The Futurist Movement; Italian Art & History – a very short introduction

I  wrote this many, many years ago, but thought it of some interest still!

Section One “Futurism; A Historical Perspective

The Futurist movement was born in the first decade of the twentieth century, a time when change brought about by the telephone, telegraph, aeroplane and automobile was revolutionizing the nature of Western European society. The fin de siecle world of the Decadents was dying, and the Age of Imperialism was about to destroy itself in the bloodbath of the Great War when technology finally destroyed the old European order. Elitist notions of Culture were challenged, first by Marx and then by a wave of agitation for worker-control. In Italy the anarchists brought terror and riots to the streets, and with them posters and leaflets. The bomb and the pamphlet were the weapons with which anarchist, syndicalist and communist sought to hasten the overthrow of the old order.

Intellectual radicals discussed the problem of popular culture, of the bringing together of the people and the world of Art. In Ireland, W.B.Yeats, the mystical poet, dreamed of a fusion of peasant mythology and idealism with the high cultural forms of poetry and mysticism, to create a Nationalist movement of the soul. In Germany Wagner composed operas which forged the idea of a German Spirit by adopting the mythologies of the teutonic warrior and farmer, and so inspired the beginnings of Nazi ideology, which culminated in Hitler’s battlecry, “Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuhrer.” (“One People, One Nation, One Leader!”). These movements saw the value of a populist appeal to the masses, and both, one in Literature and one in Music, attempted to create an art for the people. Wagner succeeded, and Yeats failed, but neither ever really reached wide audiences. They were for the elite, only the mythologies (used here in the sense of Roland Barthes cultural theory) being drawn from the masses. The first modern artistic movement to actually try to reach the masses, and to embrace the idea of popularism, was born in Italy in 1909. It’s founder was one Fillipo Marinetti, like Yeats a poet. In his manifesto “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism” he was to write “We will sing of great crowds excited by work, by pleasure, and by riot…”

Futurism developed out of the contemporary and historical situation. At the turn of the century Italy was one of the weakest of the Great Powers. Italy had only been unified as modern nation-state by Garibaldi in 1863 and was under developed economically at this time in comparison with France, Germany and Great Britain. However rapid industrialization was occurring with consequent social unrest in the form of strikes and riots. This sudden impact of technology on the Italian mind set was the primary focus for futurist art. Futurism also derived ideas from anarcho-syndicalism particularly the activism and the vitalism of Henri Bergson, the French philosopher. They also drew many ideas from the violent anarchist theory of the “Propaganda of the Deed”.

Severini's Armoured Train

Section Two “Art before Futurism”

Art in Italy, as in the rest of Europe, until the 1800’s was confined to the institution and the academy. However the first notable movement occurred in Italy between the 1840’s and the 1870’s, here artists and intellectuals came from around Italy to a base in Florence and thus the emergence of the Macchiailoi artistic movement. The group was made up of many who had been involved in Garibaldi’s campaign to unite Italy and to rid the country of invading Austrians. These radical spirits wished to create a new Italian art.

“Truth, Reality and Nature” was the motto used by the Macchiailoists. They wanted to liberate art in Italy via a complete break from the past and tradition. They took inspiration for their new work from their surroundings, which was modern life, including the urban environment of the new Italy, which was to be a central theme for the Futurists.

The past which the Macchiailoists rejected was exemplified by Neo-Classicism and the academic tradition, which they attacked in a series of polemical writings in exactly the same way the Futurists later did. They were the first really national rather than regional movement in modern Italian art although they tended to be most influential in Florence, even though born out of the Posillipo School which had developed near Naples. Best known from this movement which certainly embraced many of the ideals of Impressionism were the artists Telemaco Signorini (1835 – 1901) and Giovanni Fattori (1825-1908). The emphasis was on light and bold form expressed through “contrasted use of colours and chiaroscuro”

Another Italian movement which was to have a direct influence on the Futurists was that of Divisionism. The major Divisionists in Italy were Giovanni Segantini (1858-1899), Guiseppe Pellizza da Volpedo (1868-1907) and Gaetano Previati (1852-1920). Related obviously to Seurat’s Divisionism or Pointillism, the Italian Movement according to Tisdall (p.24-25) was heavily affected by Symbolism, and relied on the use of broken line and colour rather than Seurat’s paintings which allowed colours to mix on the retina not the canvas by utilizing tiny dots of pure colour.

