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Futurism arises from the will of its creator, writer and poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, to form an artistic avant-garde group. In a cultural atmosphere marked by stagnation, while the nation fought for political independence and unification, Marinetti believed necessary modernization of Italy. The renovation of the artistic scene of the country could only be accomplished through a rejection of the past and the generation of a new awareness of the modern world.[1]

Although after the appearance of the first manifesto and widespread criticism of it on the Italian press, some poets Futurism were the first to declare their affinity to the movement, such as Lucini, Cavacchioli or Paolo Buzzi, Futurism was not limited to one artistic discipline.[2] However, it could be said that the main contribution to the movement, which provided its most appreciated works and gave it the international avant-garde category, was the approximation of a group of young painters who came into contact with Marinetti in early 1910.

The subject matter addressed by futuristic artists defines and differentiates their works. These issues, which were related to science, were inherent to the contemporary world: speed or dynamic communications, cars, city or electricity are symbols of a new panacea of the future, paradigms of a modern world.[3] As subversion of the established, the machine led to the displacement of an anthropocentric world to another technocentric, where the vestiges of previous customs and culture (values, concept of beauty, museums…) had to be radically denied and replaced by attributes arising from what was already by becoming a symbol of modern life: the automobile, speed, technology, city.[4]

Firstly, this essay aims to analyse the image of the city as a subject matter in two futuristic artworks, how artists expressed in the paintings their will by a progressive art through the concept and image of the city. Secondly, to examine how electric light assumed the role of a symbol of new reality in some Futurist paintings.

It could be argued that some Futurist painters used the subject of the city as a representation of the modern world yearning, as the highest expression of a changing society. Umberto Boccioni wrote in his diary in 1907:

“I feel that I want to paint the new, the fruit of our industrial time. I am nauseated by old walls and old places, old motives, reminiscences… I want the new, the expressive, the formidable”[5]

Three years later, the artist finished his work The City Rises (1910, Museum of Modern Art, New York), a monumental painting depicting the work of men in building a power plant in the industrial outskirts of Milan[6], where they use the power of the horses for its construction. This power seems to be the central core of the painting; the strong horse is in an absolutely dominant position that fills the centre of the composition, symbolizing physical effort, power and industrial work. [7]

Although some critics appreciated in the artwork still some remnants of an own symbolism of the late nineteenth century, the painting could be considered as a first phase of energy and dynamism experimentation [8], a first attempt to “synthesize on a painting the work, light and movement”.[9] For example, the crowd of workers could be contemplated as a symbol of progress, to be responsible for building the city of the future.[10]

Similarly, other elements on the canvas refer to the big city: the factories to the bottom, tram, chimneys, telegraph poles. As stated in the last of the conclusions of the Manifesto of the Futurist Painters 1910, one of its purposes was “support and glory in our day-to-day, a world which is going to be continually and splendidly transformed by victorious Science”.[11] Futurist artists felt a clear enthusiasm for modern life, which increasingly are more strongly influenced by science, technology industry, so that they regarded as a source of inspiration anything that could be seen as a metaphor of modern progress.

Another term that responds to that necessity to capture the essence of the city is dynamism. If Boccioni’s painting is contemplated, it can be considered as the author simultaneous actions performed by dissolving the segments that become part of a whole more powerful and potent. [12] The brushstrokes are now longer, which follow the directional force of each form; colour also helps to create that feeling of controlled energy, fiery red expresses an urgency[13] that contrasts with the transformation of horse necklace on a blue vortex, enhancing the sense of dynamism, whose gesture wanted to express through their artwork, as set out in the technical manifesto.

The city as central subject matter can be also found in Galleria di Milano (Peggy Guggenheim, Venice) painted by Carlo Carrá in 1912. The narrative is the same, although his painting is less intense and less symbolist than Boccioni’s one. Carrá was more interested in the phenomenon of urban life, the feelings that could be interpreted through painting.[14] Aesthetics are also different; the work has assimilated some cubist elements. The sign Biffi coffee has its place in space, and the figures seem to be climbing through walls and glass domes. [15] Thus there is a strong architectural effect and the palette is very dark, vivid colours do not appear as in the work of Boccioni. [16]

However, despite its small cubist drawings and colour scheme, it could be argued that the work has as main purpose the creation of sense of environmental noise; it aims to move the viewer who enters into the paint through the data points that are given, being surrounded by its composition, to a scene in a modern environment of the modern city which Futurist artists agreed.

