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Futurism: a modern art movement

In the early 1900s, following in the footsteps of impressionism, fauvism, expressionism, and cubism, came the futurist movement. Unsurprisingly focused on looking to the future, like all modern artists they sought the reject the traditional styles and subjects on the walls of art galleries and find something new. The first manifesto for futurism came from a poet, but its ideas quickly got into the minds of painters as well, who began to explore subjects like technology, science, industrial cities and aeroplanes.

A core concept of futurism was not just new depictions of new things, but the search for a universal dynamism in artwork; a clear inter-relationship between objects, figures, and backgrounds. This perhaps mirrored their love for the modern city, seen almost as a single organism or an entity acting as one, rather than millions of individual entities.

It took time for these ideas to form into a cohesive style; for a while futurism blended with divisionism, and then found a more useful starting point in cubism, which offered a way to explore energy and dynamics within a painting. Umberto Boccioni’s States of Mind panels offered one of the first recognisable futurist artworks, expressing the experience of the modern world with techniques like lines of force conveying movement and direction. This aesthetic focus on movement would become fundamental, the lines borrowed something from cubism, but was nevertheless something new.

Futurism, dynamism, and portraying movement in a still image

Things continued to develop, with many artists exploring a style of original painting that looked similar to contemporary multiple-exposure photography; a painting of a dog walking depicted a multitude of legs and wagging tail, and other pieces worked with divisionist and cubist ideas to create similar effects.

Futurism finally exhibited beyond it’s birthplace in Italy at the Bernheim-Jeune art gallery in France, as artists also began exploring futurist sculpture, and a Russian futurist movement more rooted in cubist ideas also emerged. The politics of futurism was also developing and, unusually for art, it directed towards many right-wing and nationalistic ideals, even praising war as “the world’s only hygiene”. Many of them joined the army in WW1, and this enthusiasm for war appeared to mark the end of the movement; soon anti-war ideals such as dadaism took the reins of the art world.

But it wasn’t over; as the war ended, many Italians began to support fascism. Amongst futurists they did so to the extent of forming a Futurist Political Party which absorbed into Mussolini’s Fascist party. Mussolini attempted to control artists by expressing support for all forms of art rather than fighting against it, and a second wave of futurism became important in Italian art, particularly within architecture. This second wave also saw an interesting new development; aeropainting, a response to the most exciting new technology of flight.

The last days of futurism and the road back to war

Flight was in it’s infancy during the first wave of futurism, but by the second wave it had become an exciting new boom technology and mode of travel; two of the futurist’s favourite subject areas. Many artists sought to depict aeroplanes, and also the view and perspective provided by an aeroplane, with many in-flight perspectives of cities and industry becoming popular.

As the second World War loomed, things began to shift again, and this time against the futurists; hard right wingers began to see modern art as degenerate, artists began to move out of the country, left leaning futurists also began to speak out, and various new movements and styles were taking up the useful parts of futurism and implanting them into new movements.

Art deco, vorticism, constructivism, surrealism, dada, and neo-futurism all drew on the legacy of the movement, keeping many of it’s ideas in galleries and art prints produced around the world, and it can still be seen in contemporary Cyberpunk films, Japanese Manga, and utopian science fiction. Futurism has a difficult past, but played an important role in moving forward the ideas and boundaries of modern art.