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Futurism Is Still Influential, Despite Its Dark Side

What's so great about the curve-filled, machine-inspired art movement that burst on the scene in the early 20th century and owes a lot to Cubism? Certainly not its founders' politics

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Armored Train in Action

Armored Train in Action (1915) by Gino Severini. Italian Futurist paintings adopted a Cubist visual vocabulary but were bolder and brasher. Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY, © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

In 2014 the Guggenheim Museum in New York will open the biggest exhibition ever held on the Italian Futurists; the event has been foreshadowed by an article in Smithsonian, accompanied by an online photo gallery of Futurist masterpieces. It’s a good moment to reflect a bit on what Futurism represents, how it happened and how it has transformed the world we live in.

Today we think of Futurism as a visual style—a sort of animated Cubism that endows images and objects with a feeling of windblown movement. Remarkably, however, the movement began with a manifesto, and a series of “happenings,” before the artists associated with it had developed a new style.

The movement was first trumpeted in a manifesto by the poet Filippo Marinetti,which was published in the Paris newspaper Le Figaro on February 20, 1909. The intention of the movement, Marinetti explained, was to smash anything old, sentimental or conventional and create a new manly culture based on machines, speed and modernity. Hailing the “beauty of speed,” he argued that museums libraries, academies and “venerated” cities had to be destroyed, since they represented the culture of the past, and were stale and reactionary, as were “morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.” In a famous phrase, Marinetti declared that “a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace” (a reference to the second century Greek sculpture of the goddess Victory). Proud of their ability to irritate the public, the Futurists staged performances in Turin, Naples, Milan and other cities, at which they recited poetry and declaimed their manifestos while the audience responded by showering them with rotten fruit and vegetables and other objects.

Developing a Futurists style was clearly a necessary next step. In a later manifesto of April 11, 1910, the Futurists argued that “the construction of pictures is stupidly traditional,” but finding an appropriate visual language for their iconoclastic ideas about modern life was not easy. The early works of the Futurists used the techniques of divisionism, which created patterns with colored dots, and Post-Impressionism, which employed bold, decorative shapes. But they seemed to have quickly sensed that they needed to do something more visually exciting.

Gino Severini, who lived in Paris, was the first of the group to come into contact with Cubism, and after a visit to Paris in 1911, several of the other Futurist paintings also began to adopt a Cubist visual vocabulary. The Cubism of Picasso and Braque, however, was a strangely hermetic, inward-looking style, which focused obsessively on a small number of objects, such as pipes, newspapers, wine glasses and guitars, and seldom cast its gaze on anything outside the painter’s studio. The Futurists, on the other hand, were interested in life outside the studio: the world of cars, trains and other objects of modern life—particularly when they carried connotations of speed, modernity and movement.

In their hands, the language of Cubism took on new meanings. While the Cubists used fractured forms as a way of analyzing the object, the Futurists used fracturing to indicate “lines of force,” which marked patterns of energy rather than an actual physical object. What’s more, whereas Cubism was generally drab in its coloration, apparently deliberately so, the Futurists, in keeping with their Post-Impressionist antecedents, employed brilliant, electrifying, prismatic colors. The Futurists created a style that was bolder and brasher in its visual impact than Cubism, and also forged a new connection between the compulsive innovation of new styles in painting and the innovative world of new machines and inventions outside the painter’s studio.

On February 5, 1912, the Futurists staged an exhibition at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery in Paris, showcasing their new style and accompanied by a new manifesto by Marinetti. The result was a sensation. “We are beginning a new epoch in painting,” Marinetti declared, and then went on to describe the Futurists greatest visual innovation—the “lines of force.”

The manifesto, Gertrude Stein noted, “made a great deal of noise.” She wrote, “Everybody was excited, and this show being given in a well known gallery everybody went.”  By this time, the Futurist painters had devised a style as memorable as Marinetti’s stirring words.

As a movement, Futurism did not last long, since it quickly degenerated in squabbles between its major artists. What’s more, many of the key Futurist artists were sucked into Fascist politics, and into positions that most art-lovers would hardly endorse today, such as love of war and violence, bigotry toward minority groups and contempt for women.  What’s fascinating, however, is that through some strange aesthetic magic these unfavorable aspects of Futurism have faded away from our memories. As is often the case, history is as much a process of writing out some parts of what happened as writing up other parts that did. We’ve all been seduced by the Futurists. What has survived is the excitement and the dynamism of what they produced. We’ve conveniently forgotten the unsavory side of their activities. Futurism is still a language used in modern design—and a century after it was introduced it still looks modern.

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About Henry Adams
Henry Adams

Henry Adams is a contributor to Smithsonian magazine and a Professor of American Art at Case Western Reserve University.

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