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The futurist art movement was founded in 1909 by the Italian poet, journalist, critic, and publisher Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876–1944). It was the first expression of the avant-garde in the fields of art and literature and sought to overturn aesthetic traditions and conventions; to bridge the gap between art and life; and to institute a program of political, intellectual, and moral regeneration. The futurist project of innovation attempted to obliterate the contemplative, intellectual concept of culture and aimed at a total
- We want to sing about the love of danger, about the use of energy and recklessness as common, daily practice.
- Courage, boldness, and rebellion will be essential elements in our poetry.
- Up to now, literature has extolled a contem plative stillness, rapture, and rêverie. We intend to glorify aggressive action, a restive wakefulness, life at the double, the slap, and the punching fist.
- We believe that this wonderful world has been further enriched by a new beauty, the beauty of speed. A racing car, its bonnet decked-out with exhaust pipes like serpents with galvanic breath…a roaring motorcar, which seems to race on like machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Winged Victory of Samothrace.
- We wish to sing the praises of the man behind the steering wheel, whose sleek shaft traverses the Earth, hurtling at breakneck speed, it too, along the race-track of its orbit.
- The poet will have to do all in his power, passionately, flamboyantly, and with generosity of spirit, to increase the delirious fervor of the primordial elements.
- There is no longer any beauty except the struggle. Any work of art that lacks a sense of aggression can never be a masterpiece. Poetry must be thought of as a violent assault upon the forces of the unknown with the intention of making them prostrate them selves at the feet of mankind.
- We stand upon the furthest promontory of the ages!…Why should we be looking back over our shoulders, if what we desire is to smash down the mysterious doors of the Impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We are already living in the realms of the Absolute, for we have already created infinite, omnipresent speed.
- We wish to glorify war—the only cleanser of the world—militarism, patriotism, the destructive act of the libertarian, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for women.
- We wish to destroy museums, libraries, academies of any sort, and fight against moralism, feminism, and every kind of materialistic, self-serving cowardice.
- We shall sing of the great multitudes who are roused up by work, by pleasure or by rebellion; of the many-hued, many-voiced tides of revolution in our modern capitals; of the pulsating, nightly ardor of arsenals and shipyards, ablaze with their violent electric moons; of railway stations, voraciously devouring smoke-belching serpents; of workshops hanging from the clouds by their twisted threads of smoke; of bridges which, like giant gymnasts, bestride the rivers, flashing in the sunlight like gleaming knives; of intrepid steamships that sniff out the horizon; of broad-breasted locomotives, champing on their wheels like enormous steel horses, bridled with pipes; and of the lissom flight of the airplane, whose propeller flutters like a flag in the wind, seeming to applaud, like a crowd excited.
It is from Italy that we hurl at the whole world this utterly violent, inflammatory manifesto of ours, with which today we are founding “Futurism,” because we wish to free our country from the stinking canker of its professors, archaeologists, tour-guides, and antiquarians.
For far too long has Italy been a market-place for junk dealers. We want to free our country from the endless number of museums that everywhere cover her like countless graveyards.
Museums, graveyards! – – – They’re the same thing, really, because of their grim profusion of corpses that no one remembers. Museums. They’re just public doss-houses, where things sleep on forever, alongside other loathsome or nameless things! Museums; ridiculous abattoirs for painters and sculptors, who are furiously stabbing each other to death with colors and lines, all along the walls where they vie for space.
Source: F. T. Marinetti, Critical Writings. Edited by Günter Berghaus; translated by Doug Thomson. New York, 2006.
and permanent revolution in all spheres of human existence. What was later called the “Futurist Refashioning of the Universe” (the title of a manifesto published by Giacomo Balla and Fortunato Depero in 1915) was aimed at a transformation of humankind in all its physiological, psychological, and social aspects.
Many of the ideas synthesized in the Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism (1909) can already be detected in the decade preceding futurism, when Marinetti gained influence on the cultural climate of his country. His studies of law (1895–1899) had provided him with a sound knowledge of modern political theories. He also took a lively interest in the practical politics of his country, particularly those pursued by radical and subversive groups. Therefore, his aesthetic program of renewal was always complemented by political engagement. Marinetti’s literary works and theoretical essays of the years 1900 to 1909 were a testament to his ideological development and prefigure many of the aesthetic concepts expressed in his manifestos of 1909–1914.
