The first decade of the 20th century saw new trends emerge in art and architecture,
which would radically reshape the vision of design. The first of these trends was
Cubism, an artistic movement that served as the motivating force of the Paris avant-
garde. The movement was largely inspired by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque,
and stressed a multi-viewpoint fragmentation in art. Cubism followed in a long line
of reformation in art that stretched back to the Impressionists. It was an analytical
method based on painterly traditions and scientific ideas of the time. Some
historians ascribe Einstein’s theory of relativity as an influence on the thinking in the
However, Cubist art was still largely intuitive. Picasso was drawn to the tribal masks
and carvings of Africa, which freed him to explore new possibilities. Picasso said “a
head is a matter of eyes, nose, mouth, which can be distributed anyway you like –
the head remains a head.” He sought the same vital energy in his art that he valued
so much in primitive art.
Braque’s approach was more analytical and would impact Picasso’s thinking when
the two finally met in 1909, thanks to Apollinaire, a writer and promoter of Cubism.
The two artists began a series of explorations, which radically broke down the
pictorial quality of painting, as if looking at the object from a number of different
viewpoints at once. One example is Picasso’s L’Aficionado (1912) whose
presence is allusive, with clues to the image scattered and compressed on the
surface of the painting.
It was at this stage that Cubism gave rise to Abstract art, which removed the object
from painting all together. Painters like Fernand Léger used abstraction to free
themselves from the influences of Impressionism. Abstract artists employed the
analytical method arrived at by the Cubists, but pushed it to new levels, which
Picasso felt removed the dramatic element from art.
Wassily Kandinsky countered Picasso’s views in his essay, Concerning the
Spiritual in Art, by noting the “inner necessity” of Abstract art was derived from the
great Symbolist painters. His was not an objective reality, which later characterized
Abstract art, but an emotive strength, which he hoped to find without relying on
objects. He broke down images into colliding forces, taking on an apocalyptic
quality, which seemed prophetic of the coming war. He had evolved a language of
regular forms, freed of any linear quality, with a very expressive use of color, which
he felt made a direct contact with the viewer. He referred to his paintings as
Compositions, seeing them as a form of visual music.
In Northern Italy, a new literary movement burst on the scene with the publication of
The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism in 1909. The founder was Filippo
Tommaso Marinetti, a millionaire poet and writer, who had founded the international
magazine, Poesia, in 1905. In it, Marinetti had advocated a poetry and literature free
from the constraints of traditional punctuation and syntax, known as verso libero
(free verse). He looked at the future as a blank slate on which to scrawl the wildest
visions. He denounced Rationalism as well as all forms of classical thinking in
literature, art and architecture:
We stand on the promontory of the centuries! Why should we look back, when what
we want is to break down the mysterious doors of the Impossible? Time and space
died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal,
Marinetti discounted everything that came before, even the formal approaches of the
Parisian avant-garde, although Cubism would serve as a catalyst for Italian Futurist
painters, who joined Marinetti in his call for a new approach. Umberto Boccioni
would issue a Manifesto on Futurist Painters, in which he used much of the same
language as Marinetti extolling “the triumphant progress of science [which] makes
profound changes in humanity inevitable.” These artists had been drawn to the
artistic movements in Paris, but felt that a dramatic new approach was necessary.
Giacommo Balla, the oldest of the Futurists, explored the pictorial depiction of light,
movement and speed in his paintings, sculpture, costume and theater design. But
probably the most notable work of this era was Boccioni’s Bottle Unfolding in
Space, which stressed the rotation of bodies in “sweeping convex-concave forms.”
It was a fully three-dimensional form of art that broke away from the planar ideas of
the Cubists. Boccioni would later explore these same ideas in sculpture, eventually
shaping a Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture in 1912, which stressed the
architectonic qualities in sculpture.
Reyner Banham noted that what separated the Futurists from those who came
before them was their total commitment to technological change. Marinetti could
afford many of the luxuries of the new age including a motor car, which he loved to
race around in. Marinetti spoke of his first wreck as a baptism as he was flung
headlong into a ditch full of muddy water, a factory drain. “when I came up – torn,
filthy, and stinking – from under the capsized car, I felt the white-hot iron of joy
deliciously pass through my heart!
The Manifesto issued 11 defining polemics, the most controversial being:
We will glorify war – the world’s only hygiene – militarism, patriotism, the destructive
gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.
Only through war could the past be destroyed. This was in keeping with the
anarchistic thought of the time and the rise of anarcho-syndicalist trade unions in
Italy, France and Spain, which attempted to overthrow the traditional labor system by
calling for violent strikes, rather than the usual method of negotiation. Italy was
undergoing a massive transformation in its political structure with numerous bloody
battles, as the attempt was being made to form a new collective state, one that
Marinetti favored. However, Marinetti would withdraw his scorn for women when he
married Bennedetta Cappa, one of the few women in the Futurist movement.
Antonio Sant’Elia, a young architect in his early 20’s had begun to sketch ideas for a
city of the future around 1912. He issued his own Messagio in 1914, and while it did
not call for a Futurist architecture by name, it included many of the same themes
found in Marinetti’s Manifesto. Marinetti would adopt Sant’Elia into the movement.
Sant’Elia architectural visions, which he called Cittá Nuova, illustrated many of the
same virtues of a new technological society and seemed to incorporate Boccioni’s
field concept of space. The bold three-dimensional drawings imagined Milan in the
year 2000. At the center of his visions was the power station, the great dynamo of
the 20th century. He imagined the buildings in concrete, steel and glass. Elevators
replaced stairwells and served as dynamic vertical elements fully expressed on the
outside of the monumental buildings. He stressed curvatures and other dynamic
expressions, feeling that “perpendicular and horizontal lines, cubic and pyramidal
forms [were] static, grave, oppressive and absolutely foreign to our newest
sensibilities.” He stressed “maximum elasticity and lightness” in his designs.
Architecture “remains art, that is, synthesis and expression.” He felt that the
“disposition of raw, naked, and violently colored materials can derive the decorative
value of a truly Modern architecture.” And finally that architects must find their
“inspiration in the new mechanical world we have created.”
Futurism had boldly translated the formal approach of Cubism into an exciting new
vision, one that replaced Cubism in the Parisian avant-garde circles in the
immediate years before World War I. Marinetti felt he was staging a revolution in
literature, art and architecture. He was a flamboyant figure, who drew many converts
to his Futurist vision, as he took his message to Europe. Futurism anticipated the
radical changes that would occur in the Modern Movement after WWI. Unfortunately,
Boccioni and Sant’Elia were killed in battles during the Great War. With them died
much of the spirit of Futurism, which failed to regain its leading edge in the avant-
garde after the war.
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