Tisdall notes that the  Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting ends with the words “We conclude that painting cannot exist today without Divisionism.” Futurism was to draw it’s inspiration from the attitudes rather than the technical artistic methodologies of these earlier movements. It is interesting to note that most of the books I have been able to consult on Futurism, with the exception of Tisdall (1977), make no mention of earlier movements, hence making the Futurists appear even more radical than they actually were.

Boccioni's The street invades the house

Boccioni's The street invades the house

Section Three “The Birth of the Futurist Movement.”

In 1909 the most important newspaper in the world of the Arts was the Parisian journal Le Figaro . In the edition of the 20th February 1909 readers were shocked to read the The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism which vigorously denounced the Passeists (being all the artists and poets of the past) and announcing the creation of a new tradition, that of the Futurists. The tone was beautiful, poetic, intense and insane. Marinetti set forth an eleven point plan which called for aggression, conflict and struggle, the praise of youth, speed and technology. “we will glorify war – the world’s only hygiene – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the freedom bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for women.”

In this, point nine of the Futurist Manifesto we can clearly see the political influence on the movement. Patriotism, war and militarism are taken from the creeds of the Nationalist movements from whom Mussolini’s Fascism was to develop, yet also pay homage to the ideologies of the opposite extreme of the political spectrum. The phrases about beautiful ideas worth dying for and destructive gestures of freedom bringers seems a direct reference to Laurent Tailhade’s famous quote on the French anarchist Ravachol’s nail bombing of a Cafe – “What do the victims matter if the gesture be beautiful?”

Violent, shocking and disturbing, this first manifesto appeared on the front page of  Le Figaro It was a bluff by Marinetti; at this time there was no Futurist movement only himself and his ideas. It set the tone for what was to come, however it succeeded in attracting several like-minded souls to the cause. Instead of quietly passing through a phase of germination and debate, Futurism was born out of the international newspapers in a brilliant media event alien to all that had come before. Those who were attracted by this brash statement swiftly joined forces with Marinetti Umberto Boccioni and Carlo Carra, Giacomo Balla and Gino Severini all responded to the bait and Futurism suddenly had adherents amonst the artistic community. Herein we see Fillipo Marinetti’s great genius, manipulation of the media being his greatest ability except perhaps for his skill as a self publicist. He intended to bring about the End of all Past Art, and the creation of a New Art in much the same way another media manipulator Malcolm Maclaren was to attempt to bring about the End of Pop Music by his creation of “Punk-rock” some seventy years later.

Futurist Painting: Carra

Futurist Painting: Carra

Section Four “The growth of Futurism 1909-1915”

Futurism was hence born in a wave of publicity and scandal, and Marinetti continued as he began. Polemics denounced the “Passeist’s”, and their tone can be gauged by a quotation from the Founding Manifesto:-


“..because we want to free this land from it’s smelly gangrene of professors, archeologists, ciceroni and antiquarians. For too long has Italy been a dealer in second hand clothes. We mean to free her from the numberless museums that cover her like so many graveyards.”

The newspapers were used to publish full page advertisements and Marinetti set up a private publishing house and began to run off large editions of futurist books which he largely gave away.

His novel Mafarka the Futurist (1910) featured a hero with a nine metre penis which he was forced to keep wrapped around his waist when it was not in use, which was fortunately rare. This adolescent voyage of sexual adventure did have one long lasting effect on Futurism. Marinetti was arrested charged and ultimately fined for obscenity amidst colossal publicity. A t once a new weapon was added to the Futurist’s arsenal and from then on being arrested was used whenever possible to promote the movement. It was a sign of triumph, a declaration that the “Passeists” were on the defensive.

Another media that was used to draw attention to the movement and it’s aims was “The Futurist Evening.” This took place in a large regional city amidst a fanfare of publicity, and involved Exhibition of painting and sculpture, poetry readings and above all else polemical insults designed to provoke a riot and arrests, in which the Futurists frequently succeeded. The anarchist idea of “Propaganda of the Deed” was translated from the realms of politics and bombings to the realms of artistic controversy and verbal violence. One such incident is reported by Tisdall.

Marinetti and colleagues climbed the roof of the San Marco basilica in Venice and met the pious leaving mass with a torrent of abuse for Venice and its piety, and an announcement of Futurism, heralded by three apocalyptic blasts on a trumpet!

