100 years ago this week: A great-grandfather is born and Futurism takes Europe by storm

We celebrated the 100th birthday of a family member this past weekend, a rare and momentous occasion indeed. What stunning change he has seen, having lived through the past century’s exponential social and technological growth. In the days since, we’ve been wondering about the world into which he was born so long ago. A new century was just hitting its stride, and among many other international developments, the year 1912 proved to be a pivotal moment in the world of art when the first exhibitions of Italian Futurist paintings were held in Paris and London.

It was then that the painters Balla, Boccioni, Carrá, Russolo, and Severini made their now famous declarations against commercialism, academicism, and traditionalism: “For we are young and our art is violently revolutionary.” Vaunting new pictorial laws which would “deliver painting from the uncertainty in which it lingers” the Futurists boldly equated art with sensation, simultaneity, and discontinuity through a rendering of the invisible rhythms and forces between all things. In employing such “physical transcendentalism”, the painter—and by extension, the viewer—could become a full participant in the chaos and clash of contemporary life at the height of the 20th century Zeitgeist.

In so doing, the Futurists hailed the destruction of “realistic forms and obvious details which have served to construct a bridge of understanding between ourselves and the public.” Blowing up this metaphorical bridge in grandiose style, the Futurists made a definitive break with the past “in order that the crowd may enjoy our marvelous spiritual world”. Their glorification of youth and speed, as well as their welcoming embrace of technology, would reverberate throughout much of the century that followed, by turns defining and describing the swiftly changing world in which all those subsequently born—including our own celebrated centenarian—would ultimately find themselves.

The groundbreaking works from this exhibition are well known: Balla’s many-legged dog, Boccioni’s tumultuous city, Russolo’s speeding automobile. Featured above and below are works by the five core artists which also capture the revolutionary spirit of the early 20th century, yet represent a wider variety of painterly approaches to Futurism. Several appear remarkably contemporary, particularly in their blending of representation and abstraction as a “synthesis of what one remembers and of what one sees”, or alternatively as a definitive expression of an intuited “dynamic sensation”. With 2011 dubbed the “Year of the Protester” by Time Magazine on one hand, and much talk in the art world about “provisional painting” on the other, perhaps the concrete idealism and  utter commitment behind Futurism (if not the strident militarism and “contempt for woman”) remain forces to be reckoned with, fully 100 years later.

Above, Umberto Boccioni’s States of Mind: The Farewells from 1911 expresses the psychological excitement and turmoil of departures through the use of swirling lines of colour which seem to engulf barely discernible figures. According to Boccioni and the other Futurists, such zones of colour “do not correspond to any reality, but…musically prepare and enhance the emotion of the spectator.”

Below, Gino Severini’s similarly lyrical 1912 painting, Dynamic Hieroglyphic of the Bal Tabarin, captures the whirl and glitter of a Parisian dance hall through the use of sequins and fragmented shapes. Showing the clear influence of Cubism, Severini’s repetition and juxtaposition of forms give the impression of mirrored surfaces and movement.

Carlo Carrá’s 1910-11 painting, Leaving the Theater, is another urban nightlife image, filled with energetic, linear brushstrokes and high-key light. Through this rendering Carrá employs the acuteness of angle as an expression of passion and dynamism—a penetrating force which animates this otherwise quotidian scene.

Also utilizing dynamic diagonals and fiery colours, Luigi Russolo’s The Revolt from 1911 could double as a poster for Occupy Wall Street, a testament both to the timeless graphic quality of the composition as well as the ceasless nature of class conflict in human society.

Giacomo Balla’s surprising and scintillating 1912 painting, Iridescent Interpenetration #7, departs entirely from figuration—a meditation on the unseen vibration patterns of energy and light.

quotes from:

Futurism: An Anthology
edited by Lawrence Rainey, Christine Poggi, and Laura Wittman, Yale University Press, 2009

edited by Didier Ottinger, Centre Pompidou, 5 Continents Editions, Milan, 2008

images, from top to bottom: Umberto Boccioni, 
States of Mind: The Farewells, 1912, oil on canvas, Civiche Raccolte d’Arte, Museo del Novecento, Milan; Gino Severini, Dynamic Hieroglyphic of the Bal Tabarin, 1912, oil on canvas with sequins, 161.6 x 156.2 cm., acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest (Museum of Modern Art), © 2012 Gino Severini / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris; Carlo Carrá, Leaving the Theater, 1910-11, Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, London, UK; Luigi Russolo, The Revolt, 1911, collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, © The Estate of Luigi Russolo; Giacomo Balla, Iridescent Interpenetration #7, 1912, Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Turin 

dedicated to William Parsons, Sr., born February 4, 1912

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