The Futurists Russolo, Carra, Marinetti, and Boccioni

The futurist movement was launched in Italy in 1909 under the leadership of the charismatic poet F.T. Marinetti.  Concerned that Italy was lagging behind the industrial advances of countries such as Britain, France, Germany, and the United States, the Futurists wanted to “fast forward” their nation into the forefront of modernization, by breaking all ties to the past.  For this reason, the Futurists advocated the destruction of all ties to the past (including libraries and museums):

“To admire an old picture is to pour our sensibility into a funeral urn instead of casting it forward with violent spurts of creation and action. Do you want to waste the best part of your strength in a useless admiration of the past, from which you will emerge exhausted, diminished, trampled on?”
Futurist Manifesto, 1909

Futurism as a Political Movement
manifestofuturismoThe Futurists aggressively campaigned for a revolution in art and society, and they publicized their ideas in “manifestos” (imitating political manifestos) that were widely circulated in the press:

“The “Manifesto of Futurism,” written by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and published on the front page of the French newspaper Le Figaro on February 20, 1909, proclaimed the burning desire of the author and his fellow Futurists to abandon the past and embrace the future. Tired of Italy’s reliance on its classical heritage and disdainful of the present, these artists called for a new aesthetic language based on industry, war, and the machine.”
Museum of Modern Art

They also famously embraced war and revolution as a means of social cleansing:

“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”
F.T. Marinetti, Founding Manifesto of Futurism, 1909

Futur!  Futurism (Sothebys TV)

The Futurist movement was not limited to art:  there were Futurist Manifestos issued for Music, Architecture, Photography, Cinema, and Fashion!  The one thing they had in common was a radical break with the past, and an equally radical rejection of accepted cultural values,

The Italian futurist Luigi Russolo with his noise machine. Photograph: Hulton Archive

The Futurists pioneered modern music through the invention of music “machines,” and the concept of music as “noise.”   Luigi Russolo proposed a new form of “music” based on the sound of machines and industry.  In his manifesto, The Art of Noises (1913), he wrote:

“Ancient life was all silence. In the nineteenth century, with the invention of the machine, Noise was born. Today, Noise triumphs and reigns supreme over the sensibilities of men.”
Luigi Russolo, “The Art of Noises,” 1913

The industrial revolution had created an entirely new form of sound, and Russolo proposed to harness this sound as the basis for a new form of music:

“To present the musical soul of the masses, of the great factories, of the railways, of the transatlantic liners, of the battleships, of the automobiles and airplanes. To add to the great central themes of the musical poem the domain of the machine and the victorious kingdom of Electricity.”
Luigi Russolo, “The Art of Noises,” 1913

Futurist music has been compared to Heavy Metal and Punk.  Like these musical styles, the Futurists rejected traditional notions of “beauty” and embraced the raw sounds of the modern industrial environment.

Listen to recording of Rusollo’s noise music at Ubuweb:

A demonstration of Luigi Russolo’s Intonarumoris,
Lisboa, Museu Coleção Berardo, 2012

Après la Marne, Joffre visita le front en auto (After the Marne, Joffre Visited the Front by Car), by Marinetti, 1915
F. T. Marinetti. Zang Tumb Tumb. Adrianopoli, 1914

The Futurists also inspired a revolution in poetry and typography.  Marinetti’s “words in liberty” sought to free words from conventional syntax, grammar, and meaning.   In his poems and typographic designs words became “sounds” and “visual forms” rather than signifiers of meaning.

“One of the most famous examples of words-in-freedom, Zang Tumb Tumb is Marinetti’s dynamic expression of the siege of the Turkish city of Adrianople (now Edirne) during the Balkan War of 1912, which he reported on as a war correspondent. The title of the book elicits the sights and sounds of mechanized war—artillery shelling, bombs, and explosions.”
Museum of Modern Art

Listen to a recording of on of Marinetti’s poems at Ubuweb:

Learn more:  Tumultuous Assembly: Visual Poems of the Italian Futurists
Getty Museum 

Umberto Boccioni, caricature of the Futurist “serata” held in Treviso on 2 June 1911, reproduced in Uno, due, tre, 17 June 1911

The Futurists pioneered “performance” as an art form, and their public appearances (what they called “serata”) were rarely polite affairs.  They typically involved recitations of noise poems, and performances of noise music, along with declamations from manifestos, and irreverent acts such as burning the Austrian flag.  The goal was to incite the audience to riot, and Marinetti judged his performance to be a success only if a fight broke out.  Violence and mayhem were welcome remedies to what the futurists regarded as bourgeois complacency.

