Futurism

Futurism (from Italian: Futurismo) was an Italian literary, cultural, artistic and musical movement of the early 20th century, and one of the first European avant-garde movements. It had influence on related movements that developed in other countries of Europe, Russia, France, the United States of America and Asia. The Futurists explored all forms of expression: painting, sculpture, literature (poetry) to theater, music, architecture, dance, photography, film, and even gastronomy. The movement’s name is credited to Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti.

Noi canteremo le grandi folle agitate dal lavoro, dal piacere o dalla sommossa: canteremo le maree multicolori e polifoniche delle rivoluzioni nelle capitali moderne; canteremo il vibrante fervore notturno degli arsenali e dei cantieri incendiati da violente lune elettriche, le stazioni ingorde, divoratrici di serpi che fumano, le officine appese alle nuvole pei contorti fili dei loro fumi; i ponti simili a ginnasti giganti che scavalcano i fiumi balenanti al sole con un luccichio di coltelli; i piroscafi avventurosi che fiutano l’orizzonte, le locomotive dall’ampio petto, che scalpitano sulle rotaie, come enormi cavalli d’acciaio imbrigliati di tubi, e il volo scivolante degli aeroplani, la cui elica garrisce al vento come una bandiera e sembra applaudire come una folla entusiasta.

We will sing the great crowds stirred by work, pleasure or riot: We will sing of the multicolored, polyphonic tides of revolutions in modern capitals; we will sing of the nocturnal vibrant fervor of the arsenals and shipyards set ablaze by violent electric moons, of the gluttonous stations, devourers of smoking serpents, of the workshops hanging from the clouds by the twisted threads of their smoke; the bridges like giant gymnasts crossing rivers flashing in the sun with a glitter of knives; the adventurous steamships sniffing the horizon, the broad-chested locomotives pawing the rails like huge steel horses harnessed with pipes, and the gliding flight of the airplanes, whose propellers whistle in the wind like a flag and seem to cheer like an enthusiastic crowd.

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti

These are the closing sentences of the Manifesto of Futurism, published by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in the French newspaper “Le Figaro” on February 20, 1909. The highly metaphorical language of the Manifesto, a legacy of Marinetti’s Symbolist training, is accompanied by an aggressive vocabulary and a peremptory radicality in the proposals formulated, which announce both the formation of a “total” avant-garde, that is, extended to all fields of art, and the advent of a new aesthetic and a new sensitivity of modern society.

Luigi Russolo, Carlo Carrà, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Umberto Boccioni and Gino Severini in front of Le Figaro, Paris, February 9, 1912. [unknown photographer, public domain]

If Futurism was born, therefore, as a literary phenomenon, it soon expanded into the field of figurative art. In fact, on January 12, 1910, after the first Futurist evening – at the Politeama Rossetti in Trieste – Marinetti met Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà and Luigi Russolo in Milan.

The three young Milanese artists, who had met at the academy and had exhibited at a number of group shows, were eager to propose a new poetic approach, and in contact with Marinetti’s captivating personality, they wrote the Manifesto della pittura futurista (Manifesto of Futurist Painting), dated February 11, 1910, and promoted it in a leaflet published by “Poesia”.

The desire for renewal, the verbal extremism, the contempt for the past, for established values and for tradition provoked such violent reactions that Aroldo Bonzagni and Romolo Romani, who had signed the Manifesto together with Boccioni, Carrà and Russolo, decided to stop participating in the group’s initiatives; their names were soon replaced by those of Giacomo Balla and Gino Severini.

This first Manifesto, read by Boccioni on March 8 during a Futurist evening at the Politeama Chiarella in Turin, was clearly influenced by the poetic instances and literary images inspired by Marinetti, except for the important indication of and appreciation for the art of Rosso, Segantini and Previati, that is, for the Scapigliata and Divisionist culture that, at that time, influenced the great majority of the painters who signed it and Boccioni in particular.

The second Manifesto of Painting, defined as “technical” by the artists themselves, contained more specifically pictorial proposals. Figurative conventions were rejected and the birth of a new sensibility was proclaimed, based above all on dynamism: “Everything moves, everything flows, everything turns quickly”; the traditional spatial dimension was cancelled: “Space no longer exists; a rain-soaked road illuminated by electric globes sinks to the center of the earth […] The sixteen people you have around you in a running streetcar are one, ten, four, three; they stand still and move […] Our bodies enter the sofas on which we sit, and the sofas enter us, just as the passing streetcar enters the houses, which in turn are thrown onto the streetcar and amalgamate with it. The construction of the paintings is stupidly traditional. Painters have always shown us things and people placed in front of us. We will place the viewer at the center of the painting”.

