Futurism: 100 Years Anniversary


Over this year there has been various celebrations marking the 100 years anniversary of Futurism, the debatably first avant-garde artistic movement. Exhibitions popped up in Milan, Paris, London and smaller events such as ‘Lets Murder the Moonshine’, produced by Dr. John London as research for Goldsmiths College and Boccioni’s Exhibition at the Estorick Collection, penetrated London audiences with an attempt to create and deconstruct the theories, play texts and artworks of the Futurists.

The past 100 years has seen Futurist theories and thoughts come alive, but juxtaposed with more wars than any other century has seen, the Futurists, with their fascist theories have been forgotten. Rarely is Futurism taught in schools, although its importance to the understanding of the development of art and performance art in contemporary society, since the 1960’s is crucial. It is the Futurists adherence to Fascist thought that has put them under attack and people are reluctant to appreciate the Futurists for their innovation and freedom that they presented through their art in fear of having to approach the fascist question, the question of Marinetti, the Futurists leader and Mussolini’s friendship and the Futurists writings on the Futurist way of life and indeed a fascist existence.

This article does not approach the fascist question as this is of interest to the historians and Futurist art should be appreciated for the aspects of it that has changed the face and conception of art. For it was the first artistic movement in the western world to write such strong and influential manifesto’s, that travelled to various European audiences and is what most performance theorists consider the marked beginning of the avant-garde.

The Futurists first manifesto was published in Le Figaro on the 29th February 1909. Marinetti was inspired to write the Futurists first manifesto after he had a car crash late at night. As he and his friends were driving at speed he says, ‘Let's break out of the horrible shell of wisdom and throw ourselves pride-ripened fruit into the wide , contorted mouth of the wind! Lets give ourselves utterly to the Unknown, not in desperation but only to replenish the deep wells of the Absurd!’. These words were out of Marinetti’s mouth when he then crashed his car into a ditch, and this was the beginning of an artistic movement that lasted over forty years.

The Futurists were multi-disciplinary artists. They created sculpture, painting, drawing, literature, fashion and Words-In-Freedom, often with an emphasis on synthesis and montage. The Futurists encouraged audience participation and response, that was not common, like contemporary performances and was indeed an innovation in art and the theatre. The Futurists attempted to penetrate the audiences senses through appealing to the senses. One painting by Alfredo G. Ambrosi, Flight Over Vienna 1933, creates a sense of vertigo for the viewer, they too are the pilot flying over Vienna, they too have the birds eye view. The audience become an active participator instead of a passive watcher. 

Flight Over Vienna
Flight Over Vienna (1933) by Alfredi G. Ambrosi

Through the works of the Futurists, they sought abstraction, synthesis, a rejection of linear narratives, quickness, movement, Sintesi (short and quick moments or scenes), a focus on the phenomena of everyday experiences and objects as art and the rejection of conventional language and syntax.

The Futurists often presented their works and theories at Serate (evenings). They attempted to transform the theatre into an experience for the audience, with the presentation of machines, paintings, collage, manifesto readings and live performance that was often a synthesis of dance, sound and words. The Futurists were often faced with violent responses from the audience as a repercussion of their vocal opinions of the passive Italian society and as various critics report, such as Michael Kirby, the audience reacted by throwing fruit and vegetable at the Futurists. In The Battle of Rome, Marinetti says, ‘Futurism will countenance neither laws nor codes nor magistrates nor policemen nor pimps nor moralising eunuchs. Futurism is a flail with which we daily bloody the faces of the cowards of Italy.’ And in the Verdi Theatre at The Battle of Florence, there is almost a dialogue between the audience and Marinetti during his speeches, a mixtures of applauds and boos, shouts, laughter and insults from the audience. Marinetti says, ‘I can see your munitions diminishing though they never hit us,’ which is then followed by ‘Shouts, terrible uproar, an endless rain of missiles’ from the audience.

These evenings or Serate as they were named by the Futurists were often called Battles. The Futurists would agitate the audience purposefully by putting glue on chairs and selling the same seat to more than one person in order to wake up the audiences senses and make them participants in the action, breaking the old and conventional fourth wall and creating what maybe considered a form of anarchy. These Serati maybe compared to the happenings of the 1960’s and 70’s. Perhaps, happenings present audience participation as being a more intellectual assimilation of an exchange, but nevertheless being organised for the audience in order to share or exchange something.

Also, John Cage and other performance artists work with noise as sound and music maybe seen as being influenced by the research of the Futurists through the recitation of the Futurists Words-In-Freedom and the creation of noise machines.

Noise Machines
Intonarumori (Noise Machines). In the picture Russolo and his assistant Piatti.

The appreciation of noise as music and Words-In-Freedom, when phonated as music or evening a type of singing was enthusiastically progressed by the Futurists and was written about in manifesto’s such as Geometrical and Mechanical Splendour and Sensitivity Toward Numbers by Marinetti, whereby he would give advice to readers as to how to create noise, how to recite Words-In-Freedom, through the body and voice.

Although the Futurists were tainted by their association and promotion of the Italian Fascist movement during the early twentieth century, the Futurists have never the less contributed hugely to performance as we know it today. Their interest in speed and quickness caused them to use film in performance. And their photography that sometimes shows several images in one photograph of an object in motion can be seen reminiscent in more contemporary art works. The Futurists began over ten years before the Dadaists and Surrealist movements that appeared in the twenties and Dadaism in around 1916, the Futurists were indeed the fore runners and the leaders of twentieth century art and these ‘new art forms’ and new ways of viewing art and the audience.

Marinetti as a philosopher is not appreciated for his fore thought and his innovation in writing styles whereby he shunned free verse and replaced it with Words-In-Freedom, attempting to further free the imaginations of the author and the reader and when recited the audience. His exciting and accessible writing style is captivating, even if the reader has no interest in Futurism, translations of his books often being good, because he has disposed of the conventional syntax and grammar, he abolished adjectives and tends to use words that evoke feeling, images or sounds, again appealing to the readers senses. Again, his work is no doubt forgotten because of his alliance to the fascists.

The 100 years anniversary of Futurism caused for much reflection on the state or purpose of art and performance in this new millennium. Having taken a Futurist Orchestra who recited Words-In-Freedom and a human puppet show, (both very experimental performances) to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this summer, it can only be said that audience’s are curious about experimentation, but still, the masses want to see more conventional performance styles such as cheesy musicals that often have the word ‘love’ in the title somewhere or more realistic performances again, about some banal take on everyday problems and experiences. It makes one think, if the Futurists over the period of two world wars and a dictator could not change general public opinion of art, it is highly unlikely in this commercial and capitalist society that we live in, an artist will be able to change anything apart from their own production of art. Perhaps, exchange is always important, but may change art into a process whereby art is created for oneself and oneself only, if people do not like it, they shouldn’t have watched it and if they do, then that’s just fine, but they are likely within at least an hour, to forget entirely whatever it was all about, if it was about anything at all, by being bombarded by the thousands of images on their way home.

Nevertheless, Futurism should not be forgotten! Its innovative writings and practices, their passion for exchange and change undoubtedly affected the conception of art and artistic practice for the future.