Articles and Features

Art Movement: Futurism – Celebration of Movement

Giacomo Balla, Street Light (detail)
Giacomo Balla, Street Light (detail), 1910-11. Courtesy Kahn Gallery

By Shira Wolfe

“We declare… a new beauty, the beauty of speed. A racing motor car… is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.” 

– Futurist Manifesto

Futurism definition: what is Futurism?

Futurism was an Italian art movement of the early 20th century, which aimed to capture the dynamism and energy of the modern world in art. Futurists were well versed in the latest developments in science and philosophy and particularly fascinated with aviation and cinematography. Futurist artists denounced the past, as they felt the weight of past cultures was extremely oppressive – particularly in Italy – and instead proposed an art celebrating modernity and its industry and technology.

Learn more with our video below and read on to dive into the origins of Futurism and the most famous futurist artists and works.

What is Futurism? The Art Movement Explained

Key period: 1908 – 1944
Key regions: Italy
Key words: movement, dynamism, modernity, industry, technology, speed
Key artists: Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Giacomo Balla, Gino Severini, Luigi Russolo, Benedetta Cappa, Antonio Sant’Elia

Origins of Futurism

In 1908, the Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti swerved to miss a cyclist and crashed his car in a ditch. The experience of the old bicycle versus the modern car inspired him to write his manifesto of Futurism, a movement that would conquer nostalgia and tradition. By 1910, the young artists Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà and Luigi Russolo had joined Marinetti’s movement. They suggested Futurism could reach beyond just literature and poetry, and the three artists wrote the Manifesto of Futurist Painters. They sent this to their colleagues Gino Severini and Giacomo Balla, who signed the manifesto. Together, these artists formed the core group of Futurist artists.

Key ideas behind Futurism

The Futurists sought to sweep away what they believed were outdated, traditional notions about art. Instead, they wanted to replace these with an energetic celebration of the machine age. The key focus was to represent a dynamic vision of the future. As such, they often portrayed urban landscapes and new technologies including trains, cars and aeroplanes. They glorified speed, violence and the working classes, believing they would advance change.

In order to achieve movement and dynamism in their art, the Futurists developed techniques in order to express speed and motion. These techniques included blurring and repetition. They also made use of lines of force – a method which they had adopted from the Cubists. The Futurists worked across a wide range of art forms including painting, architecture, sculpture, literature, theatre and music.

Famous Futurist artists

Major players associated with Futurism in visual arts were Umberto Boccioni, Giacomo Balla, Carlo Carrà, and Gino Severini.

Famous Futurist Artworks

Umberto Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913)

Arguably the most iconic Futurist artwork ever made, Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space is a “Cubo-Futurist” figure striding in forward motion. The figure’s powerful legs seem to be marching ahead, carved by forces such as wind and speed. This modern-man machine can be read as an allegory for Italy’s quest to define itself as a modern nation.

Umberto Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913. Courtesy MoMA
Umberto Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913. Courtesy MoMA

Giacomo Balla, Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash (1912)

Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash is Balla’s best-known work, and shows a dachshund on a leash and the feet of the lady walking it in rapid motion. Balla achieved this motion by blurring and multiplication of their legs and feet.

Giacomo Balla Futurism
Giacomo Balla, Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash, 1912. Courtesy Albright-Knox Gallery

Carlo Carrà, The Funeral of the Anarchist Galli (1910–11)

The Funeral of the Anarchist Galli is one of Carrà’s most famous works. Angelo Galli was an anarchist and labour organiser in Milan who was killed by the police during a strike in 1904. Since they feared that Galli’s funeral would turn into a political demonstration, the state sent police to obstruct anarchists from entering the cemetery. When they resisted, police responded with force and a fight broke out. Carrà witnessed the event and captured the intensity and chaos of the scene, as well as the rapid movement, in this painting.