Futurism went beyond all the accepted parameters of an artistic movement. Not content with his own publishing house Marinetti realized that the newspapers had been the great strength of his movement from it’s inception. Not content with appearing in them, Futurist’s bought out Lacerba, a cultural newspaper, and made it into the voice of Futurism. What was more surprising is that this newspaper continued to sell, and mainly to the industrial workers of Milan and Turin! The paper was produced from 1913-1915, initially bi-weekly, and later weekly, and emphasized Futurism as a political movement. It is hard to imagine an Impressionist party with a programme that appealed to the workers in the same way!

Futurism is probably best remembered today for its influence on the field of visual arts, and the developments in this field were reflected by a certain degree of critical regard. An Exhibition in Paris was later transferred to Berlin and London, and a distinctive style developed that took it’s ideas from the philosophical basis of Futurism. “Movement not Stasis” embodies the spirit of this painting, and in Part 2 I will attempt to define what Futurist Art actually was, and as importantly what Futurism is today. It is ironic that Futurism defined itself by a series of manifestos that cover everything from Poetry, Sculpture and Painting to Lust and Cookery, and hence became a tradition as entrenched and defined as the “Passeist’s”. The end of Futurism however was expected from Marinetti’s very first  Founding Manifesto.

Futurist Painting: Balla, after his Futurist phase

Futurist Painting: Balla, after his Futurist phase

Section Five “The end of Futurism? The First World War”

From the beginning Futurism had expressed themes of War and Conflict  as social hygiene – chilling sentiments with hindsight…

“We will glorify war – the world’s only hygeine.”


Their creed of danger and love of conflict made it inevitable that as the First World War began they would immediately call for Italy’s entry into the conflict, on the side of what they saw as the French and British worker against Austrian and German imperial aggression. When Italy did enter the conflict in 1915 many Futurists immediately entered the conflict, and as a result the movement lost some of it’s greatest names. Marinetti was to say that thirteen leading Futurists died in the war, but the most tragic blow was the loss of Boccioni, always the driving force besides Marinetti himself. By the end of the war the tragic implications of modern technology and war were obvious to all, and much pre-war futurist rhetoric seemed empty and facile. Even Balla began to stray, and Carra who had survived the war largely owing to his institutionalization as a lunatic by an army doctor (who did not understand his painting or his enthusiasm and patriotism for the war) became increasingly disenchanted. During the war years Boccioni and Carra had become interested in Cubism and the movement began to drift apart. By the cessation of conflict in 1919 the first wave of Futurism was effectively over, exactly as Marinetti had predicted in The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism when he wrote

“The oldest of us is thirty: so we have at least a decade for finishing our work. When we are forty, other younger and stronger men will probably throw us in the wastepaper basket like useless manuscripts- we want it to happen!”

In the event Futurism refused to lay down gracefully and die, and as soon as the war was over Marinetti set about creating a new Futurism.

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About Chris Jensen Romer

I am a profoundly dull, tedious and irritable individual. I have no friends apart from two equally ill mannered cats, and a lunatic kitten. I am a ghosthunter by profession, and professional cat herder. I write stuff and do TV things and play games. It's better than being real I find.
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10 Responses to The Futurist Movement; Italian Art & History – a very short introduction

  1. nikolaykotev says:

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    I have a new blog for modern and contemporary history – „Nikolaykotev`s
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  2. David says:

    Very interesting piece CJ. Futurism is not a subject I know a great deal about, so I’ve learned a lot from reading this, and it’s made me want to explore this movement more.

  3. jamdoran says:

    Very interesting and very well written. Thanks

  4. Pingback: William Kentridge 1955 – | NLA Design and Visual Arts

  5. Meghan says:

    Great article! I was an art history minor and studied Futurism in college but this article taught me a lot. Futurism’s implied motion in art is another good thing to know if you’re looking for an introduction. Thanks!

  6. sammyro says:

    Great article, Marinetti’s novel sounds hilarious!
    Thanks for posting!

  7. heather brundage says:

    im trying to find out some info on some prints with the name abbatecola from his personal collections of the futureistic movement in the fifties>

  8. Pingback: A Futurist vision - Duggoons

  9. Pingback: The futurists | History of Art

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