What Is Futurism?

Jon Mann
Feb 2, 2017 12:50AM

Brash, energetic, and combative, the Futurists launched themselves into history in 1909 with the publication of the Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism” on the front page of the French newspaper Le Figaro. Hurling it like a dart from his base in Milan, Marinetti used the manifesto to glorify modernity, speed, violence, war, and the machine.

Within a few years, Marinetti and his followers had spread the movement through manifestos that touched on nearly every branch of the arts—painting, sculpture, architecture, photography, poetry, fashion, cinema, music, theater, dance, typography, and interior design. Futurism soon spawned important factions in Russia and the United Kingdom. The Futurists’ vehement mandate to blend art and life, which ultimately resulted in an ill-fated move into the Fascist political arena of interwar Italy, made them widely influential as one of the first avant-garde movements of the 20th century.

The Origins of Futurism

In 1908, swerving to miss a cyclist, Marinetti flipped his car into a ditch. The vehicle was completely wrecked, but the exhilarating experience became the origin story in his manifesto, which pitted the old bicycle against the modern motor vehicle—a fitting metaphor for a movement that would aim to conquer nostalgia and tradition. “Erect on the summit of the world, we hurl our defiance at the stars!” thunders the powerful final line of Marinetti’s “Founding and Manifesto of Futurism.”


In January 1910, the young artists Umberto BoccioniCarlo Carrà, and Luigi Russolo showed up on Marinetti’s doorstep to join his nascent movement, suggesting to the poet that Futurism could reach far beyond his literary objectives. The trio drafted the “Manifesto of Futurist Painters” (with Marinetti editing) and sent it to their colleagues Gino Severini and Giacomo Balla to sign, cementing the core group of artists who would first give visual form to Futurism.

The youthful Futurists were well-versed in the latest revelations in science and philosophy, and fascinated by aviation, as well as advances in early cinematography. Works like Carrà’s Piazza del Duomo (1909–10) and Boccioni’s early futurist canvas The City Rises (1910) sought to capture a frenetic sense of movement and change, reflecting their intoxication with the future and the innovations that would lead them there.

The Leaders of Futurism

A trip to Paris in 1912 to exhibit their work led the Futurist painters to their first encounter with the French Cubists, whose lessons they absorbed into their own styles. For Boccioni, the fragmented geometry of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque and the passage—a technique of using small, intersecting planes of patchwork brushstroke—of the Post-Impressionist Paul Cézanne became instrumental to his vision of painting. Dynamism of a Soccer Player (1913), painted after his return to Milan, shows an angularity and fragmentation absent from his earlier work and, in its focus on force and motion, a greater amount of abstraction. This style would become emblematic of mature Futurism.

Two 1912 manifestos established the intellectual underpinnings for this new style outside of painting: Marinetti’s “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature,” inspired by the poet’s first flight in an airplane, and Boccioni’s “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture.” In his manifesto, Boccioni, the group’s premier sculptor, claimed that a sculpted object was incomplete if it did not incorporate all the forces in its environment that acted upon it, an idea that led to one of the most iconic Italian sculptures of the 20th century.

With Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913), he developed a “Cubo-Futurist” figure striding in forward motion. The upright figure has powerful legs that create swirling vortexes in the air. Not only is this a modern-man machine, ready to leap into battle, it may also be read as an allegory for Italy’s quest to define itself as a modern nation. (Its face and chest are largely caved in, suggesting forces that resist progress.) In his 1909 manifesto, Marinetti had famously proclaimed that a roaring car engine was more beautiful than the ancient Winged Victory of Samothrace (ca. 190 BCE), and Unique Forms has often been read as a distillation of this anti-traditional impulse.

Balla took this embrace of technology one step further by tailoring Futurist clothing. In September 1914, after the outbreak of World War I, he introduced his “Anti-neutral Suit,” a bright orange, geometrically patterned collection of menswear, uniquely suited to the needs of the “urgent and imperative great war.” In 1915, alongside new recruit Fortunato Depero, he announced no less than the total “Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe,” an initiative to introduce the Futurist aesthetic into all aspects of life as a way to educate and embolden a new type of man, one capable of dealing with the ever-quickening pace of modern life.

