Futurism: chasing the vortex of modernity
Streets clogged by automobiles, people hurrying on their way, construction works in squares and streets, chimneys spewing smoke, trains and trams that slice the city into sections, clanging along, and the roar of the airplanes that circle over the city, leaving streaks of smoke in their wake. As evening falls, artificial lights burn with their yellowish glow, making it possible to experience the night and all that it brings – the sense of the forbidden, alcohol, illicit sexual encounters, but also cabaret, cinema and theater.
We are at the beginning of the 20th century, as the world changes pace. Life, work and free time all acquire new rhythms, the whirlwind of movement absorbs everything, lashing, striking with the force of dynamism and energy.
It is in this period that the subconscious and the interpretation of dreams were debated and discussed, X-rays allow us to see things we were never able to see before. Scientific discoveries change the way man observes the universe: the concept of the atom is developed, followed by the theory of relativity, which destroys the notion of space and time as separate entities.
Artists, who are often the first to perceive radical changes, begin to ask questions and express new ideas and scenarios through their work.
At the end of the 1800s in Paris, epicenter of modernity, Georges Seurat proposed a new, more scientific and disciplined approach to painting. Instead of painting by layering the colors, he used minuscule strokes, similar to dots, placed very closely together, working with chromatic contrasts to create a pictorial plot with surprising lighting effects, essentially inventing pointillism. In 1907, Picasso stunned the already feverish Parisian artistic community with his famous work, Le demoiselle d’Avignon. This gave rise to Cubism, with its vision of space and time that allowed the artist to portray on the canvas not what he/she saw of the object, but what he/she knew of the object. Reality dissolved and was depicted as shattered and conceptualized. The relationship between foreground and background, between figure and space became obscured; or rather, space became a rhythmic emanation of its constituent parts.
Then on 20 February 1909, in the left-hand column of the French daily newspaper Le Figarò, a new word appeared in bold-type: Futurism. An article written by an Italian artist, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, presented to the world “The Futurist Manifesto”. It was truly revolutionary; an artistic group had never before used a newspaper to explain their ideas. Marinetti proved himself to be knowledgeable, and used mass media brilliantly and with his biting, excoriating words, a sort of battle cry, elevated “The Manifesto” to literature.
“We intend to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness. Courage, audacity, and revolt will be essential elements of our poetry. Up to now literature has exalted a pensive immobility, ecstasy, and sleep. We intend to exalt aggressive action, a feverish insomnia, the racer’s stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap. We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed.”
The intention of Futurists was to render in art the dynamism and the sensations caused by a world in motion. They wanted to propose a dual vision: on one hand, the sensory perception of what is observed, and on the other, the recollection that one has of that object. As a consequence, vision is made objective and subjective at the same time. Their paintings were the sum of the physical, sensory and emotional elements.
The result is the disintegration of laws of representation and the transformation of the position of the observer, who is no longer passive, but must participate, rebuilding that which the images, equivalent abstracts of reality, symbols of pure energy, seek to reveal: the juxtasposition of actions, sounds and voices of reality, the dynamic presence of the world, its essence no longer the background, but a frenetic system of continuous development.
Futurists were no longer depicting nature and human forms on the canvas, but the sensations and the motion that radiate from them.
But Futurists’ ambitions were not limited to art. They wanted to become part of the urban, environmental, private, even domestic reality. Balla house became the prototype of the futuristic environment, with objects and materials in colors and forms taken directly from artistic poetry.
The myth of speed was evident in the way in which Futurists interpreted painting, but also in the subjects they painted. Automobiles, motorcycles and speedboats were featured and became reference models. Later the airplane became an object of fascination. Documentation on the dynamics of flight was written with a vision from above, as if the observer was participating in the acrobatic turns of a bi-plane.
The movement’s innovative force has dampened over time, although it continued to evolve and Futurism was one of the cutting-edge styles that most influenced art in the 1900s. The inspiration was long and commanding and continues to be felt even today. In fact, recently in Italy a movement known as “Second Futurism” has sprung up, updating the principles and ideas of the original group.