FLASHBACK: OG Futurists Shaped Today

Luigi Russolo’s 1911 painting “La Rivolta” exemplifies the Futurists’ obsession with ferocious new methods.

Luigi Russolo’s 1911 painting “La Rivolta” exemplifies the Futurists’ obsession with ferocious new methods.

We’re constantly thinking about the future – and not just because it’s our jobs. Our society basically demands we ponder tomorrow on the daily: technological and scientific advances encourage fantasies of the time-to-be, while dire warnings about climate change make future-thinking imperative. But this future focus is relatively new.

For most of human history, the far-off future was an abstract concept, or something to be considered mostly in terms of farming. The majority of people didn’t think about the future on the daily because their actual lives were too pressing, or, most likely, because they couldn’t conceive a period so vastly different than their own. Flash a smartphone in 17th century Salem and you’d be burned at the stake. 

Art has been similarly bound to the present and past. Aside from FAROUT thinkers like Leonardo DaVinci, who sketched flying machines centuries before the Wright brothers perfected their craft, the bulk of history’s visual artists focused on great battles or contemporary influencers; most literature revolved around universal emotions; and design was firmly ingrained in immediate needs. In other words, the future was more or less an afterthought.  

That all changed in the early 20th century, the first time in history when the past and the present looked remarkably different, and it was all fodder for a group of upstart artists called the Futurists.

A coalition of young Italian artists, the Futurists were inspired by the speed, innovation, and machinery of their era: Skyscrapers! Race cars! Locomotives! Radios! — at no other point in human history had the past and the future looked so dissimilar. Yes, the 19th century’s Industrial Revolution upended society and culture. Railroads reduced travel time; steam power reduced labor hours; and mass production created instantaneous abundance, and all helped plant the seeds of the future in the collective consciousness, as seen in the development of sci-fi novels. But that past’s visions of the future were still restrained: the century’s sci-fi classics Looking Backward (1888) and The Time Machine (1895) offer only superficial nods to a different future. There are no super computers or hoverboards here – just updated variations of what the authors knew. The 19th century’s future was bright, but not yet unrecognizable. The 20th century was unrecognizable, and then some, and it made the Futurists want even more. 

“We are on the extreme promontory of the centuries!” wrote Futurist leader Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in the group’s introductory 1909 Manifesto. “What is the use of looking behind at the moment when we must open the mysterious shutters of the impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We are already living in the absolute, since we have already created eternal, omnipresent speed.” To Marinetti and his cohorts, the past was a repulsive drag that needed to be thrown into history’s proverbial dust bin. And that included any and all classical art: “To admire an old picture is to pour our sensibility into a funeral urn instead of casting it forward with violent spurts of creation and action,” he writes, making clear the group’s view: humans were on the precipice of a new epoch, and art could move it along. In their hands, the future would become an everyday affair. 

Gino Severini’s “La Bohemme” and “La Modiste” capture the Futurists’ aesthetic shift.

Gino Severini’s “La Bohemme” and “La Modiste” capture the Futurists’ aesthetic shift.

The Futurists’ focus on upending the artistic establishment is evident in the movement’s aesthetic style and technique. Though they didn’t codify their approach until 1914, in their “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting,” viewers can see the philosophical shift in their output, particularly in the above images by Gino Severini. His 1905 image “La Bohemme” still plays by the rules of classical art, while “La Modiste,” completed only 5 years later, looks completely different: defined lines are tossed by the wayside, replaced instead with fragmented, Cubist-inspired geometric shapes. 

Natalia Goncharova’s 1913 piece, “The Electric Light,” and Luigi Russolo’s 1910 “Profuma” show the movement’s new aesthetic techniques in action.

Natalia Goncharova’s 1913 piece, “The Electric Light,” and Luigi Russolo’s 1910 “Profuma” show the movement’s new aesthetic techniques in action.

Along the same lines – no pun intended — many Futurists also utilized divisionism: a method in portraiture’s continuous, seamless lines are replaced with short, jarring slashes that both give the image a disjointed quality that speaks to changing selves and a rapid-fire velocity that invokes the speed with which Futurists were obsessed. 

