Updated: Sep 13
In 1908, a man swerved his car to avoid hitting a cyclist on the road. The car ended up crashing into a ditch. This one event spurred an entire artistic movement and helped launch a reign of terror across Italy and even the European continent.
That man was Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. Upset at the events, he viewed the bicycle versus automobile incident as one of the past versus future. In his Manifesto of Futurism, published in 1909, he championed a celebration of the machine age, emphasizing the superiority of technology and modernization over more traditional elements of society and culture.
However, his manifesto went a step further than simply stating a desire for a new way of thinking; he advocated for a violent change in order to make it happen.
Within a year, Marinetti’s movement was growing, attracting people from all walks of life, including artists. Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà and Luigi Russolo became followers and together, penned the Manifesto of Futurist Painters. Together with the additional signatures of fellow artists Gino Severini and Giacomo Balla, they became the core group of a new Futurist group of artists.
The techniques of Futurism
Everything that was old and traditional was viewed as obsolete by the Futurists. So, many looked to other contemporary movements for inspiration.
And they found it in Post-Impressionism and Cubism. Post-Impressionism’s use of divisionism moved away from more traditional blending techniques. It relied on the artist’s understanding of science and optics to work. Divisionist art used unmixed colour pigment laid on the canvas, similar to how we would view early digital pixelization today. Colours would be paired with complementary colours to help boost their brightness.
From Cubism, the Futurists borrowed the method of using lines of force. Combined with blurring and repetition, they were able to give their art the impression of speed and motion, which served to emphasize the machinist elements within their works.
Futurism and the World Wars
Futurism enjoyed its height of popularity at the beginning of its life, between 1909 and 1914. World War I put a stop to many artistic ventures as men went off the fight.
By the end of the war in 1918, many of these artists were disillusioned with the very technologies and advancements they had once championed. Witnessing firsthand the horrors of how technology and machines had changed the face of war, there was an exodus of artists back to more traditional methods.
But some stayed and became even more radicalized. Futurists, already involved in literature, architecture and many other artistic mediums, began to move into the political realm.
The Futurist Political Party was formed and quickly merged with the National Fascist Party. Marinetti even went on to become one of the key intellectuals of the Fascist movement in Italy.
Painters contributed to propaganda campaigns and by 1922 when Benito Mussolini came to power, Futurism was officially adopted into the larger fascist doctrine.
However, the marriage between fascism and Futurism was not to last. As Germany grew in dominance through the rise of the Nazis, so too did their ideas over Italy. The German term, Entartete Kunst (degenerate art) influenced Italian Fascists. By the late 1930s, Futurism was considered degenerate and removed from much of Italy.
After the end of World War II and the fall of fascism, many Futurist artists were unable to find work, having been associated with fascism.
Futurism may have largely ended by World War II, but it can still be found elsewhere. In the United Kingdom, Vorticism embraced modernization and many Futurist elements. In the United States, it heavily influenced Precisionism, considered by many to be one of the first true American art movements.
But for many of Futurism’s original artists, a shift to tradition followed as they grew cynical of what modernity and technology had to offer. It has been described as a “return to order,” a return to more traditional or established techniques and ideals of art.