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What was Futurism in Visual Art?

When Italian poet and editor Filippo Tommaso Marinetti coined the term Futurism in a manifesto published in a Paris newspaper in 1909, he used the word to reflect a push to abandon the art of the past and reinvigorate originality through cultural and societal innovation. Captivated by speed, energy and dynamism, Futurism embraced the restlessness of modernity, but Marinetti's desire for harnessing a futuristic zeitgeist came with a bleak manner of operation.

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, author of the Manifesto of Futurism
Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, author of the Manifesto of Futurism

Marinetti's manifesto, titled Manifesto of Futurism, set out to deify new technologies like the automobile. He also exalted conflict and violence, the forceful stripping of traditional values and the aggressive dismantlement of museums and libraries. Marinetti expressed a determined hatred of everything classified as old, including political and artistic traditions saying:

We want no part of it, the past, we the young and strong Futurists!

Marinetti's writing was intended to evoke action, emotion and controversy. In a stark and appalling example, Marinetti unreservedly supported war, writing that war itself was "the only true hygiene of the world". Marinetti praised the beauty of speed and aggression, proclaiming a love of danger and revolt. He encouraged the glorification of militarism, patriotism and anarchy, opposing moralism, feminism and "utilitarian cowardice".

First page of the English version Manifesto of Futurism
First page of the English version Manifesto of Futurism

Marinetti's manifesto inspired several young painters in Milan to apply Futurist ideas to their own visual arts practice. Together, Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo, Giacomo Balla and Gino Severini published several manifestos on painting in 1910. Like Marinetti, they each glorified originality and expressed solemn disgust for inherited or recycled artistic traditions. The Futurists refused the imitation of the past, praising originality "however daring, however violent" and bore the so-called smear of madness while dismissing art critics and rebelling against established aesthetic harmonies, themes and subjects.

Subscribing to the manifesto of Marinetti, Futurist art operated on its own visual tenants. The deliberately fragmented objects rendered in Futurist articulations were often blended with one another or their surroundings. According to the Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting published by the core Italian Futurist group:

The motor bus rushes into the houses which it passes, and in their turn, the houses throw themselves upon the motor bus and are blended with it

Dynamism of a Car |  Luigi Russolo  |  1913 Futurism
Dynamism of a Car | Luigi Russolo | 1913

In the same Technical Manifesto, a list of declarations demanding the eradication of imitation and the combative neutralization of conventional taste also aimed to emphasise dynamic sensation, sincerity and purity by dismantling materiality through movement and light. To do this, most Futurist painters commandeered the Cubist technique of intersecting visual surfaces and outlines to show numerous perspectives of a subject at one time. However, while the Cubists favoured still life and portraiture, the Futurists preferred fast-moving subjects such as trains, aircraft and cars, dancers or animals. Futurist paintings also typically exhibit a brighter and more vibrant pallet than Cubist works.

Futurists typically incorporated rhythmic repetition of transitory objects - similar to multiple photographic exposures of a shifting subject or perspective combined in one frame. A famous example of this is Giacomo Balla's Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash (1912) where an energetic dachshund's trot is depicted as a blurry flurry of legs.

Futurism Art Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash  | Giacomo Balla  | 1912
Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash | Giacomo Balla | 1912

In his sculpture Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913) Umberto Boccioni expressed a fluid continuity from solid materiality - earning a place on the obverse of the Italian-issue 20-cent euro coin. Constructed in bronze, Unique Forms depicts a humanoid figure apparently subjected to the familiar aerodynamic resistance experienced when marching into a strong wind. Boccioni’s physically and philosophically sensuous artwork was originally inspired by the sight of a football player making a pleasingly executed pass. Lacking a face, with legs fused to two blocky anchors, the sculpture is both active and still, a whorl of activity and juxtaposition

Unique Forms of Continuity in Space  |  Umberto Boccioni  |  1913
Unique Forms of Continuity in Space | Umberto Boccioni | 1913

Another of Boccioni's sculptures, Development of a Bottle in Space represents the glass bottle as opened planes of space rather than a single solidified and inaccessible form. Initially a sketch in Boccioni’s Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture, the design was later cast into bronze by Boccioni in 1913. The work of art points to the mass production of glass bottles, first implemented in the latter half of the 19th century, a modern technological phenomenon fitting well within the framework of Futurist ideals.

Development of a Bottle in Space |  Umberto Boccioni  |  1913
Development of a Bottle in Space | Umberto Boccioni | 1913

During the second decade of the 20th century, the Futurist influence expanded across Europe, manifesting most significantly within the Russian avant-garde. Natalia Goncharova, Kazimir Malevich and Olga Rozanova all shared similar ideas to Marinetti’s manifesto, such as the rejection of old art for the new and unexpected. Russian Futurism incorporated ideas from Cubo-futurism, a blend of Italian Futurism and French Cubism emphasizing the breakdown of forms, the use of simultaneous viewpoints, the intersection of space, and the contrast of colour and texture.

Natalia Goncharova |  Cyclist  |  1913  Futurism
Cyclist | Natalia Goncharova | 1913

Others outside of Italy and Russia also took part in (or were influenced by) Futurism. Alice Bailly was a Swiss avant-garde painter, known for her interpretations of Cubist, Fauvist, Futurist, and Dadaist works. Bailly's most famous work is a self-portrait painted in 1917. Though the painting incorporates numerous styles, sweeping anatomical representations reflect the influence of Italian Futurist Art.

Self Portrait |  Alice Bailly  |  1917 futurism
Self Portrait | Alice Bailly | 1917

Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson ARA was an English artist, known as one of the most famous war artists of World War I. Nevinson befriended Marinetti and adopted the mechanistic aesthetic of Futurism to portray his experiences tending to wounded French and British soldiers during the war. Nevinson's Futurist painting, Returning to the Trenches (1916) earned high public praise upon exhibition.

Frances Simpson Stevens was an American painter, best remembered as one of the few Americans to directly participate in the Futurist movement. Stevens was also one of the artists who exhibited at the 1913 Armory Show in New York City, the first large exhibition of modern art in America. The show included Stevens' oil painting Rooftops of Madrid, and was exhibited alongside works by artists including Paul Cézanne, Mary Cassatt, Marcel Duchamp, Edgar Degas, Gustave Courbet, Florence Howell Barkley, Vincent Van Gogh and Marie Laurencin.

Photograph of Frances Simpson Stevens with her Futurist artwork

After World War I, many artists were disillusioned by technology and the modern age, which were perceived as having led to wartime. For this reason, many artists rejected the pro-war Futurist movement and began working with traditional approaches once again, a phenomenon described as the return to order. The rejection of the extreme avant-garde that characterized the years leading up to 1918 led to the dismantling of Futurism, making room for other movements including various forms of Realism, Classicism and New Objectivity.




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Megan Kennedy is a writer and multidisciplinary artist based in Canberra, Australia. More of her work can be viewed on her website or Instagram.


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