We rebel against the spineless admiration for old canvases, old statues and old objects, … and we deem it unjust and criminal that people habitually disdain whatever is young, new, and trembling with life. —“Manifesto of the Futurist Painters,” co-written by Giacomo Balla9
Throughout its life span, Futurism remained committed to innovative painting techniques that used dynamic movement and fractured forms to break with existing notions of space and time.
Giacomo Balla’s (1871–1958) Abstract Speed + Sound (1913–14) presents an abstracted depiction of how a car alters the landscape through which it passes—including sound, light, and even odor. In this work, crisscross motifs represent changes to sound as the car moves. Balla developed the idea for this painting while observing the reflections of cars as they raced past shop windows and their forms and trajectories became infinitely multiplied and unrecognizable.
By the 1930s, the dizzying aerial imagery of Futurism’s final incarnation, aeropittura (aerial painting), dominated, combining interests in speed, technology, nationalism, and war. The Italian military’s success in aviation coupled with notable daring flights launched the airplane into the spotlight.
The five panels of Benedetta’s (1897–1977) Syntheses of Communications (1933–34) extol multiple modes of communication: marine, aerial, overland, radio, telegraphic, and telephonic. The panel, Synthesis of Aerial Communications (1933–34), depicts houses as specks among geometric patterns as if the viewer were high in the sky.
These monumental canvases were commissioned to hang in a post office in Palermo, a city in Sicily. Early on, Futurists had been interested in moving beyond the canvas to create a “total environment” and in the 1930s, murals—a perfect fit for panoramic aeropittura—helped revive this notion and the movement.
Show: Abstract Speed + Sound (1913–14)
- Describe the artist’s choices in terms of elements such as color.
- Tell students that Balla was inspired by the reflections of racing cars in shop windows. Ask students to look back at the artwork and apply this information to their interpretations. How, if at all, does the car change the environment as it passes?
- Ask students how Balla has represented the concepts of speed and sound. If there is time, ask students to sketch their own ways of representing speed or sound.
- Compare Benedetta’s Synthesis of Aerial Communications (1933–34) to Balla’s painting.
- Tell students the title of Benedetta’s painting and explain that this work belonged to a multi-part mural in which other types of communication were also depicted: marine, overland, radio, telegraphic, and telephonic. Ask students how they see the title reflected in the painting.
- In all parts of the mural, Benedetta employs a bird’s-eye view perspective. Ask students how they think the perspective affects our understanding of the subject matter.
- Which technologies do students think exemplify modernity in our era and which should be glorified or rejected? Which kinds of techniques could be used to represent them?
- Paradoxes abound in the history of Futurism. F. T. Marinetti, the founder of the movement, was a supporter of Fascism in Italy, and yet the Futurists had anti-Fascist members and their art was eventually rejected by Fascism in the later years. Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto stated clearly: “We intend to glorify … contempt for woman,”10 and yet, Benedetta was one of several female participants in Futurism and Marinetti’s wife.
For this activity, have students read the first Futurist Manifesto (see Futurism: An Anthology in Google Books) and identify statements that they find surprising or paradoxical for an artistic movement. Then, ask them each to pick one statement and try to explain it with contextual research. For instance, why would artists in early twentieth-century Italy want to “destroy museums, libraries”?11
- Throughout the decades, the Futurist cult of the machine evolved from the automobile to the airplane. The switch was inspired in part by Italy’s success in military aviation and daring flights made by Italians and beloved by their countrymen, particularly Italo Balbo’s (1896–1940) transatlantic crossings. Ask students to think about which technologies in our current era merit study by artists. Then, challenge them to make an abstract drawing that uses elements of art such as line, texture, color, and perspective to capture the unique qualities of that technology. The drawing should convey which aspects of the technology they would praise or reject.
- Both of the artists explored in this section worked in multiples. Balla painted many versions of a speeding car and Benedetta realized five large-scale paintings that transformed the conference room of the Palermo post office, creating what Futurists often called a “total work of art” (opera d’arte totale). As an extension to the above activity, challenge students to plan either a series or a mural-sized “total environment” painting about the technology or technologies in which they are interested. Encourage them to envision this series or mural as site-specific. In other words, it should be planned for a specific space, such as somewhere in school. Reflect together: How would their plans transform the sites they’ve chosen, if at all? As a highertech alternative to this activity, students could create polyptychs using digital images and exhibit their works in a public online space, such as a dedicated account on Instagram or by tagging their works with the same hashtag on their Instagram accounts.