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Friday, October 21, 2011


It seems hard to believe now, but we are presently more than a decade into the third millennium. Believe it or not, the world hasn't come to an end (remember Y2K?). Back in the "1900s" when we spoke of "The Future," the 21st century epitomized all the idealized hopes, dreams, and promises of that ephemeral term. The 21st century is no longer the setting for science-fiction novels. It's now the stuff of the morning front page (make that home page). Moreover, even thinking about the 22nd century at this point seems a bit more than our narrow minds can boggle. Maybe we should call such thoughts "Futurism?" Well, too bad, we'd be a little late--like by more than a century? The term was co-opted back in 1909 by a small group of fanatical Italian artists, Umberto Boccioni, Giacomo Balla, Carlo Carra, Luigi Russolo and Gino Severini. The vehicle for their movement was the Futurist Manifesto, written by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. The future they were contemplating is now.

Dynamicism of a Dog on a Leash,
 1912, Giacomo Balla
Futurism was first a literary movement; and judging by the number of essays, manifestos, articles, and other assorted "papers" establishing its premise, it remained fairly true to its birthright. It espoused disestablishmentarianism (always wanted to use that word in a sentence). It demanded artists jettison the old, embrace wholeheartedly new science and technology, "kill all the critics," and not only paint like rebels but live them too. In its artistic incarnation, it was bent on portraying every aspect of a given subject and most pointedly that object's existence in time. In effect, the painting movement became enamored with painting movement. Balla's Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash (right), painted in 1912, is usually held up as the trademark of the group's efforts along this line.

Unique Forms of Continuity of Space,
1913, Umberto Boccioni
Actually, however, Umberto Boccioni's Unique Forms of Continuity of Space (right), from 1913, is a much better icon for what Futurism was all about. Moreover, it's not a painting at all, but a massive, striding, bronze sculpture. The element of movement is there to be sure, but there is so much more, an analysis of form, of structure, Cubism--a kind of sculptural Nude Descending a Staircase which seems to have been its inspiration. Boccioni's painting, even more so than Balla's, dipped deeply into both the hopes and fears the future might hold. His 1910-11 painting, The City Rises (below) is a hellish, red inferno of man's struggle to cope with and control the rising tide of industrialization he saw in Italian cities during the first decade of the twentieth century. Beyond that, he also looked inwardly, at the modern man's psyche in his State of Mind triptych--The Farewells, Those who Go, and Those who Stay Behind (bottom). Unlike the majority of the Futurists who uncritically embraced the future, Boccioni saw too the turmoil brought on by rapid technological change in man's existence. As it turned out, in the short term at least, it was his vision of the future that proved the most knowing.
The City Rises, 1910-11, Umberto Boccioni

The State of Mind Triptych
(Painting's cutting edge 100 years ago)
The Farewells 1911,
Umberto Boccioni
Those Who Go, 1911,
Umberto Boccioni
Those Who Stay Behind,
1911, Umberto Boccioni

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