The use of violent chromatism is strongly proposed because “our pictorial sensations cannot be murmured. We make it sing and shout in our canvases that ring deafening and triumphant fanfares”. The painting technique is modelled on divisionism in the use of pure colors, combined with small touches, according to the laws of “congenital complementarism”. Despite the precise poetic indications of the Technical Manifesto, until the end of 1910 the pictorial research of the five signatories was not yet clearly innovative and, even with different experiments, derived substantially from the postimpressionist culture.

The modern metropolis, the suburbs, the themes of revolt, of confrontation, are motifs that appear frequently in their works between 1910 and 1911 – for example in Boccioni’s large painting La città sale – and find a counterpart in the anarchic traditions of the Lombard scapigliatura and, in the case of Balla, in the humanitarian populism of Giovanni Cena.

Stylistically, the symbolist and expressionist matrix – from Previati to Munch – remains, as Calvesi has indicated, in Boccioni’s paintings of these years alongside a Seurat-style divisionism. For Russolo and Carrà, the suggestions of Lombard Symbolism and Post-Impressionism still counted, while Severini, who had settled in Paris in 1906, welcomed the formal structuring of the image typical of Pointillism. Balla, at this time not yet fully involved in the elaboration of the poetics of Futurism, applies the principles of neo-impressionism to a realism, often connoted in a social sense, through bold compositional cuts that reveal a keen interest in photography.

Throughout 1910 there are many events in Italy and futurist evenings: Trieste, Turin, Milan, Naples are touched by propaganda Marinettiana, July 8 is launched from the clock tower in Venice, the manifesto against Venice passatista. In the spring of 1911 at the Exhibition of Free Art at the Ricordi Pavilion in Milan were exhibited for the first time the futurist works of Boccioni, Carrà and Russolo.

The reactions of critics and the public were very varied; Particularly unexpected and extremely violent was the criticism of Ardengo Soffici, an up-to-date connoisseur of the contemporary research of Picasso and Braque, who, from the Florentine pages of the “Voce” on June 22, defined the canvases of the Futurists as “silly and laid idle gibberish of unscrupulous messers, who, seeing the world turbidly, without a sense of poetry, with the eyes of the most pachydermic pig farmer in America, want to make believe they see it blooming and flaming. Hard was the reaction of the futurists who went to Florence to the Café Giubbe Rosse where they knew to find the group of “vociani”. L ‘meeting turned into a real brawl which was followed by a more peaceful discussion. In this regard, Carrà wrote in his autobiography: “I turned to Soffici and pointed out some flaws in his criticism, and this was the pretext to exchange our ideas on art, ideas that had many points of contact. Thus, a year later, Soffici reviewed his evaluations of the movement in an article, Ancora sul Futurismo (Still on Futurism), which appeared in the “Voce” on July 11, 1912. Thanks in part to the mediation of Severini, who had established a sympathetic relationship with him during his previous stays in Paris, a progressive rapprochement between the two groups began.

Between 1910 and 1912 Marinetti held a series of conferences in London and Paris propagating the Futurist ideology, anti-passatism, and proposing – along with the exaltation of new values such as irrationalism, dynamism, action – the break of the traditional isolation of the artist and the encroachment of art into life. Also in the French capital took contact with the Gallery Bernheim-Jeune for the organization of an exhibition for the end of 1911, which was later postponed by a few months. At the same time, in Italy, the illustrated articles of Soffici, Henri de Prureaux, Roger Allard on Cubism and the first-hand information of Severini helped to introduce the Futurists to the painting of Picasso, Braque, Léger and Delaunay, Gleizes and Metzinger. Boccioni and Carrà, invited by Severini, went to Paris in the fall of 1911. Severini recounts: “It is impossible to imagine their joy, their hope and wonder at discovering a pictorial world of which they had not the remotest idea. I took them to my neighbors’ and then to Picasso’s, and then everywhere where they saw modern painting and painters. The very life of Paris ecstatic them.”

Between 1911 and 1912 is the final linguistic maturation of the research of Futurist painting. The encounter with Cubist painting and the consequent decomposition of the image into a different structural depth are clearly perceptible in a series of paintings executed by the Futurists between the end of 1911 and the beginning of the following year. In the two versions of Boccioni’s triptych States of Mind, executed during 1911, it is evident, in fact, the passage between a first moment, in which the dynamic and expressionist instance is suggested through the divisionist atmosphere and the rhythmic brushstrokes, and a second moment in which the adoption of Cubist decomposition becomes functional to the rendering of the “simultaneity of moods” and the “simultaneity of the environment” which results in “the dislocation and dismemberment of objects, the scattering and fusion of details”.