Carlo Carrà - Funeral of the Anarchist Galli
Carlo Carrà, Funeral of the Anarchist Galli, 1910-11. Courtesy MoMA

Gino Severini, Dancer at Pigalle (1912)

Gino Severini’s dancer is depicted in the centre of the painting and is composed of dynamic intersecting lines and swirling fabric. Concentric circles lead outwards to the edges of the painting, and each circular layer contains fragmentary images of musicians, instruments and audience members. This is meant to capture the essence and dynamism of the performance.

Gino Severini Futurism
Gino Severini, Dancer at Pigalle, 1912. Courtesy MoMA

Futurist architecture

Italian architect Antonio Sant’Elia embraced the twin ideals of mechanisation and motion, proposing a vision of a modern city in the form of a gigantic machine; he named it Città Nuova (“New City”), a name quite contextually appropriate. This utopian futurist city, designed between 1912 and 1914, was a vast, multi-level, interconnected urban conurbation where massive skyscrapers were integrated by elevators, bridges, and elevated walkways in a constantly evolving artificial landscape.
Paradoxically, Sant’Elia, like many other Futurists, saw warfare as the means to destroy the old world and build the much sought after future. However, it was the entropy of war itself that would shatter their illusions, destroying not only the socio-economic conditions necessary to facilitate such grandiose plans but also its main protagonists – Sant’Elia was himself killed in a battle at the age of twenty-eight with almost no completed works of architecture left behind.

Antonio Sant’Elia, New City, 1914
Antonio Sant’Elia, New City, 1914

“Standing on the world’s summit we launch once again our insolent challenge to the stars!”

– Futurist Manifesto

The phases and politics of Futurism

Futurism was at its most influential and active between 1909 and 1914. During the war, the first wave of Italian Futurism came to an end when some members of the group withdrew, and others turned to different styles. However, after the First World War, Marinetti revived the group. This revival attracted a new set of artists and it became known as second-generation Futurism.

Futurism is one of the most politicised art movements ever to have existed. Many Italian Futurists were supporters of Fascism. They were strongly patriotic, supportive of violence, and opposed to parliamentary democracy. In 1922, when Mussolini came into power, Futurism was officially accepted by the Fascists. As long as the art served to support their political agenda, they were satisfied. Later on, after the fall of Fascism, many Futurist artists were negatively affected by their association with Fascism.

The legacy of Futurism

The Italian Futurists influenced many artists and other art movements. Vorticism was inspired by Cubism and Futurism, embracing dynamism, the machine age, and modernity. It is often regarded as the British equivalent to Futurism, yet its founder, Wyndham Lewis, deeply disliked the Futurists. In Russia, artists like Natalia Goncharova were embarking on their own Futurist explorations – Russian Futurism is usually considered a separate movement, but some of its artists did engage with Italian Futurism.
In the United States, the ground-breaking Armory Show introduced Futurism along with the other European Avant-garde movements to an astonished American audience, ultimately leading to the rise of American Modernism with the development of Precisionism, the first real indigenous modern art movement in the United States.

After the horrors of the First World War, many artists were disillusioned by technology and the modern age, which had contributed to this brutal war. For this reason, many of them rejected Futurism and started using more traditional approaches. This phenomenon is described as the “return to order.”

Futurism FAQ

What are the characteristics of Futurism?

The characteristics of futurism are a focus on the technical progress of the modern machine age, dynamism, speed, energy, vitality and change.

Who created Futurism?

Futurism was started by Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, who wrote the Futurist Manifesto. He was soon joined by the artists Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo, Gino Severini and Giacomo Balla.  

What does it mean to be a Futurist?

For Futurist artists, the aim was to capture the dynamism and energy of the modern world in art. They denounced the past, instead proposing an art that celebrated the industrial and technological developments of the modern age.

Relevant sources to learn more

Read more about Art Movements and Styles Throughout History here
Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. How the Iconic Silent Film Took Inspiration from Art Movements

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