In relation to the modern city, some Futurist artists considered artificial light as a symbol of power transmission and as an agent of that “new psychology of night life”. In the ‘Futurist Painting: Technical Manifesto 1910’ they claimed that:

“The suffering of a man is of the same interest to us as the suffering of an electric lamp, which, with spasmodic starts, shrieks out the most heartrending expressions of color”.[17]

The major concern of the group was to destroy the classic image of Italy as a paradigm of Ancient Art, overthrow the cult of the past and propose a pioneering and modern image of the country, according to an industrial Europe and technologically advanced. The idea of modernity is closely linked to the valuation of the future. Thus, the themes addressed by the painters of the Futurist movement are preferably those in which proper elements of the modern world appear.

The canvas ‘Street Lamp’ (1909, Museum of Modern Art, New York), painted by Giacomo Balla, was inspired by one of the first street lamps were installed in Rome.[18] It represents a lamp, whose powerful lighting occupies most of the picture, dominating the scene, while in the upper right; the moon appears, almost in the background. The horizon line is located very down allowing the viewer to grasp the lamp from a low viewpoint, which somehow brings out this new structure that belongs to a new era. The bushes around give a sense of depth. The subject could be related to the text written by Marianetti ‘Let’s murder the Moonlight!” which tells how a group of men destroy the moonlight:

“So it was that three hundred electric moons, with rays of blinding chalky white- ness, canceled the old green queen of love affairs”[19]

This could be considered the triumph of the new avant-garde over previous artistic movements such as Romanticism. On the one hand, it could be argued that impressive electric lamp represents the futuristic desire to give value to the technical advance that was taking place, which was a sign of progress. Moreover, the representation of the moon to the right of the painting, depicted in a weak and subtle way, could be identified as a symbol of previous movements. On the other hand, the author Richard Humphreys affirms that contemporary Italian city electrification represents the masculine power, while the moonlight represents the feminine power. In Balla’s painting, the lamp evokes an artificial light reaching the natural light of the moon, which may be regarded as the triumph of the masculine over the feminine. To Marinetti and other Futurist artists, the woman was not a characteristic of modernity, but belonging to the past.[20] Thus, women, considered judicious beings that can delay the man in his conquests and his warrior desire, should assume new schemes, also claiming the dreams of violence.

The painting also represents an attempt by the author to represent some of the contemporary theories of diffusion of the light. The juxtaposition of natural light with artificial assume the role of a symbol of new reality “emphasizing the positivist idea of a man vanquishing the shadows and obsolete romanticism”.[21] Balla has overlapped violently rays being fired as darts colours by streetlight.[22] “The form has been broken down into small patches of colour for suggesting sparkling effects of light or the blurring caused by high-speed movement”. The colour is strong, predominantly red and yellow, and although discreetly Balla will expand this technique and can be appreciated a more dynamic relationship of light and colour, the technique of Divisionism is clearly perceptible.[23]

The painting ‘Memories of a Night’ (1911, Collection Miss Barbara Jane Slifka, New York), by Luigi Russolo also represents a scene of modern nightlife. The painting describes a night scene with moon and characters depicted as ghosts, which emerge from a dream where the central character moves away from cabaret pictured right of the canvas to get into the deserted, desolate, night streets. Some elements, which are characteristic of the new urban life that was intended to reflect, can be found on the canvas, such as electric light or a crowd in the audience attending a show.

