Ivo Pannaggi, Speeding Train (Treno in corsa), 1922
Painting, sculpture, architecture, design, ceramics, fashion, film, photography, advertising, free-form poetry, publications, music, theater and performance—Italian Futurism encompassed all of these and more in the years before World War I, as one of early modern art’s most dynamic, controversial and unpredictable movements. Unlike their Cubist contemporaries in Paris—who, despite the atomizing effects of their revolutionary style, tended toward classic genres like still life—Futurism’s artists wanted to capture movement through time and space. It was all of a piece with their desire to represent the 20th century’s cultural ferment and breakneck industrialization. The Futurists, whose politics at the start ranged from socialism to anarchism, celebrated the speed made possible by the locomotive, the automobile and the airplane, and they gloried in the rebellious fervor of mobs, making images of strikers or demonstrators a favorite subject. They also extolled violence as a means of upending the entrenched order, as well as embracing misogyny, militarism and nationalism, eventually associating with the Italian Fascism of the 1920s and ’30s. Yet despite its complicated history, Futurism’s disregard for artistic limitations and aesthetic boundaries, and its exploitation of mass media to publicize its activities, offers lessons for today.
Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876–1944)
Futurism was born as the vision of a single man, the poet and provocateur Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876–1944). Based in Milan, he was already something of a celebrity within local literary circles when, in 1908, he ran his automobile into a ditch, flipping it over as he swerved to avoid some cyclists. He and a passenger were rescued from the wreckage, and while Marinetti suffered no injuries, he regarded the accident as a life-changing moment. Shortly thereafter, he set about writing The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism (a.k.a the Futrist Manifesto), which was published February 20, 1909, on the front page of Le Figaro, France’s leading newspaper. In it, he called for the destruction of “museums, the libraries, every type of academy” and declared, “We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for women.”
Front page of Le Figaro, February 20, 1909
In 1910, after several attempts to set the precepts of Futurism in motion on his own, Marinetti became acquainted with three young painters: Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà and Luigi Russolo. Together, the group drafted another manifesto, this one addressed to Italy’s artists. They sent a copy of the document to two other painters living outside of Milan—Giacomo Balla, who was in Rome, and Gino Severini, who lived in Paris. Both signed the letter, thus cementing the fate of Futurism as a visual arts movement. Writing, however, remained crucial, as over the next year Marinetti attracted additional adherents to Futurism, and staged various provocative events meant to attract attention (and often resulting in fights). Really acts of proto–performance art, they frequently involved readings of the Futurist Manifesto. One notable escapade featured Marinetti and some his followers showering Venice’s piazza San Marco with leaflets tossed from its famed bell tower. The pamphlets condemned the city as “a market for counterfeiting antiquarians,” and urged its citizens to fill in the canals and build factories in their place.
Giacomo Balla, The Hand of the Violinist (The Rhythms of the Bow), 1912
Though Giacomo Balla (1871–1958) joined the Futurists in 1910, he didn’t exhibit with the group until three years later. Born in Turin, he studied music as a child, turning to painting in his twenties. He was largely self-taught, and initially adopted the stippled brushwork associated with Divisionism, an Italian variant of Postimpressionism. His 1912 painting, The Hand of the Violinist, is notable for how it harkens back to his musical childhood, while its multiple-exposure view of the subject exemplifies the Futurist determination to capture the sensation of motion. However, the way the image is rendered—as dashed-off lines and marks—is still indebted to Impressionist painting, making it appear anachronistic. This was the case with some of the other initial efforts by Futurists, such as Umberto Boccioni. It would take a trip to Paris, and exposure to the work of Picasso and Braque, for the group to find a style that was as cutting edge as its content.
Umberto Boccioni, Elasticity (Elasticità), 1912
At the behest of Gino Severini, the Futurist painters traveled to Paris in the fall of 1911, to take in the scene. Among the group was Umberto Boccioni (1882–1916), who had become the main theorist for the artists. Like Balla, his work was deeply indebted to Divisionism. But the impact of seeing examples of Cubism is readily apparent in this canvas. Depicting a man on a horse thundering across an industrial panorama of factories and power lines, the work is a riot of color and forms in motion, very different from the still-life subject matter and brownish palette that were hallmarks of the Analytical Cubism of Picasso and Braque. What either of them thought of the work is unknown, though in person, Picasso found Boccioni to be a tedious bore.
