Canvassing Conflict: Italian Futurism & Artistic Attitudes Toward War Avant Guerre

By Sofia Lesmes

20 November 2018 

Futurist painters Luigi Russolo, Carlo Carrà, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Umberto Boccioni and Gino Severini saw war as a chance for societal progress. This view is reflected in their artwork prior to the First World War.

In 1909, Filippo Marinetti published a scathing manifesto on the front page of France’s Le Figaro. The manifesto stated the vision of the newly created Futurist movement, which declared that the artists would ‘glorify war.’[1] This attitude towards conflict was only one of the Futurists’ numerous beliefs, many of which were politically radical and aggressively nationalistic. The Futurists admired how the rapid development of technology was changing the daily lives of people across Europe. Therefore, the members, which included Marinetti, Umberto Boccioni, Giacomo Balla, Carlo Carrà, and Gino Severini, would use artistic mediums to frame conflict through new technology and its grandeur. Although war was already an established institution in European societies, the ‘modern experience’ meant encompassing the trends of industrialisation and mechanisation into the cultural understanding of state violence. The movement welcomed developments in military capabilities that had come about in the nineteenth century such as lighter fighter planes, advanced chemical weapons, and the Maxim gun. The artsits hailed these developments as a catalyst for national excellence on the battlefield and, therefore, on the international stage. The Futurist aesthetic, then, served as an outlet for this perception of war . Therefore, it is useful to analyse this artistic movement to understand certain cultural attitudes towards war during the avant guerre period.

Europe and the ‘long nineteenth century’

Europe had not seen a pan-continental conflict since 1815. During this time, there was a changing perception that large-scale wars were a thing of the past and that shorter, more efficient wars were the new norm.[2] This, combined with the developments of the Second Industrial Revolution, fostered an almost welcoming attitude towards the institution of war after ‘the long nineteenth century.’[3] When war was declared in 1914, its reception was to a large extent positive. As Rafael Scheck writes, ‘although many people in Germany had felt apprehensive about war during the July crisis, once war had come, almost everybody accepted it and nobody looked back.’ In Britain, ‘the people’s enthusiasm culminated outside Buckingham Palace when it became known that war had been declared … The news was received with tremendous cheering.’

Futurism & The Idea of War

Futurism wanted to explore the ability to synthesize objects in a state of motion and of rest. Artists sought to express this synthesis through paintings, among other mediums, and combined art with advanced technology.[4]  In Boccioni’s Materia (1912), although a woman figure (alluding to the Madonna) is the central focus of the painting, everything about her is imbibed with elements of steel and machinery. This represents the goal of the Futurists, which was to bring Italian society into the future, or more importantly, out of the past. Subsequently, one of Futurism’s central tenets was the importance of technology and movement in society. Futurists believed that the ‘modern experience’ would emulate the machine; it would be swift, orderly, and methodical. By rejecting history and tradition (an attitude called anti-passatista), Futurists praised the rapid development of infrastructure, cities, and weapons. They looked to the movement and energy of new technology to drive people into an amplified vision of the future. As the Manifesto of the Futurist Painters in 1911 declared, ‘living art draws its life from the surrounding environment.’ Therefore, if the surrounding environment was a European diplomatic stalemate, then technology combined with a ‘brisk and merry’ war was good for European society.[5]

Futurism & the Aesthetic of War

Futurist works sought to embody the modern experience as advancement, and war as a tool used to propel human progress. The artists believed that war was cultural progress, and they embraced the new weapons and technology that facilitated it.  In The City Rises (1911), Boccioni represents a city-setting as full of motion and frantic. It largely resembles a battle painting, with chaotic motions and distraught scenarios. The figures in the painting, while supposedly building parts of a city, are swept across the canvas in a collective motion of struggle. Boccioni’s depiction of a war-like state emphasizes how the ‘modern’ society would advance through conflict and turmoil. Showing movement meant showing progress, and this progress would eventually lead to an ideal state of society underpinned by the machine.

Gino Severini’s 1915 painting Armoured Train in Action is a prime example of how war influenced Futurists’ art.

