Italian Futurism

*Giacomo Balla, Marinetti (1925)

Italian Futurism was initially a literary movement created by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in 1909 with the manifesto Le Futurisme [1]. The intentions of this manifesto was a wake-up call to Marinetti's countrymen to make them aware that they had been 'wearing second-hand clothes for too long.' It was time for them to create a new art for themselves, forged out of the beauty of speed and a glorification of war: Art, in fact, can be nothing but violence, cruelty, and injustice. That the manifesto was first written in French and published in the Parisian newspaper Le Figaro before any of the new Futurist art existed, typified Marinetti's understanding of the power of the media to work for him and disseminate his ideas.

M. Angelini, Ritratto di Marinetti (1916)

F. T. Marinetti along with the artists that he gathered around him, wrote manifestos not only on literature, music, dance, performance, painting, architecture, etc. but also on almost all aspects touching everyday life, such as clothing, food [2], smells, war and lust [3]. Futurism was the first attempt in the 20th century to reinvent life as it was being transfixed by new technologies and conceive of a new race in the form of machine-extended man. Futurism succinctly reiterated a cognate set of ideas which reverberates all through a multitude of forms in 20th century art expression.

These were ideas which were already in the air, many filtering up through the Symbolist and Expressionistic poets of the 19th century. The impact of radically new forms of technology had made profound effects upon Western culture, and these too were at the core of the Futurist enterprise. From the collapse and bankruptcy of traditional Western art forms and aesthetics at the end of 19th century, the art of discontinuity and rupture was produced [4].

Fortunato Depero, Incendio (1929)

. The Italians were among the first to identify and place their own claims upon these new ways of perceiving and acting. Marinetti took a group of Italian painters to Paris to show them how they should be painting and particularly expose them to Cubism [5]. He also used his quite sophisticated skills as the 'caffeine of Europe' to manipulate the media and proselytize Futurism all over the world. However, his actual appearance in the local neighborhoods of artists spawned as much violent reaction (such as the Vorticism movement of Pound and Lewis) as it did influence. In Russia, the development of the local cubo-futurism movement was associated to Marinetti's efforts largely through a quirk in translation. When the members of the movement finally did meet Marinetti, they ended up distancing themselves as far as possible from Marinetti's ideas of art as technological warfare. Many other manifestations and reactions to Futurism sprang up throughout the world during the early part of the century in Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, Holland, Portugal, America (particularly synchronistic art and the poetry of Hart Crane), as well as other places.

Futurist literary theory[6] was intent upon increasing the expressivity of language. A Futurist poet would project words from the page like a machine gun firing bullets. This they did with a variety of techniques both visually and sonically. They were especially interested in those methods which would blur the borderline between the dimensions to create a synesthesia: by evoking all of the senses, the work would have a more profound impact.

*Paolo Buzzi, parole in liberta (1916)

The mots in liberta poetry of Italian Futurism contained no adjectives, adverbs, finite verbs, punctuation -- anything that would slow it down. It was mostly a collage of nouns, and this form of their poetry was intended to be an uninterrupted sequence of new images. Their parole in liberta poetry functioned on a level below mots in liberta, at what the Futurists believed to be the basis of all language: onomatopoeia. This they defined in their technical manifestos of consisting of four basic types: realistic, analogical, abstract (the 'sound of a state of mind'), and psychic harmony (the fusion of two or three of the abstract representations).

Though strictly speaking, parole in liberta is not sound poetry, this fourth type of onomatopoeia approached the kind of phonetic poetry that the later Dadaist would develop. In keeping with Futurist doctrines of returning to the senses, parole in liberta also explored noise as the primal source of their onomatopoeia-rooted linguistics. This had a big influence on the Italian Futurist painter, Luigi Russolo, who in turn invented an Art of Noise, which then had an extensive impact on succeeding generations, resulting in Russolo being viewed as the 'grandfather' of modern sound culture.

Performances of Futurist poetry were meant to outrage and wake up an audience, in a time when poetry had largely become a plaything of the idle rich. Poetry was often presented in the late nineteenth century cultured drawing rooms with wine, caviar, and a bought romantic poet with slicked-back hair: doing his best to capture the poetic affectations of the times and pretending to be an Oscar Wilde clone, complete with a dead lily. The Futurists on the other hand, acting as if they were the Vikings or Hell's Angels of Art, were intent in trashing such cultivated and stylized aesthetics completely. Their performances often ended in riots with several members of the audience in the hospital and several Futurists ending up in jail [7].

References and Notes:

1. An English translation of Fondazione e Manifesto del futurismo (the 'Founding and Manifesto of Futurism'), as well as a selection of Marinetti's other writings can be found in Let's Murder the Moonshine: Selected Writings, translated by R. W. Flint and Arthur A. Coppotelli (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Classics, 1991).

2. F. T. Marinetti, The Futurist Cookbook, translated by Suzanne Brill, edited with an introduction by Lesley Chamberlain (San Francisco: Bedford Arts. 1989).

3. A brief summary of the many areas which Futurism attempted to redefine can be found in Futurism, by Caroline Tisdall and Angelo Bozzolla (London: Oxford University Press, 1978).

4. That Futurism existed as a movement and a cognate set of ideas common to many radical artists at the beginning of this century, is explored by Marjorie Perloff in The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant Guerre, and the Language of Rupture (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1986).

5. The term Cubism was invented around 1906 and 1908 by the painter Henri Mattisse and the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. The chief aspect which soon became apparent with Cubism as well as Futurism was the use of collage. The 'invention' of collage was either of Cubist or Futurist origins: Apollinaire was certainly involved as well as the Italian painter, Gino Severini. Collage is probably the single most important and innovative manipulatory technique in the 20th century. It is perhaps the artistic answer to the graphic layout of the modern newspaper, which had radically changed in the later part of the 19th century due to technological innovations in typesetting and increased literacy among the masses.

6. An extensive analysis of this subject can be found in John J. Whites's Literary Futurism: Aspects of the First Avant-Garde (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).

7. Michael Kirby, Futurist Performance, with manifestos and playscripts translated from the Italian by Victoria Nes Kirby (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1971).

Images are from 12-Parolibere Futuriste-12 (Firenze:Libreria Salimbeni Firenze, nd.).


Last Modified 28 September 1999