Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe

Sculpture Italian Futurism

Giacomo-Balla abstract speed, 1913.

From a single manifesto penned by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in 1908, came a wealth of paintings, poetry, sculpture, architecture, and design known as Futurism. Futurism was an art movement obsessed with transforming space. Attempting to escape the limits of history, to take the human species into a future of unlimited power and speed via the aesthetic spirit of technological advancement, Futurism was finally trapped by history as the reality of Fascism swept across Europe during World War Two. But thankfully, we can still study this failed acceleration, in an unprecedented show of the entire breadth of the Italian movement in the Guggenheim’s current show, Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe.

Sculpture Italian Futurism

Antonio Santelia Citta Nuova

The Futurists began their work in words, in countless manifestos and poetry. “Time and Space died yesterday,” Marinetti wrote in the Futurist Manifesto. “We are already living in the absolute, since we have already created eternal, omnipresent speed.” The Futurists envisioned this poetry transforming space into a backdrop of eternal speed, leaping away from historical epics and deification of the past. They did not want to simply speak of locomotives and airplanes, of “factories suspended from the clouds by the thread of their smoke,” they wanted to change the space around them to match this ideal vision.

Painters like Giacomo Balla began this visualization of space on their canvases, but quickly moved to more physical mediums. In Balla’s Abstract Speed, lines of oscillation and waves of motion radiate out of the paint. From paint, Balla would move to design—tea and coffee services, and working with textiles and fabrics. His Anti-Neutral Suit, a shocking garment of color and angle, was meant to support Italy’s entry into World War One. He also made toys, like Series of 8 Rhinoceros, eight small wooden statues, showing the totality of the Futurist vision. Fireworks, commissioned by the Ballet Russes to accompany Stravinsky’s music, was a dance performed entirely without actors. Complicated lighting cues illuminated various pieces of an elaborate three-dimensional set, to portray fireworks at the moment of explosion. The piece failed in performance, when technical difficulties combined with a labor dispute between the theater and the technicians meant to run the stage and lighting.

Sculpture Italian Futurism

Giacomo Balla Fireworks, 1915

The failure to transition ideas into reality is perhaps the universal hallmark of Futurist architecture. Architects Mario Chiattone and Antonio Sant’Elia created dramatic sketches, such as Bridges and Study of Volumes and Citta Nuova. Futurist architecture is marked by large, high, thin walls, elevators and power networks visible on the outside of buildings, stiff and pipe-like, like exposed electrical conduit. Sant’Elia’s Station for Trains and Airplanes, portrays a massive transportation station, but with no consideration of the technology itself, or the dynamics of the city that would make such buildings impossible. Futurism swaps the phallic monuments of more classical architecture with long, thin, imposing edifice. The monolith of impossible perpetuity becomes escape from one’s duty to the past.

But while it could be argued that not all art is meant to be realized, one can feel failed intention of realization in all of these depictions of space. Sant’Elia and Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurist Architecture makes it clear: Futurism is not simply about invention, but it is supposed to be about building. Virgillo Marchi’s Study of Volumes (Futurist City) features a spiraling city stretching on interminably, but is rendered in very visible pencil scratchings, on light paper, with no background, and in only two colors. His related Fantastic City is more finished, but still sketched, with the various human-like bodies inhabiting his metropolis reduced to mere scribbles. If they could have built these cities they would have, and damned the cost or those who stood in the way. It was only the rise of Fascism in 1922 in Italy which led to Futurism’s eclipse. Only a more dangerous, more realistically brutal accelerationism could have dispelled Futurism’s intoxicating influence upon art, design, and architecture. Perhaps it is this realization that many people would in fact will us towards such brutality that makes Futurism’s aesthetic so powerful.

Sculpture Italian Futurism

Virgillo-Marchi, Fantastic City

The Futurists would have fallen in love with our contemporary virtual space—an idealized place that rejects all current aesthetics as obsolete. The Futurists’ envisioned buildings maintained an aesthetic, determined by their obsession with power and technological hegemony. The virtual space, on the other hand, has no need for a single aesthetic, as it seeks decentralization naturally by way of its own networked supremacy. But it is likely that both virtual space and Futurist space will find similar ends. By rejecting history to emphasize a visionary future, both Futurism and virtuality find it difficult to build. They instead work in the medium of tea sets and T-shirts, mere architectonics and TED talks, constructing aesthetic manifestos and social networks, rather than airports or physical networks. Futurism collapsed in World War Two, as bullets made a more lasting impression than staccato poetics. The later stages of virtuality are yet to come, but while the networks will certainly have something to say about their own demise, it is unclear if they will be in a position to do anything about it.

By Adam Rothstein

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