Umberto Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (Forme uniche della continuità nello spazio), 1913 (cast 1949)
Within months of the trip, the Futurists became the sensation of Europe, thanks to the “Exhibition of Futurist Painting,” which opened in Paris on February 5, 1912; the exhibit soon travelled on to London, Berlin and Brussels. Publications large and small carried news of the show across the Continent, and several British newspapers reproduced images of the work. Interestingly, while all the hoopla was focused on painting, the single-most iconic Futurist piece is probably this 1913 sculpture by Boccioni. Trained as a painter, Boccioni may have been inspired to work in three dimensions by seeing the efforts of Constantin Brancusi and Alexander Archipenko in Paris. A little of what Picasso thought of Boccioni is evident in the piece’s overdetermined title, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, but there’s no doubting the power of this striding figure, whose body ripples as if being bombarded by Einstein’s notion of spacetime. The artist created the piece in plaster, but it wasn’t cast in bronze until well after his death.
Like others in his Futurist cohort, Balla adopted a styled derived from Cubism for this almost nonobjective rendering of a car racing through a landscape. The melding of foreground and background has been interpreted as Balla’s attempt to express the auto’s impact on its pastoral environment, and the radiating, faceted shapes and elliptical curves certainly evoke the acoustical effects of engine and wind. Also notable is the way Balla continues the composition onto the frame. Balla completed two similar paintings that same year—Abstract Speed and Abstract Speed-The Car Has Passed—and there’s been some speculation that the three were originally meant as a triptych.
Carlo Carrà, Interventionist Demonstration (Manifestazione Interventista), 1914
The outbreak of World War I seemed like the fulfillment of the Futurists’ devout desire for a civilizational tabula rasa. As one of the anarchists in the group, Carlo Carrà (1881–1966) may have been especially energized by the prospect of war. Carrà created this collage in the days following the Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in Sarajevo in 1914, after he witnessed an airplane dropping leaflets over Milan’s main plaza. At the time, Italy had been bound by treaty to support Austria-Hungary and Germany in the event of war. The country entered the conflict on the opposite side, however, thanks to a secret accord signed with Britain and France, which promised Italy the Austrian-held territory along the eastern Adriatic coast, including the city of Trieste. Like Marinetti, Carrà was a supporter of Italian intervention against Austria, as indicated not only by the piece’s title (Interventionist Demonstration), but also by the words trieste italiano, painted upside down across an Italian flag near the bottom of the composition.
Francesco Cangiullo, Large Crowd in the Piazza del Popolo (Grande folla in Piazza del Popolo), 1914
This gouache and watercolor painting by Francesco Cangiullo (1884–1977) may reflect a more ambivalent view of the war. Also created in 1914, the composition features a multicolored cloud of words related to the actions and attributes of a crowd, including shouts and other sounds, as well as notations of body parts. So along with descriptions like “hair,” we see phrases in Italian for “arrogance” and “flatulent,” suggesting the mindless actions of a herd instead of a patriotic parade. Ironically, given the Futurists’ initial welcome, World War I killed the movement—literally so in the case of Boccioni. Having enlisted in the army, he died in the trenches in 1916.
Tullio Crali, Before the Parachute Opens (Prima che si apra il paracadute), 1939
The war was a disaster for Italy, which suffered hundreds of thousands of causalities and was essentially tricked of out the territories its was supposed to receive under the secret agreement with the British and the French. Italy’s economy was left in shambles, which led to rise of Benito Mussolini and the Fascist Party. Marinetti became an enthusiastic supporter, and even tried to convince Mussolini to make Futurism the official state style, though he was rebuffed. Even so, artists who associated themselves with Futurism propagandized for the Fascist regime in various ways, creating a postwar subgenre called Aeropitture (Air Pictures) in the process. It entailed aerial photography and aviation-themed works, like this painting by Tullio Crali (1910–2000), a self-taught latecomer to Futurism who joined the movement in 1929. An experienced pilot, he possessed a particular affinity for scenes like his vertiginous portrait of a parachutist just after he’s left a plane. Though the painting is full of drama, it is a far cry from the radically stylistic experimentations of Futurism in its heyday. But it also shows how Futurism held a grip on the Italian imagination long after it had actually ceased to have meaning.