Futurism and Fascism

Marinetti hoped that Italian intervention in a great war would allow the country to gain credibility in Europe—a notion shared by many nations in World War I. As his first manifesto claimed, “We intend to glorify war—the only hygiene of the world—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of anarchists.”

In fact, Marinetti actively agitated for Italy to join World War I, and he, Boccioni, and others were quick to sign up for military service. But the war didn’t hold the redemption that Futurism sought. In 1916, Boccioni died in a training exercise, leaving an artistic and theoretical void in post-war Futurism. And although Italy ended up on the victorious side of the war, the country didn’t receive the territory it had been promised as a result of allying with the Triple Entente (Russia, France, and the United Kingdom).

Italy’s losses in World War I morphed into a myth of “mutilated victory” in the popular imagination, creating a political climate that Benito Mussolini would later manipulate so that Italian citizens accepted two decades of Fascist dictatorship. Futurism and fascism shared many rhetorical similarities (the glorification of war and violence, the primacy of Italian identity), and under Mussolini, Marinetti opportunistically promoted Futurism as a proto-Fascist movement, hoping to gain his artists official commissions from the Fascist Party.

Among the three major interwar dictators (an infamous trio including Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin), Mussolini stood out for his unwillingness to prescribe an official artistic style: If a work’s subject matter served to glorify Italy and Fascism, Il Duce didn’t fret about its aesthetic. As such, “Second” Futurism—so-called to separate it from the “heroic” period of 1909 to 1916—was one of many modernist styles that flourished under Fascism, continuing to promote the idea of a technologically advanced “Third Rome” until Marinetti’s death in December 1944.

While Second Futurism was dismissed for decades after the fall of Fascism by scholars unwilling to write about the propagandistic art of the 1920s and 1930s that supported Mussolini’s regime, the Futurists did continue to conjure up exciting new ideas. The panel Synthesis of Aerial Communications (1933–4), part of a five-part mural cycle commissioned for a public building and painted by Marinetti’s wife Benedetta, is an example of aeropittura, or “air-painting.” A central facet of post-WWI Futurist production, aeropittura took the experience of modernity to the skies, painting dynamic topographic landscapes at the velocity and height of an airplane.

The Legacy of Futurism

As a result of Futurism’s thorny politics, scholars are only recently unpacking the developments and ideas contained in the movement. For example, despite its chest-thumping, anti-feminist rhetoric, Futurism employed more female poets and artists than perhaps any contemporary movement, partly because Marinetti agitated for a woman’s right to reject traditionally “female” roles.


Alongside inaugurating the manifesto as a poetic form, Futurism created a combative style of declaiming poetry that would help define 20th-century performance art, reworked by Dada at the Cabaret Voltaire, Antonin Artaud in his Theatre of Cruelty, and the punk scene in the 1970s. Likewise, Enrico Prampolini’s Second Futurist polimaterialismo (polymaterialism) was a radical foray into works that blended mixed media with the automatic practices of Surrealism to prefigure some of today’s most genre-bending multimedia art.

And, perhaps most lastingly, Marinetti’s public braggadocio—and his manipulation of and engagement with the mass media—changed the way artists conceived of their relationship to the art world and popular culture. Or as he brazenly claimed in 1915 in a manifesto titled “The Futurist Political Movement”: “With millions of manifestos, books, and pamphlets in every language, with many fists and slaps, with more than eight hundred lectures, exhibitions, and concerts, we imposed the predominance of our creative and innovative Italian genius over the creative genius of other races throughout the world.”

Jon Mann

Cover image: Luigi Russolo, Carlo Carrà, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Umberto Boccioni and Gino Severini in front of Le Figaro, Paris, February 9, 1912. Image via Wikimedia Commons.