Giacomo Balla, Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash, 1912
Albright Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo

Futurist art embraced the themes of movement, dynamism, and speed:

“Movement was a key element for Boccioni and the other Futurists, as the technology of transportation (cars, bicycles, and advanced trains) allowed people to experience ever greater speeds. The Futurist artists often depicted motorized vehicles and the perceptions they made possible—the blurry, fleeting, fragmentary sight created by this new velocity.”
Rosalind McKever, Umberto Boccioine, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (Khan Academy)

In this work Giacomo Balla creates the sensation of motion through repeated forms:

In strip cartoons, multi-limbed figures appear all the time. They stand for bodies who are running or flapping or just for people who are doing a lot of things simultaneously, in a terrible rush. The multiplication and motion effect has allowed pictures to extend their repertoire enormously, to overcome their stasis in all kinds of ways . . . . [In this picture] A lady is walking a dog; a widow and her pet. The lady has roughly 15 feet, variably solid and see-through. The dog has eight countable tails, while its legs are lost in flurry of blurry overlays. Four swinging leads go between them. The picture’s sense of movement (if that is what it actually is) is created out of stark black forms and weird flowing lacey veils.”

Tom Lubbock, “Great Works:  Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash,” The Independent, September 4, 2009


Etienne Jules Marey, Study of motion

Balla was influenced by contemporary photographers who used stop-action cameras to capture motion.  Anticipating the invention of the moving image (film) photographers like Edward Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey used multiple cameras fitted with a fast acting shutter.  The resulting photographs are like the individual frames of a moving image.  Balla endeavored to create the same effect of motion by multiplying the limbs of his figures.

Umberto Boccioni, States of Mind I: The Farewells, 1911Museum of Modern Art
Umberto Boccioni, States of Mind I: The Farewells, 1911
Museum of Modern Art

Cubism also helped Futurists represent motion, speed, and simultaneity.  In this work, Boccioni uses Cubist fragmentation to evoke the dynamism and energy of a speeding locomotive:

“Boccioni captures chaotic movement and the fusion of people swept away in waves as the train’s steam bellows into the sky. Oblique lines hint at departure  . . .  Boccioni said he sought to express “loneliness, anguish, and dazed confusion.”
Museum of Modern Art

1913 | “Dynamism of a Soccer Player” by Umberto Boccioni (MoMA Videos)

Luigi Russolo, Dynamism of an Automobile, 1912-13 Musée National d'Art Moderne de Paris
Luigi Russolo, Dynamism of an Automobile, 1912-13
Musée National d’Art Moderne de Paris

This painting by Luigi Russolo depicts a speeding automobile (a favorite subject of the Futurists).  He creates the sensation of movement by fragmenting the object and the atmosphere around it into waves that resemble the scientific principal know as the Doppler Effect.  This short video will explain it:

The Doppler Effect:  What Does Motion do to Waves?

Umberto Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913
Museum of Modern Art

The defining work of the Futurist movement was Umberto Boccioni’s Unique forms of Continuity in space.  It was an update on a famous sculpture of a striding man by Auguste Rodin.  As the figure strides forward, the forms of his body unfold, creating a rushing surge of motion forward:

“Boccioni, who sought to infuse art with dynamism and energy, exclaimed, “Let us fling open the figure and let it incorporate within itself whatever may surround it.” The contours of this marching figure appear to be carved by the forces of wind and speed as it forges ahead. While its wind–swept silhouette is evocative of an ancient statue, the polished metal alludes to the sleek modern machinery beloved by Boccioni and other Futurist artists.”
Museum of Modern Art


Web Resources:

Futurism (Smarthistory)

Futurist Manifestos

Futurism (Guggenheim Museum)

Words in Freedom:  Futurism at 100 (MOMA)

Tumultuous Assembly: Visual Poems of the Italian Futurists (Getty Museum)


Next lecture

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.