On February 5, 1912 opens at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery in Paris, the exhibition of Futurist painters. In the preface to the catalog is emphasized the distance of Futurist research from the static vision of Cubism and is further deepened the poetics of the group. It seeks “a style of movement”; it defines the painting as a “synthesis of what is remembered and what is seen” in tune with Bergson’s concept of duration, it proposes the decomposition of each object according to its lines of force in order to render the dynamic sensation: “All objects, according to physical transcendentalism, tend towards infinity through their lines of force in order to lead the work of art back to true painting. We interpret nature by giving these lines on the canvas as the principles or extensions of the rhythms that the objects imprint on our sensibility”; the result is “the painting of states of mind”.

Immediately after Paris, where the exhibition was variously reviewed obtaining criticism and acclaim, the Futurists exhibited in London, proselytizing among young artists, in Berlin, at the famous gallery Der Sturm directed by Herwarth Walden (while the magazine published the Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting), The Hague, Amsterdam and Monaco. By this time, the theoretical assumptions and the figurative program of the Futurists were defined, although their individual research presented different characteristics.

Boccioni, in fact, basing himself on Bergsonian concepts of duration, was interested above all in the synthetic rendering of movement and simultaneity, while Balla, similar to Bragaglia’s photographic experiments, offered a different interpretation of the concept of dynamism, representing movement as a spatial-temporal succession; Severini researched the rhythmic effects of the image through the fragmentation of color and form, clearly of neo-impressionist origin, while Carrà, contrary to Boccioni and Severini, applied a calm chromaticism to compositions of studied architectural balance. Finally, Russolo adheres to the principle of simultaneity as a mnemonic synthesis, but creates works of vague symbolist flavor.

The debut of the Futurist movement on the international scene stimulated the formation of similar avant-garde groupings such as American Synchronism, Polish Formism, and English Verticism, and encouraged, at the same time, the relations between the most significant contemporary movements: Orphism, Blue Knight, Cubism, Russian Futurism. The subtle correspondences and reciprocal influences, particularly between Futurism and the “heretical” Cubism of Delaunay and Leger, gave rise to several controversies regarding the priority in the adoption of certain concepts such as the principle of “simultaneity” and the renewed interest in the creation of a new subject.

On the other hand, as Crispolti affirms, what is perceived of the two movements in the European area, for example in Germany and Russia, is precisely the reality of their mutual influences in the joint use of Cubist decomposition and in the suggestions of emotional simultaneity and Futurist dynamism. Shortly after the exhibitions in various European capitals, the Futurist group acquires more vigor and polemical spirit from the union with Papini and Soffici who, in turn, abandoned the “Voice”, gave life to “Lacerba”, a magazine only artistic and literary, which soon became the organ of propaganda of the Futurists. On February 21, 1913, futurists and lacerbiani held together an evening at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome, while in the reduction of the same theater were exposed for the first time in the capital, paintings by Boccioni, Balla, Soffici, Carrà, Russolo and Severini.

In the same year, new theories were elaborated and deepened and were expressed in several posters and publications: L’immaginazione senza fili e le parole in libertà, Il teatro di varietà by Marinetti, L’arte dei rumori by Russolo, La pittura dai suoni rumori e odori by Carrà, Le analogie plastiche by Severini, Fotodinamica futurista by Anton Giulio Bragaglia. In 1914 it has place to the Gallery Sprovieri of Rome the Free International Futurist Exposition to which they take part, among the others, Arčipenko, Exter, Rosanova, the Belgian Smaltzigaug, Depero, Prampolini, Ginna, Francesco Cangiullo, Martini, Rosai, Morandi and Sironi. Meanwhile, the controversy between Marinetti and Boccioni, on the one hand, and Lacerbiani on the other, which will end with the final break sanctioned by the article of Palazzeschi, Papini and Soffici on Futurism and Marinettismo. Around the middle of the ’10s all the artistic research of the Futurists shows a greater tendency to formal abstraction and a renewed dynamic synthesis.

In this period Boccioni’s pictorial production developed in parallel with his interest in plastic art; in 1912 he published the Manifesto tecnico della scultura futurista (Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture) where, among other things, he proclaimed “the absolute and complete abolition of the finished line and of the closed statue. Let’s open the figure and close in it the environment,” and affirms the need to use all materials. The dynamic synthesis between plastic subject and environment is achieved in works such as Forme uniche della continuità nello spazio (Unique forms of continuity in space) of 1913.

