Every time art movements replace each other, a new, “fresh” tendency rebuts and refutes the old one with enthusiasm and categoricity. However, there is hardly any movement in the history of art that demonstrated as strong aspiration for destroying the “old” and bring the “new” as Futurism.
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Having emerged in the early 20th century, Futurism absorbed the tense and contradictive spirit hovering in the air of progressive Western European capitals. One of the first artistic personalities who managed to grasp this spirit was Filippo Tommaso Emilio Marinetti, an Italian poet who is today considered one of the “fathers” of Futurism.
In his Futurist Manifesto published in 1909 in Paris (Marinetti 1909), Marinetti formulated the essence and the purpose of the Futurist movement and thus outlined the “ethical code” of a New Artist, a Futurist. Playing on the contrast of new and old, courage and cowardice, a human and nature, freedom and captivity, Marinetti not only expressed the spirit of his epoch, but also gave direction to it.
The contrast of “old” and “new” is the core of the Futurist movement. The term “Futurism” itself carries a certain paradox: on the one hand, its name includes the allusion to the future; on the other hand, this term was used in the beginning of the 20th century to denote not the art of the “future”, but the art of “today”.
Probably, this paradox was the issue that pleased Futurist poets and artists of that time who had opportunity to claim that they had overthrown the past and overstepped the present. We may notice this when familiarizing ourselves with numerous works of visual art, cinema, literature, music and architecture of that period.
Futurists do not mourn over the glory of antiquity or Renaissance; they look at the world around them with excitement: cars, airplanes, huge buildings constructed of concrete and glass become the objects of panegyric and poetical description. Thus, together with the contrast “old/new”, Futurists create the contrast of “human” and “nature” where a human is in the superior position. Instead of admiring the scenery with a bird flying in the sky, a human of the new epoch soars with his metal wings.
This message and this rhetoric take their origin in Futurist Manifesto. “Why should we look back, when what we want is to break down the mysterious doors of the Impossible: Time and Space died yesterday”, says Marinetti (1909), and a reader may even imagine the passion and enthusiasm put by the author in his words.
Marinetti outlines the new notion of beauty that has come to replace its old “version”, “…the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed” (ibid.); he says, it is time to free Italy from the heritage of the past that burdens it, from those “professors, archaeologists, ciceroni and antiquarians” (ibid.).
Marinetti is against stagnation, stability and tradition, but for a breakthrough, experiment and innovation. Thus, a modern person cannot enjoy the beauty “preserved” in museums; the beauty of a “roaring car” is more comprehensive and dear to a human of the beginning of the 20th century.
This is what we can see in the Futurists’ paintings: experiments with textures, techniques and shapes help to express the spirit of the time and thus help the “new” overthrow the “old” and “ascend the throne”. Painters try to depict speed and energy, light and sound; composition seems not harmonious and well-balanced, but unsteady, disturbing.
Particularly, we may allude to the paintings by Umberto Boccioni, Marinetti’s compatriot and “confederate” in the artistic movement. Boccioni’s The Street Enters the House (1911) is the bright illustration for the statements of Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto: the author depicts speed, energy and noise my means of colors, composition and numerous details, blurring and overlapping.
Futurist poets tend to experiment with a word, a sound, a sentence. Their desire is to break the rules that exist in the traditional, “ordinary” language. Below, the fragment of Marinetti’s poem Aeropoem for Agello: 700 Km an Hour (1939) illustrates these tendencies (in Bohn 2005, 14):
Suddenly far from the earthly feminine tic-toc Agello Castoldi and I gulp down the beautiful misty lake at 200-300 metres triumphantly joining those illustrious fliers who have flown 700 kilometres an hour
However, in Futurist Manifest, the notion of the new beauty is inseparable from the notion of struggle, “Except in struggle, there is no more beauty” (ibid.).
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Marinetti operates one more contrast: “freedom” versus “slavery”; freedom should be brought to the society, which implies to overcome “every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice” (ibid.), and to art where the museums, libraries and other “vestiges of the past” should be destroyed (ibid.). To free the society from the state of sleep and constraint, Futurists need to come with courage and violence.
“Art, in fact, can be nothing but violence, cruelty, and injustice”, say Marinetti (ibid.). This spirit was impregnated Futurist works of literature and art. The above mentioned painting by Boccioni “radiates” the energy of riot, anxiety, violence, penetration and destruction. In Luigi Russolo’s paintings, we may also see violence and aggression (for example, Impressions of Bombardment (Shrapnels and Grenades), 1926).
Not accidentally, Futurism is to some extent considered one of the forerunners of Fascism. Promotion of changes brought by means of destruction and violence is neighboring with nationalism. Yet in Futurist Manifesto, we see the nationalistic tint in the author’s narration, “It is from Italy that we launch through the world this violently upsetting incendiary manifesto of ours… For too long has Italy been a dealer in second-hand clothes” (Marinetti, 1909).
Thus, besides seeing Futurism as a solid, integrated movement in art, we also may notice its connection with the tendencies that existed in politics and society of that time. The ideas declared in Futurist Manifesto found their development during the next decades and had crucial impact on the history of the mankind. We see one more illustration of how art and the real life are always connected.
Boccioni, Umberto. The Street Enters the House. 1911. Sprengel-Museum, Hannover.
Bohn, Willard. 2005. Italian Futurist Poetry: Edited and Translated by Willard Bohn. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Marinetti, Filippo T. 1909. Futurist Manifesto. Le Figaro 20 February 1909. CSCS.Umich.Edu. Web.
Russolo, Luigi. Impressions of Bombardment (Shrapnels and Grenades). 1926. Collection of the Comune di Portogruaro.