto Boccioni – Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913 ; Fortunato Depero, Skyscrapers and Tunnels (Gratticieli e tunnel), 1930 ; Gino Severini – Dynamic Hieroglyphic of the Bal Tabarin, 1912 ; Giulio D’Anna – artwork ; Futurists Luigi Russolo, Carlo Carrà, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Umberto Boccioni and Gino Severini in front of Le Figaro, Paris, February 9, 1912

This article is based around a transcript of a segment from The Anthill 10: The Future, a podcast from The Conversation. Gemma Ware, society editor at The Conversation and a producer of The Anthill, interviewed Selena Daly, an expert on the Italian Futurists.

When the Italian journalist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti went off to the frontlines of World War I, he was thrilled to be pedalling there on a bicycle. Back in 1915, bikes were an avant-garde mode of transport – and Marinetti was an avant-garde kind of guy. He’d made waves across Europe a few years earlier when he launched the Futurist Manifesto.

Selena Daly: Marinetti, who was a master at advertising and self-promotion, got the first manifesto published on the front page of the Paris daily newspaper Le Figaro in February of 1909. This really was a very bold launch of an artistic and cultural movement at this time and got a lot of attention also around the world.

Selena Daly is a lecturer in Italian studies at University College Dublin and an expert in the Italian Futurists. Marinetti’s vision of the future was built around high praise for technology and the aesthetics of modernity.

SD: So he praised in this manifesto the speeding automobile, steamships, locomotives. All of these technologies that perhaps to our eyes now may seem a little bit quaint but at that time were really at the cutting edge of technology. So very famously, Marinetti in that manifesto praised the speeding automobile as being more beautiful than the famous Greek sculpture the Winged Victory of Samothrace which stands in the Louvre then and still today.

An extract from The Anthill episode on The Future. The Anthill, CC BY-ND8.05 MB(download)

It was a movement that began with literature and poetry and spread to sculpture, fine art, music and even textiles. For example, this 1921 piece called Fox-trot Futurist by an Italian composer, Virgilio Mortari, was influenced by the Futurists. Marinetti’s vision was as destructive and provocative as it was creative and forward-thinking.

SD: He felt that Italy as a country was completely weighed down by the baggage of the Renaissance and the baggage of ancient Rome and its classical past. And he really wanted Italy to just stop looking backwards always and instead look to what the future could offer them in terms of inspiration for art and literature. And in that first manifesto he says he wants to rejuvenate Italy which he found very stagnant and therefore he said that everyone should set fire to the libraries, flood the museums and in this way break all links with the past.

With World War I in the offing, Marinetti and his band of followers quickly agitated for Italy to join the fight. They felt that war would help bring their Futuristic vision into being.

SD: One of the most famous slogans that Marinetti coined was in that very first manifesto where he said that he praised war as the “sole hygiene of the world”. The idea there should be a purging war which would rid Italy and Europe of all of its obsession with the past and they could move forward to a brighter future.

It took nine months for Italy’s leaders to agree to join the war – during which time the Futurists campaigned vigorously for intervention. When Italy did enter the war on the side of the Allies in May 1915, Marinetti and his group of fellow Futurists signed up as soon as they could.

SD: They were terribly excited by the bombardments. They found this to be an inspiration also for their art and in very many ways putting into practice what they had preached and what they had thought about and imagined in advance of World War I.

When the war ended in 1918, the Futurists went through an intense period of political engagement, forming the Futurist Political Party – and forming a close alliance with Benito Mussolini and his Fascist movement. The Futurist party wanted to make Italy great again. They wanted a country that was no longer in “servitude to its past” where the only religion was the “religion of tomorrow”. Their manifesto promised revolutionary nationalism, and included ideas such as totally abolishing the senate and the gradual dissolution of the institution of marriage.

SD: But in the end of 1919 there were Italian elections and the Futurists and the Fascists performed disastrously. So they received less than 2% of the vote in Milan and it’s at that point that Marinetti actually decides that parliamentary politics isn’t for him and he withdraws. He disbands the Futurist political party and he withdraws completely from parliamentary politics because he feels disillusioned and he feels that the message that he has isn’t getting through.

Post-1920, Futurism no longer goes down the parliamentary politics route but it was, after 1924, very closely aligned with Mussolini’s Fascist movement. So while they may not have been engaged in parliamentary parties they were very much on the side of the Fascist regime and that didn’t change at all during Marinetti’s lifetime.

Marinetti’s association with Fascism has tainted the Futurists’ legacy ever since.

SD: Obviously some Futurists distanced themselves from the movement because of this alignment with Fascism. But others didn’t. It’s interesting – a lot of the art in the 1930s and some of the 1940s is what can be described as Fascist pro-regime art. There are a lot of portraits of Mussolini done in a Futurist style for example. And the Futurists, while they were never the official state art of Fascism – because Mussolini never wanted to proclaim one art to be the state art of Fascism – the Futurists were still featured at official events and did have this very strong alignment with Musssoini’s regime at that time.

Marinetti’s allegiance to Mussolini went right up to his death in 1944 in Bellagio in the north of Italy, near to the puppet regime run by Mussolini towards the end of World War II.

SD: Because there was such a cult of personality also around Marinetti – and he was really the focal point of the entire movement – it did rather peter out at that stage after his death and then at the end of the war as well. So there were surviving Futurists who did try in the 1940s and 1950s to keep Futurism alive and there was an interest in Futurism most definitely, but it was tainted by Fascism and there was a reluctance in many circles to really address the Futurist art and Futurist literature on its merits because of the shadow of Fascism that was hanging over it.

Italy’s relationship with Futurism is still complicated, but some Futurist images have remained iconic.

SD: There is a sculpture of Boccioni, one of the most famous Futurist artists, actually featured on the Italian Euro 20 cents coin, just to give an indication of how important the Futurist aesthetic is to a vision of modern Italy today. Boccioni, died actually in 1916. He died under arms, he actually fell off his horse in training so he didn’t have the glory of a battlefield death that he may have wished for because he was also very belligerent.

But he was never tainted by Fascism because he died before Fascism actually came into being. So therefore it’s much easier to place a Boccioni sculpture on a Euro coin in Italy because he doesn’t really have those other connotations and other associations with Fascism.

And the Futurists did help shape the way others in the 20th century went on to imagine what the future could look like.

SD: The Futurist aesthetic had a very profound influence on the language of advertising for example in the 20th century. For example, BMW recently said that they were very much influenced by the Futurist aesthetic in the design of one of their cars. There are fashion houses that are still using Futurist prints and Futurist textiles to inspire their collections. There is still an affinity for the Futurist aesthetic even today.

So while Marinetti’s technological, streamlined vision of the future may have been born out of a specific political moment, it has continued to resonate. Even the generic use of the word Futurist today remains strongly connected to Marinetti’s vision from 1909.

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