The ninth statement of the Technical Manifesto claims “that moment and light destroy the materiality of bodies”[24]. The Futurist artists believed that no matter remains ever immobile, which is in continuous motion. Russolo is pictorially transcribing these moving figures, which appear almost disfigured. In his purpose, the artist experimented with simultaneous images, in an attempt to capture several moments of physical life at the same time.[25] There is not any attempt to synthesize various scenes taking place at the time, but a series of events in time are juxtaposed in memory.[26] On the one hand we find the left figure of the sun rising and, on the other hand, the electric lights at the right of the painting. It could be argued that this contrast indicates a temporal succession of succession in the thoughts of the protagonist canvas woman who is depicted in the scene looking both ways.[27]

In conclusion, in addition to reflecting the dynamism of a changing society, Futurism proclaims itself as a movement of exteriors: city, open spaces, the road… The Futurist artists replaced interior spaces full of symbolism and romantic natures by the dynamic spirit of modern techniques and complex urban scenes. The natural is no longer a value but the work of man who is transforming the surrounding reality. And it is this new reality that Futurism tried to depict through the daily life of man from the big city: the factory, tram or night distractions of the working masses in a city of electric lighting.


[1] R. Humphreys, Futurism (London: Tate Gallery Publishing, 1999), p. 10

[2] M. W. Martin, Futurism Art and Theory (New York: Hacker Art Books, 1978), p. 30

[3] Boccioni, U. Carrá, C. Russolo, L. Balla, G. And G. Severini ‘Manifesto of the Futurist Painters 1910’ in U. Apollonio Futurist Manifestos (London: Thames and Hudson, 1973), pp. 24-27

[4] F. T. Marinetti, ‘The Founding and Manifiesto of Futurism 1909’ in U. Apollonio Futurist Manifestos (London: Thames and Hudson, 1973), pp. 19-24

[5] J. C. Taylor, Futurism (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1961), p. 35

[6] C. Poggi, Inventing Futurism. The Art and Politics of Artificial Optimism (Woodstock:Princeton University Press, 2009), p. 107

[7] C. Tisdall, A. Bozzolla, Futurism (London: Thames and Hudson, 1977), p. 41

[8] Humphreys, Futurism, p. 25

[9] E. Coen, Umberto Boccioni (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1988), p. 50

[10] Poggi, Inventing Futurism. The Art and Politics of Artificial Optimism, p. 107

[11] Boccioni, U. Carrá, C. Russolo, L. Balla, G. And G. Severini ‘Manifesto of the Futurist Painters 1910’ in U. Apollonio Futurist Manifestos (London: Thames and Hudson, 1973), pp. 24-27

[12] Taylor, Futurism, p. 35

[13] M. W. Martin, Futurism Art and Theory (New York: Hacker Art Books, 1978), p. 86

[14] Tisdall, C. and A. Bozzolla, Futurism, p. 46

[15] Taylor, Futurism, p. 79

[16] Martin, Futurist Art and Theory, p. 151

[17] Boccioni, U. Carrá, C. Russolo, L. Balla, G. And G. Severini ‘Futurist Painting: Technical Manifiesto 1910’ in U. Apollonio Futurist Manifestos (London: Thames and Hudson, 1973), pp. 27-31

[18] S. E. Bronner, Modernism at the Barricades: Aesthetics, Politics, Utopia (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), p. 68

[19] F. T. Marinetti ‘Let’s Murder the Moonlight! 1909’ in Rainey, L. Poggy, C. and L. Wittman Futurism, an Anthology (London: Yale University Press, 2009), pp. 54-61

[20] Humphreys, Futurism, p. 21

[21] MOMA: Futurism, 1909-1916.http://www.moma.org/collection//browse_results.php?criteria=O%3AAD%3AE%3A311%7CA%3AAR%3AE%3A1&page_number=1&template_id=6&sort_order=1&section_id=T005947#

[22] Humphreys, Futurism, p. 20

[23] Taylor, Futurism, p. 25

[24] Boccioni, U. Carrá, C. Russolo, L. Balla, G. And G. Severini ‘Futurist Painting: Technical Manifiesto 1910’, p. 30

[25] C. Butler, Early Modernism: Literature, Music and Paintig in Europe, 1900-1916  (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), p. 143-144

[26] Taylor, Futurism, p. 46

[27] Butler, Early Modernism. Literature, Music and Paintig in Europe, 1900-1916, p.143-144