The late 19th and early 20th centuries gave birth to modern marvels previous generations could scarcely dream of. Many of those marvels rested squarely in the realm of technology; Edison's practical incandescent lamp was newly patented, the Ford Model T had just reached the assembly line, and powered flight was finally more than just a sketch in da Vinci's codices. With all this going on, no group got quite as swept up in technology's promise for the future as the Italian Futurists. For them, planes, trains, and automobiles weren't just the avant garde. In many ways, the future was a way of life, consuming national identity and even approaching religious experience.
Futurism got its start in 1909 with Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. A poet and fierce nationalist, Marinetti penned The Futurist Manifesto after a drive in Milan resulted in a (evidently life-altering) minor car accident. In the manifesto — the first of many written in the years that followed — he exalts speed and violence, along with a wholesale rejection of the past in favor of a technological present. In one of his many exultations, he writes, "We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed."
"We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed."
Marinetti drew in followers quickly, including preeminent artists like Umberto Boccioni, who would all experiment with Marinetti's ideals in painting, sculpture, music, poetry, photography, and film. Futurism became a major force in the art world and a bona fide social movement, albeit a contentious and often paradoxical one. It was unabashedly anti-woman, but Benedetta Cappa was both a major figure in its history and Marinetti's wife. Futurists called for anarchy, but found themselves often aligned (perhaps unavoidably) with Mussolini's Fascists. Nevertheless, their art was incredibly influential up until Marinetti's death in 1944, informing later movements like Art Deco and Dadaism.
The Guggenheim Museum in New York City is currently showing an exhibit entitled Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe. There, some of the finest examples of Futurist art can be found, some of which you can see below. Take the trip if you get the chance.
Photos courtesy of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
- 'Unique Forms of Continuity in Space' by Umberto Boccioni (1913) Boccioni, as both a painter and sculptor, was a central figure in Futurism. 'Unique Forms of Continuity in Space,' wherein he depicts the fluid movement of the human body, is considered one of the movement's masterpieces and currently appears on the Italian 20 cent euro coin. (© The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
- 'The Hand of the Violinist (The Rhythms of the Bow)' by Giacomo Balla (1912) Futurism's artists glorified speed and motion, and painter Giacomo Balla helped capture both in the movement's first wave. In 'The Hand of the Violinist,' the musician's hand is made to look like it's vibrating through space. (© 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SIAE, Rome)
- 'Speeding Train' by Ivo Pannaggi (1922) In the years following World War I, Futurism's "cult of the machine" adored the train as a symbol of speed, power, and modernity — ideals they made frequent mention of in their many manifestos. This ethos was captured in their 'arte meccanica' (machine aesthetics), of which 'Speeding Train' is a perfect example. (Courtesy of Fondazione Cassa di risparmio della Provincia di Macerata)
- 'Cimino Home Dining Room Set' by Gerardo Dottori (early 1930s) Futurists had the lofty goal of "reconstructing the universe." As such, their art extended beyond paintings and sculpture and into furniture and even toys. Dottori, for example, created this vision of a dining room set to achieve the 'opera d'arte totale' or total work of art. (© 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SIAE, Rome the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice)
- 'Synthesis of Aerial Communications' by Benedetta (1933-34) Benedetta was a highly-regarded artist and writer, and just happened to be married to Futurism's founder F.T. Marinetti. 'Synthesis of Aerial Communications' is one of three major murals she painted, depicting telecommunications over air, land, and sea. Like all Futurist works of art, it's forward-looking, but the mural is also (somewhat paradoxically) meant to evoke the ancient frescoes of Pompeii. (© Benedetta Cappa Marinetti, used by permission of Vittoria Marinetti and Luce Marinetti’s heirs)
- 'Before the Parachute Opens' by Tullio Crali (1939) 'Aeropittura' or 'aero painting' was the last major expression of Futurism's second wave. By then, painters had moved on to the airplane as the height of technological advancement, especially as Mussolini's Fascists exalted Italy's military prowess in the air. Artists like Crali experimented with dizzying perspectives and views of iconic Italian landscapes. (© 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome)