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Futurism was the most important avant-garde art movement of early 20th-century Italy. It is often seen as a violent tidal wave that swept away all traditional forms and produced a new vision that exalted speed and motion. Yet while these were in fact the fundamental themes of Futurism, set out by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the movement’s founder, in the inaugural Manifesto published by Le Figaro in Paris in 1909, the artists who adhered to the programme (who issued a series of manifestoes of their own for the renovation of painting, sculpture and architecture beginning in February 1910)  had to come to grips, aside from the subjects they chose, with the much more complicated problems of a new form in which to express them, with the power to work a radical metamorphosis of the then-dominant style of painting. These artists were Umberto Boccioni, Gino Severini, Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo and Giacomo Balla. Balla, older than the others and from Turin but living in Rome, introduced Boccioni and Severini to his own post-impressionist Divisionist approach, which also embraced Carrà and Russolo. At first their painting was a violently expressive forcing of the colourist principles of Divisionism (their writings exalted “congenital complementarism” and asserted that all the colours in a setting were reflected in the face and body of the figures). Later, learning of the development of Cubism in 1911 and 1912 (the year of the Futurist exhibition in Paris), they adopted the principles of de-composition and synthesis of forms, based above all on the concept of “simultaneity”: of past (memory) with present; of figure with surroundings, interacting, imbued with dynamism taken as universal principle. On this point, however, Balla’s approach (extended to photography by Anton Giulio Bragaglia) conflicted with that of Boccioni. Balla sought to render motion as a series of “snapshots” taken in successive moments, while Boccioni imagined dynamism as the play of forces surging out of the figures and echoing in the surroundings. Russolo took Balla’s approach, while Severini and Carrà (who basically split off from Marinetti’s movement as early as 1914 or 1915) came closer to Boccioni’s conception, Carrà in particular paying great attention to Cubism. Other essential aspects of early, figurative Futurist art were “polymaterialism” – the use of materials alien to the traditional techniques of painting, begun by Boccioni’s sculptures in 1912-15, continued by Balla and Depero as part of the manifesto “Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe” (1915), and further developed, assiduously and inventively, by Enrico Prampolini as part of the “second Futurism”. This so-called second Futurism, which many not entirely wrongly consider as a declining phase of the movement after the death of such leading lights as Boccioni and Sant’Elia and the defection of Carrà and Severini, was characterized above all by Areopittura, whose aerial views capitalized on the airplane, the newly dominant means of transportation that the early Futurists could only intuit.
Apart from painting and sculpture, Futurism was also applied to literature, in the wake of Marinetti (who theorized not only “words in liberty” but also automatic writing and abstract onomatopoeia), as well as architecture, music, cinema, theatre, dance, acting and oratory. The Futurist movement thus styled itself as the first and only “total” avant-garde and exerted a powerful influence on twentieth-century art, from Dada to Surrealism and finally Pop art.

Augusta Monferini