Futurism developed during the first decade of the 20th-century as an essentially Italian movement ‘Futurismo’, but it also grew prominently in Russia. It’s primary focus was an emphasis on dynamism, (‘absolute motion + relative motion = dynamism’, F T Marinetti’) speed, energy, and the power of the machine and the vitality, change, and restlessness of modern life in general. Its most significant achievements were in the visual arts and poetry.
Futurism was first announced on 20 February 1909, when Le Figaro published a manifesto by the Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. The name Futurism, coined by Marinetti, reflected his emphasis on discarding what he conceived to be the static and irrelevant art of the past to celebrate change, originality, and innovation in both culture and society. Marinetti’s manifesto glorified the new technology of the car and the beauty of its speed, power, and movement. He also exalted violence and conflict and called for the sweeping repudiation of traditional cultural, social, and political values together with the destruction of such cultural institutions as museums and libraries. The manifesto’s rhetoric was passionately bombastic; its tone aggressive and inflammatory and purposely designed to inspire public anger and attract widespread attention.
‘We will sing of great crowds excited by work, by pleasure, and by riot; we will sing of the multicoloured, polyphonic tides of revolution in the modern capitals; we will sing of the vibrant nightly fervour of arsenals and shipyards blazing with violent electric moons; greedy railway stations that devour smoke-plumed serpents; factories hung on clouds by the crooked lines of their smoke; bridges that stride the rivers like giant gymnasts, flashing in the sun with a glitter of knives; adventurous steamers that sniff the horizon; deep-chested locomotives whose wheels paw the tracks like the hooves of enormous steel horses bridled by tubing; and the sleek flight of planes whose propellers chatter in the wind like banners and seem to cheer like an enthusiastic crowd.’
Excerpt from the ‘Manifesto of Futurism’, by F.T. Marinetti 1909.
Futurism lacked a defined visual style and is often overlooked as an esoteric off shoot of Cubism. But like Symbolism before it, it put the idea before style, thereby challenging not only traditional artistic values, but also the aesthetic ambitions of much of the avant-garde. Its numerous manifestos are filled with theories of speed and dynamism insisting that the growth of technological change demanded expression in new, bold art forms. This idea was not original, but it had never before been so forcibly expressed. It is also important to realise that Futurism appeared in Italy with its rich Renaissance heritage, a society that was ‘timeless’ and predominantly rural, unlike most of the rest of Europe.
Futurist life was essentially urban, and inspired by the industrial cities of Northern Italy. Yet the futurists railed against these cities dismissing them irreverently as ‘museum cities’, and it was some time before they found an architect sympathetic to their visions.
Antonio Sant’Elia, signed the “Manifesto of Futurist Architecture” in 1914, the year he met Marinetti and proposed that the modern city should be the backdrop on which the dynamism of futurist life should be projected. All of Sant’Elia’s projects were purely visionary as no futurist buildings were ever built.
Sant’Elia stressed his work was not just utilitarian architecture, but an art form in which lines were dynamic, oblique and elliptical. In rejecting nature as an inspiration, he wanted architecture to become the ‘most beautiful expression of the mechanical world.’
There is no doubting the influence Futurism had on the avant-garde art world in the early part of this century. Their worship of the machine and technology as the solution of all social ills would influence the Russian Contructivists, and their creation of sound poems, nonsense verse and pamphleteering would be adopted by the Dadaist movement that grew up in Switzerland during the first world war. The futurists highly motivated form of theatre, influenced Vladimir Mayakovsky and prefigured Antonin Artard’s, ‘Theatre of the Absurd’.
The first world war, ‘the world’s only hygiene,’ as Marinetti called it, brought the Futurist movement to an abrupt end. After the war the remaining Futurists – Boccioni and Sant’Elia were killed in 1916 – adopted more conventional styles, whilst Marinetti, unsurprisingly, helped to establish the Fascist movement in Italy.