The dynamic energy of Futurism that changed the course of art

Gino Severini, aged 30, at the opening of his solo exhibition, Marlborough Gallery, London, 1913 Gino Severini, aged 30, at the opening of his solo exhibition, Marlborough Gallery, London, 1913 (Wikimedia Commons).
Gino Severini, Dynamic Hieroglyphic of the Bal Tabarin (1912), Museum of Modern Art, New York

Gino Severini, Dynamic Hieroglyphic of the Bal Tabarin (1912), Museum of Modern Art, New York (Wikimedia Commons).

Not many movements transform expectations of art while also aiming to liberate a country from the weight of its artistic past, but that was the bold aim of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Italian Futurists in the early 1900s. They briefly achieved their goal, and created one of the most important Italian avant-garde movements of the 20th century in the process.

Sweeping away any existing notions of art in favor of a new wave of art that celebrated modernity, its industry, and technology, the Futurism art movement was a cold, violent, and fast stake to the heart of traditional art.

“We will free Italy from her innumerable museums which cover her like countless cemeteries”

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, 1909

Spearheaded in Italy by charismatic poet, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in 1909, Futurism aimed to capture through art the dynamism and energy of the modern world. It announced its arrival with Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurism, which was published on the front page of the Paris newspaper Le Figaro in February of the same year.

At its most influential and active between 1909 and 1914, speed, violence, and the working classes were all glorified by the group in their bid to advance change. And, as with the rest of the Modernist movements, Futurism embraced the modernity of life and rejected any notion of tradition.

Characteristics of Futurist Art

Focusing on progress and a distinct and dynamic vision of the future, artists embraced images of urban landscapes alongside trains, cars, and airplanes in an energetic celebration of the machine age that was expressed through architecture, sculpture, literature, theatre, music, and (surprisingly) even food

Based on Marinetti’s principles, Futurist artists aimed to create a “universal dynamism” in their artistic ode to the modern world of industry and technology, as the manifesto announced “we declare…a new beauty, the beauty of speed. A racing motor car…is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace (an ancient Greek sculpture in the Louvre, Paris.)”

Gino Severini - La Ferrovia Nord-Sud.

Gino Severini – La Ferrovia Nord-Sud. Sold for £611,250 via Christie’s (February 2020).

To express this speed and motion of universal dynamism, a collected band of Futurists developed blurring and repetition techniques, while making use of lines of force, which was borrowed from Cubists and helped Futurists to portray energy in their work. In fact, Futurism also borrowed from elements of Neo-Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, including Symbolism and Divisionism, but unlike its modernist contemporaries, Futurism wasn’t immediately identifiable by a distinct style. Instead, it was the principles of Marinetti’s manifesto more than any visual style that defined the movement and allowed it to be applied to a wide variety of media.

Futurism became one of the most important Italian avant-garde movements of the 20th century. A small group of radical artists helped to shape the revolutionary movement in the years before World War I, most notable among them…

Umberto Boccioni (1882–1916)

Umberto Boccioni - Studio per foot-baller.

Umberto Boccioni – Studio per foot-baller. Sold for €1,866,950 via Christie’s (November 2007).

One of Futurism’s principal figures, Umberto Boccioni, helped to mould the image of the revolutionary aesthetic and became an influential figure thanks to his dynamism of form and the deconstruction of solid mass, which continued to influence artists long after his death.

His life was cut short during a cavalry training exercise in World War I. Three years earlier, he had completed his sculptural masterpiece, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space in wax, aiming to create a ‘synthetic continuity’ of motion. It was posthumously cast in bronze in 1931. Boccioni’s dynamic bronze sculpture sold for $16,165,000 at Christie’s in 2019. His paintings have equal appeal judging by the sale of Studio per foot-baller for €1,866,950 12 years earlier.

Giacomo Balla (1871–1958)

Painter, art teacher, and poet, Giacomo Balla differentiated himself from his fellow Futurists with a comparatively witty and whimsical approach that depicted light, movement, and speed in his expressive works. Unlike many other leading Futurists, Balla was uninterested in machines or violence. Nevertheless, the art movement’s characteristic dynamism is perfectly expressed in his most famous work, Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash (1912), which is today in the Albright–Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York.

Balla taught Divisionist techniques to later Futurists, Umberto Boccioni and Gino Severini, at the start of the 1900s and was a signatory of the Futurist Manifesto in 1910 before applying its principles to furniture, “antineutral” clothing and sculpture, creating Lines-Force of Boccioni’s Fist. It’s Balla’s exploration of light, atmosphere, and motion on canvas that have proved most popular at auction though.

Gino Severini (1883–1966)

Gino Severini - Danseuse.

Gino Severini – Danseuse. Sold for £15,049,250 via Sotheby’s (June 2008).

Invited by Marinetti and Boccioni to join the Futurist movement, Severini divided his time between Paris and Rome, as well as artistic movements. By 1916, he’d abandoned Futurism in favour of a naturalistic style inspired by his interest in early Renaissance art and embraced the “return to order” following World War I, which used more traditional and reassuring approaches to art. 

Severini was more attracted to the figure of a dancer to express the dynamism of his Futurist theories in his art, but his painting Danseuse is quintessentially Futurist, while remaining typically Severini. The combination proved popular as the piece sold for £15,049,250 at Sotheby’s in June 2008.

Carlo Carrà (1881-1966)

Carlo Carrà - Quargento.

Carlo Carrà – Quargento. Est: CHF30,000 – CHF40,000 via Koller Auctions (June 2013).

Carlo Carrà had a profound influence on the Futurist concept of dynamism. In his 1913 manifesto, The Painting of Sounds, Noises and Smells, Carrà introduced the idea of synaesthesia – the phenomenon of one stimulus being realized as a different visualization, like experiencing colour as sound – which proved to be an important document for the Futurist fraternity.

Best known for his 1911 Futurist work, The Funeral of the Anarchist Galli, Carrà painted some of Italy’s most important abstract masterpieces, but his association with Futurism was short lived. By the advent of World War I, he’d abandoned Futurism to become a pioneer of Metaphysical Painting, which brought a dreamlike quality to city squares and interiors.

Lasting Legacy

Despite its short life, the mechanised and energetic ethos of Futurism had a profound influence on future artists and movements. Vorticism (the British equivalent of Futurism) was influenced by Marinetti’s doctrine, despite its founder, Wyndham Lewis’s deep dislike of Futurists. German Expressionists adopted Futurist elements, while in the United States, a groundbreaking Armory Show in 1913 astonished audiences and led to the rise of American Modernism, from which Precisionism developed.

The dynamic embrace of the machine age and modernity also influenced Art Deco styles and inspired American architects Helmut Jahn and John Portman, while the films like Metropolis (1927) and Blade Runner (1982) borrowed heavily from the avant-garde movement’s aesthetic.

Its legacy isn’t merely aesthetic though, as Futurism was one of the more politicised art movements, with many Italian Futurists supporting Fascism. Both are deeply patriotic and supportive of violence. Futurism was officially accepted by Fascists when Benito Mussolini rose to power in 1922, but many Futurist artists were negatively affected by their association with Fascism after its fall.

In the years following, the movement underwent a critical re-evaluation as major exhibitions like Guggenheim’s Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe in 2014 reflected the increasing appetite for the movement in the 21st century machine age.