“All things move, all things run, all things are rapidly changing,” they write in the 1914 Manifesto. “A profile is never motionless before our eyes, but it constantly appears and disappears… Moving objects constantly multiply themselves; their form changes like rapid vibrations, in their mad career. Thus, a running horse has not four legs, but twenty, and their movements are triangular.”

To Futurists, everything was to be compelled, ferventand alive, and must capture what they call “Dynamism.” This word appears in many of the movement’s most famous pieces, such as Giacomo Balla’s 1912 painting, “The Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash,” in which the fluffy little scamp and his human are depicted shuffling along. 

Motion is the subject in Giacomo Balla’s “The Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash” (1912).

Motion is the subject in Giacomo Balla’s “The Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash” (1912).

Balla’s depiction is adorable indeed, but Umberto Boccioni “Dynamism of a Cyclist” (1913), and Russolo’s “The Dynamism of a Car” (1913), have harsher, more frantic edges that indicates another of Futurism’s obsessions: violence, figurative and literal. 

Umberto Boccioni’s “The Dynamism of a Cyclist” (1913) and Russolo’s “The Dynamism of a Car” (1913) have more violent edges, indicating the Futurists’ fatal flaw.

Umberto Boccioni’s “The Dynamism of a Cyclist” (1913) and Russolo’s “The Dynamism of a Car” (1913) have more violent edges, indicating the Futurists’ fatal flaw.

Russolo Car.jpg

Figuratively, Futurists saw their aesthetic approach itself as a violent break from classical edicts; and literally, they saw violence as “hygienic.” They believed war and destruction would let humanity rise, like a phoenix, to become something new, something worthy of the new epoch they invoke. And, ironically, it was this fascination that led to the Futurists’ demise: internal discord over nationalist Fascism splintered the group into those who wanted war to force through “progress” and those who sought a more measured, incremental, and logical approach to catalyzing the future. We know how that ended: World War I broke out in July of 1914; Marinetti and his Fascist allies sided with Mussolini and the rest fled for the hills. The Futurist movement was over.  

Antonio Sant'Elia's 1914 sketch "La Città Nuova (The New City)" influenced Art Deco and Neo-Futurism. Sant'Elia was killed during the war.

Antonio Sant'Elia's 1914 sketch "La Città Nuova (The New City)" influenced Art Deco and Neo-Futurism. Sant'Elia was killed during the war.

Short and not always sweet, the original Futurist movement left a mark on art for years to come: it inspired the Russian Futurists, of course, and Art Deco architects of the 1920s and 30s, too; and Futurism’s work continued to influence mid-and-late century expressions, such as Neo-Futurism in the 1960s-1980s, such as Pierre Cardin’s space age fashions and painter Peter Bardazzi’s paintings. Yet none these expressions had the shock and awe of the OG Futurists: artists who, living in a time of unprecedented change, undid centuries of artistic and aesthetic tradition to fit the times. 

Today, in an era even more defined by speed than the Futurists could ever imagine, in an era in which nationalism again threatensglobal stability, and when the future looks less bright than it did a century ago, now’s a good time to reconsider these thrilling Futurist works and wonder if their and their followers’ obsession with unyielding speed is what made our current future so pressing. Was it the 20th century’s unending effort to trump nature, to disrespect the past, and to enact unyielding control that got us into this mess? If so, how do we stop it? 

One way we can all combat rampant future-chasing is by simply slowing down. That’s the message behind mindful eating, a movement that encourages people to enjoy food in the moment instead of becoming “zombie eaters;” slow fashion similarly reminds us to enjoy the pieces we have before replacing them with the next trendy thing; and meditation and wellness celebrate being in the present, rather than constantly hurling one’s self into an unknown future. But of course, there’s more to be done; and, as we know, art and design are a perfect vehicle for enacting change. What that change will look like will depend on a variety of factors.

As the Futurists show, art doesn’t arise in a vacuum – it’s dependent on economic, cultural, technological and other external factors.We can say, however, that whatever form it takes, we look forward to seeing it, and shaping it, too.

“Brooklyn Bridge,” painted by Italian-American painter Joseph Stella in 1919, shows that Futurism lived on even after the official movement ended.

“Brooklyn Bridge,” painted by Italian-American painter Joseph Stella in 1919, shows that Futurism lived on even after the official movement ended.