Why Was Futurism Important?
Futurism Comprised the Avant-Garde in Early Twentieth Century Art
Futurism is an artistic movement that originated in the early 1900s, particularly in Italy, as well as England and Russia. The movement emphasized the importance of the future, mainly as it relates to the advancement of the machine age and the importance of the urban environment propelling people forward into a progressive state of mind. Futurism also championed speed, technology, science, youth and violence. Its mantra was that the answers to humankind’s problems lay in the future – certainly not the past!
Futurism was also a social movement encompassing numerous other disciplines such as theatre, film, fashion, literature, philosophy, architecture and music. The major literary work of the movement was Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, published in February 1909, and generally considered the beginning of Futurism.
This article highlights the artistic aspect of Futurism and how it influenced styles of art such as Dada, Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Constructivism, Cubism, Surrealism, and others. It would be hard to know twentieth-century art without studying Futurism.
History of Futurism
Filippo Marinetti launched Futurism because of his loathing of everything old, especially the foundations of artistic convention, which certainly carried great weight in Italy, where the artistic traditions of the Roman Empire sprang forth some 2,000 years earlier and still had great influence in society. In his Futurist Manifesto, Marinetti wrote, “We want no part of it, the past, we the young and strong Futurists!”
Marinetti also supported violence and military action - even as it related to art. He wrote, “Art can be nothing but violence, cruelty and injustice.” Violence became Marinetti’s new aesthetic. Espousing these ideas, for better or worse, Marinetti aligned himself with anarchists and the Fascism of Benito Mussolini.
At the outset, Futurism had no artistic style of subject matter, except perhaps a penchant for dynamism. But it soon gravitated to Cubism, particularly its quest to show many perspectives of a subject at the same time.
But the styles drifted apart, as Cubism remained quiet with its still lifes and static human figures, Futurism explored city life and the motion of motorized vehicles speeding through it, as exemplified in Luigi Russolo’s Automobile at Speed (1913).
Perhaps the greatest artist of Futurism was Umberto Boccioni, whose canvas The City Rises (1910) shows a police attack and riot that Boccioni himself had experienced. The elements of this painting – dynamism, violence, as well as the unity of people and events in an urban setting – seemed to express the spirit of the movement. Boccioni rendered the painting, in short, separate brushstrokes, expressing what was called Divisionism (a.k.a. Pointillism).
Of great importance in the history of modern art, Boccioni’s bronze sculpture, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913), may be the most iconic work of Futurism, its striding figure’s physicality blurred by its motion through space, exemplifying Boccioni’s theory of dynamism.
One artist who was heavily influenced by Futurism was Marcel Duchamp, who created a painting entitled Nude Descending a Staircase. Produced in 1912, Nude, a seminal and controversial work that eventually became a modernist classic, depicts a nude woman walking down the stairs, her progress shown as descending images superimposed one upon the other, thus exemplifying the persistence of vision which makes movies possible. This expression of both technology and dynamism comprised the essence of Futurism.
World War One
Division in Futurism began in 1914. A faction in Florence, Italy resented the hold that the Milan group, led by Marinetti and Boccioni, had over the artistic philosophy of Futurism. Each group considered the other passé. Along the way, threats of war inflamed Futurism’s zeal for violence in patriotism, and many Futurists fanned hatred for the Austro-Hungarian Empire and eventually enlisted when hostilities erupted. At this point, Florence withdrew from Futurism, weakening it considerably.
Reflecting this ardor for bloodletting, in the Futurist Manifesto, Marinetti 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 woman.”
Futurists produced some war-inspired works, but soon Cubism became the impetus of the avant-garde. Tragically, Boccioni died in the war during 1916. Ironically, the War to End All Wars ended Futurism.
Well, not entirely, it turned out.
The Future Ends Futurism?
Marinetti kept Futurism going in some form or another until his death in 1944, though perhaps the future itself ended Futurism. Like old science fiction, the ideas therein can become hackneyed or at least uninspiring for new generations.
Nonetheless, Futurism hasn’t died completely, for the current Zeitgeist emphasizes youth, speed, power and technology, relegating the past to programs on the History Channel, while components of Futurism can be seen in movies such as Blade Runner and the various conceits of Cyberpunk. Depictions of cybernetic possibilities – joining humankind with machine - certainly owe a lot to Futurism. Continuing in this credo, neo-Futurist groups have sprung up in Chicago, New York and Montreal.
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© 2011 Kelley