Marinetti had grown up in Alexandria, Egypt, and had experienced the great advances of modern civilization during his first visit to Paris in 1894. At the turn of the century, Italy also began to catch up with the economic developments in other major European countries. The agrarian character of the young nation underwent a rapid and profound transformation and gave way to industrial capitalism, especially in the North, where around the turn of the century a modern urban lifestyle began to take shape. Milan, Genoa, and Turin were the first to introduce a modern transport system; streets were illuminated with powerful arc lamps; houses were fitted with sanitary services unknown anywhere else in the peninsula.
However, despite this “Arrival of the Future,” Italy’s cultural identity remained firmly rooted in the past. The great achievements of the Renaissance weighed heavily on the modern generation. Instead of reflecting a country transformed by steam engines, automobiles, airplanes, electricity, and telephones, artists remained in their ivory towers and stood aloof from the experience of the industrial age. Marinetti and a group of bohemian artists and writers who used to congregate at Milan’s Caffè del Centro declared war on the establishment and sought to resuscitate the dormant cultural life of their country, which, in their view, was steeped in traditionalism and ignored the great advances of the modern world.
In 1908 Marinetti attempted to set up a new artistic school, which he intended to name Elettricismo or Dinamismo. As the editor of a successful international poetry magazine, Poesia, he possessed excellent connections in Italy and abroad. With the help of a business friend of his late father he managed to place a foundation manifesto, which he had previously circulated as a broadsheet and issued in several Italian newspapers, on the front page of Le Figaro (20 February 1909). In the following months, this foundation and manifesto of futurism caused a tremendous stir. It rung in a new era in the history of modernist culture and set the tone for the operational tactics adopted by other avant-garde art movements in the early twentieth century.
Marinetti claimed to have received nine thousand five hundred letters of affiliation in response to his foundation manifesto, predominantly from young men between twenty and thirty. Whatever the true figure may have been, the publication certainly generated a lively debate on futurism in France as well as in Italy. Marinetti fuelled this controversy by engineering major theater scandals with productions of his plays, Le Roi Bombance (King Guzzle) and Poupées électriques (Electric dolls), by carrying out a variety of street actions, and by organizing a series of some twenty soirées, which counted among the most controversial theater events in living memory. The futurist serate contained a mixture of poetry readings, declamations of manifestos, presentations of paintings, and music. But their main aim was, as Marinetti said, “to introduce the fist into the artistic battle” and to enable “the violent entry of life into art.” They always ended in a pandemonium of fisticuffs and heated verbal exchanges between stage and auditorium.
In 1909–1914 Marinetti and his followers published no fewer than forty-five manifestos that outlined their artistic concepts and ideas. As to the form and content of these pronouncements, Marinetti developed a specifically futurist “art of writing manifestos” that assimilated the persuasive methods of political propaganda and commercial advertising. The futurist manifestos became an essential ingredient of Marinetti’s publicity machine. They were an effective medium for propagating the politics and aesthetics of his movement; they were cheap and quick to produce; they could reach a wide audience by being distributed as flyers or by being recited from the stage. They were also mailed to journalists, press agents, and the editors of national and international newspapers, thus finding their way into a large number of periodical publications (without incurring the cost of advertising fees).
Preparing, organizing, and, finally, carrying out such a campaign was a task that demanded immense energy and considerable funds. Marinetti possessed both. The first Italian edition of the Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism boasted an editorial caption: “Direzione del movimento futurista: Corso Venezia, 61—Milano,” giving the impression that futurism was a large-scale enterprise directed by a proper board of management. Reality, however, was much more modest: right through the year 1909, the “movimento futurista” was a one-man band, supported by a group of writers (Paolo Buzzi, Enrico Cavacchioli, Corrado Govoni, Libero Altomare, Federico de Maria) and two secretaries (Decio Cinti and Lisa Spada). It was only in 1910 that the new literary school expanded into other fields of artistic expression and developed into a movement proper.
Although Marinetti entertained amicable contacts with nonconformist painters and draftsmen in the Lombardy region, it took nearly a year before the first of them began to join the futurist movement. In January or February 1910 they held a number of meetings to write a manifesto specifically concerned with the state of the fine arts in Italy. The text was issued on 11 February 1910, followed, on 11 April 1910, by a technical manifesto and, on 5 February 1912, by a theoretical declaration in the catalog of their first group exhibition at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris. In its early phase, futurist painting remained attached to the styles and painterly manners of impressionism, symbolism, and divisionism. It was only when Gino Severini (1883–1966) and Ardengo Soffici (1879–1964) informed the group about the artistic revolution unleashed by cubism that Umberto Boccioni (1882–1916), Carlo Carrà (1881–1966), and Luigi Russolo (1885–1947) set off for Paris to bring themselves up to date with the latest developments in northern European painting. The experience, largely financed by Marinetti, led to a feverish refashioning of futurist painting and a subsequent tour of more than thirty-five works executed in the new style to Paris (February 1912), London (March 1912), Berlin (April 1912), Brussels (June 1912), Amsterdam (September 1912), Chicago (March 1913), and Rotterdam (May 1913).