At the same time Balla arrives at a formal abstract synthesis both in works such as Mercury passes in front of the Sun seen through a telescope (1914) and, above all, in the series of Manifestazioni interventiste (1915), where the flat backgrounds of pure color will become a real model for the new generations of Futurists. At the end of 1914, the Futurists actively participated in the Interventionist demonstrations and, consistently, when Italy entered the war, Marinetti, Sironi, Sant’Elia – who had published the Manifesto of Futurist Architecture in 1914 – Erba and Russolo enlisted as volunteers in the Lombardy Cyclist Battalion.

With the death of Sant’Elia and Boccioni, the detachment of Carrà and the approach of Balla to Marinetti, the gravitational center of Futurism moved from Milan to Rome. The 1915 manifesto Ricostruzione futurista dell’Universo (Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe), signed by Balla and Depero, sanctions the abandonment of art as a representation of reality in favor of an art that materially affects reality. The tension towards the total work of art and the breaking of the limits imposed by traditional artistic genres became, at the end of the 1910s, the central motif of Futurist poetics.

In the already mentioned manifesto Ricostruzione futurista dell’Universo (Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe), in fact, not only is a polymateric and kinetic art proposed with the elaboration of plastic complexes, but the artistic intervention on an environmental scale is defined. Furniture, chairs, sofas, cushions, tapestries, screens, fantastic flowers, clothes, will be reinvented by the futurists – in particular by Balla, Depero and Prampolini through their Case d’arte – according to a bright chromatism and a fabulous and fantastic taste that will inform many protagonists of the second futurist generation.

Cinema, advertising and graphics also became privileged fields of creative experimentation. This imaginative projection finds some of its most significant examples in the settings of Balla’s Bal Tic Tac of 1921 and Depero’s Cabaret del Diavolo of 1921-22, both in Rome. Moreover, the set design, with the installations of Depero, Balla, Prampolini and Pannaggi, became a fertile ground for the encounter between the plastic arts and the perspective of a total work of art. In painting and sculpture, the Futurist research from the second half of the 1910s to the 1930s, if on the one hand it developed without any solution of continuity with respect to the beginnings of the movement – a coherence, moreover, corroborated by the permanent presence of Balla – on the other hand it can be distinguished in two fundamental moments.

The first phase, which runs from the end of the 1910s to 1927-28, has as its basic theoretical text the Manifesto dell’Arte Meccanica (1922) signed by Prampolini together with Paladini and Pannaggi, where, among other things, we read: “We Futurists want the spirit of the Machine to be rendered and not the exterior form, creating compositions that make use of any expressive means and even true mechanical elements; that these expressive means and mechanical elements be coordinated by an original lyrical law and not by a learned scientific law, that by the essence of the machine we mean its forces, its rhythms and the infinite analogies that the machine suggests.”

Inscribed in the Futurist poetics of mechanical art, in addition to those of the three signatories, are some contemporary works by Balla (Pessimism and Optimism of 1923, Numbers in Love of 1924-25), the Turin group of Fillia, Mino Rosso, Diulgheroff and Pozzo, the Florentine Marasco and Azari.

There are undoubted parallels with similar European research of the same period, proven, moreover, by the numerous illustrations of post-cubist works by Léger, Gleizes, Marcoussis, Russian constructivists such as Arčipenko and Ivan Puni, Theo van Doesburg and other artists of neo-plasticism that appeared in the magazine “Noi” directed by Prampolini, between 1923 and 1925. On the other hand, Il Manifesto dell’Arte Meccanica (The Manifesto of Mechanical Art) was republished by the “Bullettin de l’Effort Moderne” and many of the motifs it contained are similar to the propositions expressed in the text Après le Cubisme by Ozenfant and Jeanneret.

Towards the end of the’20s opens a new phase of futurism characterized by a strong imprint idealistic and imaginative, not devoid of figurative episodes and parasurreal. The Manifesto of Aeropittura, signed by Balla, Benedetta, Depero, Dottori, Fillia, Marinetti, Prampolini, Somenzi and Tato in 1929, to which all the other Futurists would gradually adhere, represents the moment of theoretical convergence of the entire movement towards a new aerial sensibility. In fact, however, beyond the joint declarations, the pictorial results are quite diverse.

Prampolini and the Turin group transformed the aerial motif into “cosmic idealism”, Dottori and Benedetta gave a lyrical content to the renewed landscape of the vision from above, while Ambrosi, Crali and Tato arrived at illustrative results of flight and the visual sensations connected to it, singularly close to the solutions of Pop Art. Also during the 1930s, ephemeral installations for exhibitions and shows became a creative field of intervention for the Futurists through the use of the new instrument of wall plastic (cf. Manifesto della Plastica Murale 1934). At the end of the third decade of the century, the creative vein of the movement, the utopian impulse and vitalism that characterized it, were running out. Socio-cultural reality and technological development had overtaken any futuristic imagination.

