The Swirling Futurist Mosaic

The first Futurist Manifesto was written by the Italian writer Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in 1909. It acknowledged the rising status of Italy as an industrial power within Europe, even though with some delay, and exalted the beauty of a new mechanised world. The old, slow times were finally asked to leave their place to a new artistic conception, fed by the growing technological progresses of the early twentieth century. The car, a high-tech and fast vehicle, became the symbol of a new age. The Italian intellectual and poet Gabriele D’Annunzio opened his iconic novel Forse che sì forse che no (1910) with a frantic and dangerous car-ride, where the protagonist leads the ferocious automaton through the Italian countryside. He is, no need to say, an aviator: his whole life is a struggle against the forces of nature and its limits, which he surpasses through the marvels of technology. He is D’Annunzio’s depiction of a modern hero.

Elasticity – Umberto Boccioni – 1912 – oil on canvas

Elasticity by Umberto Boccioni shows the extent of the Futuristic effort in portraying the dynamism of moving objects. The core of the composition is a horse with its rider. This is not a new subject per se, as horse riding is definitely not a modern theme. On the other hand though, the backdrop portrays dark silhouettes of factories and metallic structures, and the gloomy shadow of fumes in the sky. Boccioni adapts a known theme to a totally new environment. The dynamic lines that compose the main character make him merge with the swirling landscape. The image, made of different elements and individual details, merge into a single snapshot, as if the viewer was actually watching a moving scene. In fact, several Futurist intellectuals were interested in cinema. It was a relatively new form of art, the product of innovative technologies, and it could better represent the restless reality of modernity. In The Painter of Modern Life, Baudelaire asked artists to depict the proteiform and changing aspects of their time, but he still entrusted painters with this task. Years later, the Futurists understood that art had to revolutionise itself in order to remain loyal to reality.

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The depiction of movement in painting was no simple task. As well-understood since Plato, depictions of nature are inherently static and the viewer is fooled by the painter’s art. Indeed, movement on a still canvas can only be the result of a well-crafted illusion. In Girl Running on a Balcony, Giacomo Balla puts together a series of individual pictures of a figure moving across a static backdrop. The image is fragmented into patches of colour, so as to reproduce the effect of speed. The result is a blurred, as if our eyes could not catch the quick event. On the other hand, the iron balustrade behind shows through the moving character, still and thus fixed into the viewer’s gaze. La Chehuteuse by Gino Severini employs a similar stratagem, emphasised by the white skirt of the dancer, which blends with the surrounding space. In this way, the figure is fragmented and it is up to our mind to reconstruct the dazzling mosaic of body parts and shadows. The slightly later Dancer by Mario Sironi, on the contrary, appears far more static, her joints rigid. She is suspended in a gloomy space, whose lack of fixed points creates an impression of movement.

Unique Forms of Continuity in Space – Umberto Boccioni – 1913 (cast 1950) – bronze

Futurism and Cubism show some similarities. Both fragment the image into components, which become pictorial elements. However, their intents seem to diverge. Cubism, indeed, aims at inspecting reality through an intellectual reconstruction of its parts. The subjects chosen by Cubist painters are often static, or lack of specific interest in dynamism as an artistic subject. The early still-life paintings and collages of Picasso and Braque are clear examples of this tendency. Movement is instead the core of Futurist paintings. They too inspect reality, but they choose to represents moving fragments of it. Their works are not inhabited by single, static presences. Rather, everything merges under the pressure of speed and lines become confused, colours blend and transform. Individuality is partially lost in the transformation and the subject becomes speed itself, rather than the objects under its influence. Futurism is the fragmentary representation of changing images, whose glimpse is captured by the artist and defined through a vibrant mosaic of colours and dynamic lines.

Funeral of the Anarchist Galli – Carlo Carrà – 1910-11 – oil on canvas


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Girl Running on a Balcony

La Chahuteuse


Unique Forms of Continuity in Space

Funeral of the Anarchist Galli

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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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