Futurist painting took as its subject matter “the multi-colored, polyphonic tides of revolution in the modern capitals”—the hustle and bustle of street life in the metropolis, the pulsating dynamism of trade and commerce, the machine as a civilizing power, the social and political tensions in industrialized countries, and so on. To render these experiences in a novel and up-to-date fashion, the painters studied the science of optics, the physiology and psychology of vision, and the analysis of movement in chronophotography and cinematography. From this they arrived at the conclusion that the life force and the dynamic flux of movement links matter with its surrounding space, that the atmosphere dissolves the borders of independent objects, and that sense impressions should be depicted as a unified whole. However, the futurists did not restrict themselves to the scientific analysis of the world and a rational organization of the constituent elements of painting; they also absorbed Henri Bergson‘s (1895–1941) reflections on the new experience of time and space, and took into account how the artist’s subjective experiences of reality affects his or her state of mind. For example, when emotive reactions to a train ride or to the view of a busy boulevard were made a central concern of a painting, the image was turned into a sum total of the artist’s impressions and sensations, both past and present. Increasingly, the futurists shook off the remnants of mimetic realism and developed an aesthetic that in their manifestos they summed up under the headings simultaneity, interpenetration, synthesis, multiple viewpoints, and universal dynamism. Painting as a complex network of forms, colors, and forcelines was meant to connect not only the depicted objects and their surrounding space, but also to draw in the viewer until in the end she or he becomes “the center of the picture.” Thus, futurist painting revolutionized both the production and the reception process of a work of art.
A similar concern was pursued by Boccioni in his sculpture. He sought to represent matter in terms of movement and duration, lines of force and interpenetration of planes, using a variety of materials for expressing an essentialist reality hidden beneath the surface of observable phenomena. The object depicted was shown to exist not as an autonomous body but as a dynamic relationship between weight and expansion. Boccioni’s sculptures grew beyond their physical limits into the surrounding space, where in a dynamic fashion they fused with the environment and shaped its atmosphere. Movement was synthesized as “unique forms of continuity in space” that take hold of the viewer and force him or her to a similarly dynamic relationship with the sculpture exhibited.
Another field with far-reaching influence was futurist music. In August 1910 the composer Francesco Balilla Pratella (1880–1955) joined the futurist circle and subsequently published three manifestos that criticized the traditionalist outlook and the obstructive commercialism of the Italian musical world. More radical in outlook were the ideas of Russolo, who experimented with an idea of replacing traditional music with music based on a wide range of sounds related to, but not simply imitative of, the noises of everyday life. Since conventional musical instruments were far too limited in their sound spectrum, Russolo invented a new type of noise machine, the intonarumori, the first of which made explosive sounds like an automobile engine, a crackling sound like rifle fire, a humming sound like a dynamo, or different kinds of stamping noises. The instruments looked like sound boxes with large funnels attached and could be tuned and rhythmically regulated by means of mechanical manipulation. A stretched diaphragm produced, by variations in tension, a scale of tones, different timbres, and variations in pitch. Russolo explained his inventions in a manifesto of 11 March 1913, The Art of Noise, and demonstrated them on 2 June 1913 at the Teatro Storchi in Modena. A full orchestra of noise intoners was presented on 21 April 1914 at the Teatro dal Verme in Milan and on 20 May 1914 at the Politeama in Genoa. Russolo then started a tour abroad and presented his instruments in London, Liverpool, Dublin, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Vienna, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Berlin, and Paris.
Initially, Italian futurism was centered on Milan and had two important offshoots in Rome and Florence. In the course of the next five years, local branches sprung up in dozens of towns and cities, all linked in some way to the futurist headquarters, but often acting independently and in quite a few cases in opposition to Marinetti and his closest circle of collaborators. This led to a number of desertions, such as the Florentine Lacerba group, who insisted that futurism ought not to be confused with “Marinettism.” There also existed artists who shared many of the futurists’ concerns without ever formally joining the movement. For example, in Rome, the brothers Anton Giulio Bragaglia (1890–1960) and Arturo Bragaglia (1893–1962) set up an art circle and organized a range of public events that ran parallel to the activities of the “official” group headed by Giacomo Balla (1871–1958). A profusion of theoretical statements caused the term futurism to assume quite a definite meaning, but it could also be used in a wider sense to signify “antitraditionalism,” “modernism,” or “radical art.” Particularly in the popular press one could find artists and groups being called “futurist” although they were not directly linked to Marinetti’s movement. And since Marinetti was keen to document the fundamental significance of his movement and its international appeal, he did not protest when artists such as Alexander Archipenko (1887–1964), Paul Klee (1879–1940), Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944), and Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) were referred to as “futurist.”