The Futurist aesthetic reached a climax before World War I.[6] Their works, which were heavily influenced by Cubism and Post-Impressionism, demonstrated a passion for the technology of warfare. Weapons and soldiers were depicted as parts of an efficiently running machine, while conflict was painted as fluid movement and energy. For example, works such as Funeral of the Anarchist Galli (1911) and Armoured Train in Action (1915) show the Futurists’ admiration for the sleek aesthetic of war, violence, and youth. The artists attempt to depict the commotion of conflict in a harmonious composition, and objects are the central lines of focus instead of people. According to the Italian-born academic Arundel del Re, ‘Marinetti, forgetting the real nature of war, had raised it to a romantic ideal.’[7] This depiction of conflict not only glorified the possibilities created by new technology, it also reaffirmed the idea that violence and conflict were good for society. The Futurists’ aesthetic reflected the idea that the new type of war was as quick and agile as its weaponry. However, this ideal lost popularity after the first World War, and the Futurist movement was not an exception.

Futurism & the end of the ‘Great War’

At the beginning of the twentieth century, cultural perceptions of war had yet to adapt to the new realities of warfare. As John Mueller writes, ‘before 1914, the institution of war still carried with it much of the glamour and the sense of inevitability it had acquired over the millennia’.[8] But what would happen after 1914, when the weapons systems were actually used on the battlefield? The first World War severely changed Western cultural perceptions of war. The introduction of new weapons including fighter planes, the Maxim gun, and chemical weapons onto the battlefield resulted in mass casualties during the war. This certainly had a cultural impact on art and, therefore, societal behaviour towards state-sponsored violence. By 1925, the majority of the leading artists had rejected the movement.While figures such as Boccioni died on the front, others shifted to different art styles. Carrà, for example, dedicated the rest of his career to painting neo-Renaissance figures in Paris. This indicates a complete turn towards what he had so vehemently opposed the decade before. The cultural shift shows how Futurists’ perceptions changed when they were faced with the reality of war. Leading figures of the movement had witnessed the potency of new machinery and advanced weapons and began to move away from their previous beliefs. Even if modern society was driven by the machine, it was also subject to it.

Although the Futurists were ambivalent and radical in their political beliefs, their artistic objectives were much more cohesive. Futurism wanted to depict the collective urban experience as they saw it: characterised by speed and agility. Conflict played into this through its ‘cathartic effect’ on society, where violence and machines were considered signs of development. The Futurists’ admiration of conflict was an example of cultural attitudes towards war in the early twentieth century, when new technology idealised the future of warfare. It exemplifies one societal reception to modern weaponry that welcomed war in its new form: a quicker and sleeker one. To study art in this context is to examine an admiration for the established institution of war and its changing characteristics.

Sofia Lesmes is a final year BA student reading History & International Relations. She is also a BA representative for Strife. She has worked as an intern at her local U.S. House District office, in addition to having extensive experience in the private sector. She is a Colombian and U.S. dual citizen. Her academic interests include analysing the U.S. and UK’s ‘special relationship’ from a historical perspective, coercive diplomacy, and ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslavia. You can follow her on twitter @slesmes98.

[1] Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, ‘Le Futurisme’, Le Figaro, February 20, 1909

[2] John Mueller, “Changing Attitudes towards War: The Impact of the First World War.” British Journal of Political Science 21, no. 1 (1991): 15.

[3] Eric Hobsbawm, 1962

[4] Hal Foster et al, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism. (London: Thames & Hudson, 2004), 90.

[5] Richard Ned Lebow, Between Peace and War (Baltimore Md: Johns Hopkins university

Press, 1981) p. 251 quoted in Mueller, “Changing Attitudes towards War”, 15

[6] Foster et al., Art Since 1900, 95

[7] Arundel del Re, Poetry and Drama II, 1913, 403 quoted in Marjorie Perloff, The Futurist Movement: Avant Garde, Avant Guerre, and the Language of Rupture. (London, University of Chicago Press, 1986), 36.

[8] Mueller,“Changing Attitudes towards War”, 11

Image 1 source:,_Carr%C3%A0,_Marinetti,_Boccioni_and_Severini_in_front_of_Le_Figaro,_Paris,_9_February_1912.jpg

Image 2 source:

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