Futurism in 9 Minutes: How to Rewrite Culture

Did you ever sit in history class and think: what's the point in learning about ancient dusty objects, events that’ve already happened and the opinions of someone who’s been dead for hundreds of years? Yawn. You'd rather think about what our next phone update will let us do, robots we can build, or ways to get across the Atlantic in under an hour. Well, you sound just like a futurist.

The futurists were a group of artists who thought the world was stuck in a boring, old-fashioned rut and wanted it to look forward by celebrating innovation, modernity, and speed. They wanted to say goodbye tradition, hello technology.  

In 1908, charismatic Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti was driving along a road outside of Milan when he had to dramatically swerve into a ditch to avoid hitting two cyclists. 

But surprisingly he didn’t emerge from the crash with an aversion to engines and speed and instead the face-off between old and new transport gave him the idea for a new philosophy. The futurism movement was born.

Marinetti became obsessed with everything the future had to offer, things like factories, urban landscapes, and yes, zooming trains, planes and automobiles. And he wanted everyone else to be too.

In 1909 he laid out his ideas to the world in his Manifesto of Futurism on the front page of the French newspaper Le Figaro. The manifesto was passionate, aggressive and intended to stir controversy. 

Marinetti wanted Italy to become the epicentre of progress by embracing cutting-edge industry and ridding itself of archaic institutions like museums, libraries and academies. He wanted to rewrite culture.

His futurist vision could be applied to everything from literature, theatre, architecture, fashion and even to cooking. But it particularly captured the imagination of a group of young like-minded Italian artists. 

Inspired, Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, and Luigi Russolo banded together and wrote the Manifesto of Futurist Painters. They turned Marinetti’s call to arms into a call to paintbrushes by denouncing the existing art scene as stagnant, academic, and full of copycats.

They sent their new guidelines to their contemporaries Giacomo Balla and Gino Severini, who happily jumped on the high-speed bandwagon. Together this core group of futurist artists began to incorporate the vibrant, raw energy promoted by Marinetti into their work. 

Instead of painting the usual mythological scenes, chubby babies and naked ladies rising out shells, they veered towards chaotic portrayals of speed, movement, and power. They used their canvases to glorify industry, workers, and even war.

The first major futurist work to grasp the nation’s attention was Boccioni’s The City Rises, which depicted the construction of Milan’s new electrical power plant. 

A large red horse rears up in the centre as the men around struggle to control it. It’s an homage to hard work and revolutionary change. Not a fat-cheeked cherub in sight.

Boccioni expresses a sense of strength and dynamism by using blurred, repetitive brush strokes and merging colors to animate the skittish animal. This technique is called divisionism and was commonly used by futurist painters.

In "Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash" Giacomo Balla throws off the shackles of artistic tradition by presenting us with an abrupt, random view that you’d normally see shrunken in the background of a peaceful impressionist scene.

While the subject of the painting is a lot cuter than other futurist paintings, its true star is the concept of movement. The repetition of the dog's legs, leash, ears and floppy tail creates a feeling of forward motion that is almost dizzying.

Futurism also took inspiration from cubist artists like Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque by using fragmented, intersecting views of the same subject. 

In Luigi Russolo’s “Dynamism of a Car” the vehicle is painted in multiple angular forms that all converge to the left. This creates what are known as force lines, which add pace and direction to a painting.

The futurist aesthetic was translated to 3D in Boccioni’s sculpture Unique Forms of Continuity in Space. It depicts the form of a man striding forward, almost machine-like in intensity. Its geometric outline creates the sense of air rippling around him as he marches.

As well as creating art, the futurists wanted to spread their aesthetic, political, and social ideals as much as possible. 

True to their roots, they made the most of new technologies like mass media, printing, and transportation and published yet more manifestos. Hundreds of them, in fact. 

Parallel strands began to emerge in Russia, England, Belgium and elsewhere. Russian futurism in particular grew into its own separate movement which was largely focussed on literature. 

Futurism was just a few years old when World War One broke out across Europe. Marinetti considered war and violence as a necessary step towards making a new, modern Italy and the artists who supported him were encouraged to fight for their country. 

This led to the death of some of its members, including Boccioni, which stopped the movement in its tracks. But after the war was over, Marinetti revived it again in a phase known as ‘Second Futurism’.

Artists in the new wave, like Tullio Crali, Enrico Prampolini and Fillìa, were particularly fixated on aviation, creating an offshoot of futurism called aeropittura.

Meanwhile Mussolini, the future dictator of Italy, was rising to power and Marinetti would soon play a major role in Mussolini’s new fascist regime. 

Marinetti already had his own futurist political party so he merged this with Mussolini’s party and - you guessed it - wrote its manifesto.

Although Futurism was never the official art movement of fascism the two ideologies had a lot in common. Both were patriotic, supported disruption, glorified workers and opposed parliamentary democracy. 

While this bolstered futurism's image at the time, it tarnished its reputation when fascism later fell out of fashion and was ultimately condemned.

By the end of the Second World War new, younger artists had different, more nostalgic ideals. After years of violence and unrest they wanted to return to reassuring traditional art styles so when Marinetti died in 1944, futurism became history.

Its influence can be seen today in Art Deco, Constructivism, Surrealism, Dada and the architectural Neo-futurism movement. And even though the futurists were all about ‘out with the old and in with the new’ they’d probably be secretly happy that their influence has stuck around.
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