In the decade before the inception of the futurist movement, Marinetti had made a considerable impact in France through the publication of three collections of poetry, two plays, and a large number of essays in literary journals and cultural magazines. The publication of the Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism in a French newspaper indicated that Marinetti did not intend to limit his radius of influence to Italy alone. He published most of his early manifestos both in Italian and French versions and had them translated into various other (including some non-European) languages. Consequently, futurism became an international movement that exercised a profound influence on the arts and cultural attitudes in other countries. There was hardly a modernist movement that did not in some way or other receive inspiration and stimulation from futurism. However, as the ideas that had originated in Italy interacted with the specific traditions of the receiving cultures, they fomented a process of assimilation and gave rise to a number of futurisms, which developed an increasingly independent and original character. Marinetti welcomed this development and refused to treat his movement as a narrow school or “church.” In 1909–1914 response to his ideas was most strongly felt in France, Russia, and Germany. But also in Japan and Latin America one can find futurism encouraging artists to develop their own brands of modernism.
When Marinetti published his Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism, he presented a far-reaching program of renewal that linked aesthetic innovation with a radical transformation of the real world. As he was fully aware that literary manifestos and works of art were not a sufficient means to set ablaze the somnolent and stultified cultural scene in Italy, he made politics a significant component of the futurist movement from the very beginning. He extended the radius of his activities beyond the traditional intellectual elites and sought to find allies on the political battlefield. He undertook numerous attempts to gather the support of the anarchosyndicalists of northern Italy. He planned to stand in the local elections in Piedmont, with an anarchosyndicalist program of a nationalistic bent. During the 1913 elections he published a political manifesto and had a hundred thousand copies distributed, thus giving rise to the suspicion that he intended to stand against the reformist Socialist Leonida Bissolati (1857–1920). Although this was not the case, in an interview with Giornale d’Italia, of 30 October 1913, Marinetti announced that in the near future he intended to enter the political arena on a list for a really important constituency. This idea came to fruition when, in 1918, he founded the Futurist Political Party, formed an alliance with Benito Mussolini‘s (1883–1945) Fasci di Combattimento, and stood as a candidate in the national elections of November 1919.
Although Marinetti had a decidedly international upbringing and launched his career through a series of French-language publications, his engagement in radical, left-wing politics was always combined with a passionate nationalism. Like many intellectuals of his generation, he felt that the unification process of Italy (the Risorgimento) would only be brought to completion when the “still unredeemed territories” (terra irredenta) had been liberated from Austrian domination. This largely determined his ardent support for Italy’s intervention in World War I. However, given his political leanings, his attitude toward solving conflicts by militant means was also rooted in other, more philosophical concepts.
Marinetti made little distinction between revolution and war. Both were seen to be two sides of the same coin: regenerative violence. When a French magazine questioned Marinetti on the militant character of his artistic program, he stated that the equation “futurism = revolution = war” was for him “a question of health.” In Marinetti’s political ideology, war was a purifying and revitalizing medication for the Italian race, a leaven for the dough of humanity, and an antidote to traditionalism. He repeatedly emphasized that war, as he understood it, was not a return to barbarity, but an expression of the life force that could restore health to a body politic in a state of dissolution. This mystical view, largely based on Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844–1900), Bergson, and Georges-Eugüne Sorel (1847–1922), was aptly captured in his formula, “war, the ultimate purgative of the world.” Marinetti supported the use of violence as a means of achieving political objectives and praised it as a vital ingredient of the “military railroad into the future,” the long path toward a better society. He repeatedly quoted the examples of the French Revolution and the Risorgimento to show that war was intimately linked to the struggle for freedom, equality, and justice. Therefore, he exalted violence as “a gay manner of fertilizing the Earth! Because the Earth, believe me, will soon be pregnant. She will grow big—until she bursts!”
With Italy’s entry into World War I, a number of futurists lined up for voluntary service. Consequently, futurism lost much of its artistic significance, only to resurface again after the war as a political movement. After 1922 it experienced a revival as an aesthetic force, especially in the applied arts, that lasted well into the 1930s.
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Marinetti, Filippo Tommaso. Teoria e invenzione futurista. 2nd ed. Edited by Luciano De Maria. Milan, 1983.
——. Critical Writings. Edited by Günter Berghaus. Translated by Doug Thompson. New York, 2006.
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