Second futurism

The term, recently acquired by critics, covers a period that begins with the end of the World War, around 1918, and continues until after 1930. The phenomenon of Second Futurism has been particularly studied in the last thirty years, through a series of exhibitions (in Turin at the Galleria Notizie starting in 1957, and at the gam in 1962, in Rome with the exhibition of Prampolini in 1961 at Gnam, in Bassano in 1970 with the retrospective of Depero, and subsequently on numerous occasions).

Under the name of “movement” are brought together extremely complex cultural phenomena in the events of Italian art in those years: the insertion, in the cultural fabric of late Futurism, of a European culture of purist and constructivist brand, but not without references to the Dada spirit of which Prampolini was an important intermediary.

Alongside some representatives of the old futurists (Balla, Marinetti) begins to work in the early postwar period a large group of artists who represent the second generation of the movement, inserted in the strand of futurism in a moment of arrest compared to the research of previous years. With the disappearance of two of the dominant personalities (Boccioni and Sant’Elia) and the departure of Carrà and Severini from the group, the compactness of the initial line-up gave way to a more complex web of research. The centers themselves multiply: in addition to Milan, Rome works around Balla a lively group of artists: Crali, Dottori, Tato, Prampolini and the companion of Marinetti, Benedetta. Turin becomes an important center; there works a large group of artists: Fillia, Alimandi, Oriani, Franco Costa, the sculptor Mino Rosso and the architect of Bulgarian origin Nicolay Diulgheroff.

Also in Turin, a series of important exhibitions starting in 1925 acted as a catalyst for the movement, exhibitions that culminated in the famous pavilion of Futurist Architecture designed by Prampolini for the 1928 International Exhibition in Turin. After the precedent set by the manifesto Ricostruzione futurista dell’Universo (Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe), launched in 1915 by Balla and Depero, the researches of the second Futurists are subdivided, even if with a margin of elasticity, into two periods: the first, conditioned by the post-cubist, purist and constructivist researches that came especially from France, goes from 1918 to about 1928.

Artists such as those mentioned above, and others such as Korompay and Marasco are part of it. In a second time instead the influence of surrealism acted within the movement as a component for a recovery of the image in an absurd and fantastic: in addition to Prampolini and Depero who were the main interpreters, other artists such as Munari, Tullio d’Albisola Caviglioni or Farfa represent it. What unites the participants of the Second Futurism, however, with respect to previous research, is the search for a recomposition of reality, a recomposition that sometimes went towards rigorous abstract reconstructions of neoplastic origin, but more often in the sense of a recovery of the image-object that becomes part of the repertoire of the Second Futurism.

The myth of modernity and technology, dear to the first generation of Futurists, finds its realization in the object-emblem of “modernity”: the machine, but also the man-robot. The mechanism of the absurd, the randomness of a perfectly “technical” universe come to join – and often replace – the apologetic element. The premises posed by Marinetti, when in the Manifesto of Variety Theater (1913) he theorized the liberating and cultural value of laughter, find their perfect expression in this automatic world. The Manifesto dell’Arte Meccanica (Mechanical Art Manifesto) dates back to 1922 (published in 1923 by Prampolini, Paladini and Pannaggi in “Noi”, II, n. 2): in these years Severini, Depero and Sironi waved their tubiform robot-men in their canvases; while Balla reconstructed his luminous universe in “spring landscapes”, similar to garish plastic toys, and Depero staged his “mechanical ballets” (Milan, 1924). A strand of disturbing art fantastique was born right in the heart of a universe born of comforting technological certainties.

The same universe, however, also produced aeropainting, for which a manifesto was launched in 1929: a direct product of Marinetti’s theories, which still acted especially on the Roman group, the Manifesto of Futurist Aeropainting was signed by Balla, Benedetta, Depero, Dottori, Fillia, Marinetti, Prampolini, Rosso, Somenzi and Tato. Aeropainting, “expression of cosmic idealism”, was intended to be the glorification of the greatest symbol of modernity, the airplane, and, through it, an apotheosis that took on mystical tones to glorify the Spirituality of the aviator or that of symbolic characters of the regime (The Builder). Along this path, touching more and more closely the clouds of mystical celebrations, in 1930 Marinetti offered Mussolini what remained in his hands of Futurism by launching the Manifesto of Futurist Sacred Art, published by him and Fillia in “Oggi e Domani” (Today and Tomorrow); while in October 1932 the Futurist Aeropainting Exhibition was held in the Milanese Pesaro gallery, with a text by Prampolini in the catalog.

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