Art and Music

Back To The Futurism

Celebrating Back to the Future Day with a look at the Futurist movement.

We've made it to the future, everyone! Today is the day that Marty McFly travels forward to in Back to the Future: Part II, where there are aerial lanes of flying cars, commercially-available hoverboards, and a Chicago Cubs team that won the World Series (which could still happen)!

Obviously there are some things in 2015's Hill Valley that we don't quite have: cars are still earthbound, our shoes do not tie themselves, and I have yet to cruise around on a rocket-propelled Pit Bull hoverboard. Still, looking forward in time and imagining the possibilities the future holds has been part of the cultural consciousness for over a century at least: from the late nineteenth-century stories of wondrous technologies by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells to the twentieth-century bleak, dystopian predictions of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell.

In the early twentieth century, there was an entire artistic movement centered on the idea of the future, aptly called "Futurism." Futurism began in Italy with the 1909 publication of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti's Futurist Manifesto, a discourse on the positives of industry, technology, youth, and all around progress and modernization. Anything from the past was to be rejected in favor of the new, and Marinetti's manifesto quickly garnered a strong following from other Italian artists. Needless to say, they'd probably find a great ally in Dr. Emmett Brown and his inventions!

Umberto Boccioni was a painter and sculptor who befriended Marinetti and shared his philosophy, who contributed his own writings on the subject as well as many Futurist paintings and sculptures. La città sale (The City Rises) was his first in this vein in 1910. Notice the dynamic figures and vivid color palette, as well as the subject matter depicting working men and a city under construction:

Futurist painting of working men and horses in a city under construction.
The City Rises, oil on canvas by Umberto Boccioni, 1910.

These components are then taken even further with his later works, such as Dinamismo di un Ciclista (Dynamism of a Cyclist), which looks entirely abstract at first, but if you compare it to his original sketch you can see what his intent is:

Abstract sketch of a person riding a bicycle
Sketch of Dynamism of a Cyclist by Umberto Boccioni, 1913.
Colorful abstract painting of a person riding a bicycle
Dynamism of a Cyclist, oil on canvas by Umberto Boccioni, 1913.

Some other Futurist works of art are Boccioni's sculpture Forme uniche della continuità nello spazio (Unique Forms of Continuity in Space):

Abstract bronze sculpture of a vaguely humanoid form
Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, bronze sculpture by Umberto Boccioni, 1913.

Giacomo Balla's Velocità astratta + rumore (Abstract Speed + Sound):

Abstract painting with shapes and lines in blue, green, white, and red.
Abstract Speed + Sound, oil on unvarnished millboard by Giacomo Balla, 1913-14.

And Joseph Stella's Battle of Lights, Coney Island:

Abstract painting meant to evoke Coney Island.
Battle of Lights, Coney Island, oil on canvas by Joseph Stella, 1913.

As mentioned previously, visual art was not the only product of the Futurist movement. Antonio Sant'Elia was an architect who followed the movement and designed several buildings that never saw the light of day, though his influence can readily be seen in science-fiction classics like Metropolis and Blade Runner. Here are some of his sketches:

Concept drawing of a power plant with a Futurist aesthetic.
The power station, ink and pencil on paper by Antonio Sant’Elia, 1914.
Concept drawing of a residence with a Futurist aesthetic.
Housing with external lifts and connection systems to different street levels, ink over black pencil on paper by Antonio Sant’Elia, 1914.

And here's a building designed by Giacomo Matté-Trucco that would make Biff Tannen weep tears of joy:

Fiat factory with a driving track on its roof.
Fiat Lingotto Factory in Turin, Italy in 1928, designed by Giacomo Matté-Trucco.

Things got heavy when it came to music. Luigi Russolo was the man to go to in Italy. He developed experimental instruments called "intonarumori," which were boxes containing different devices that made a variety of non-melodic acoustic noises. With these, he and Marinetti presented the first concert of Futurist music in 1914, which was not well-received. Here's an example of his work:

The 1920s was where Futurism really began to make a presence in mainstream classical music. George Antheil was an American composer who was fascinated with machines and technology, particularly in his 1923 Ballet mécanique, which was originally written for a French silent film but was since revised as a concert work. It features player pianos and a host of percussion instruments like xylophones, electric bells, airplane propellers, and plenty more:

That same year, Arthur Honneger, who shares Doc Brown's fascinations with trains, composed Pacific 231, which is named for a particular type of locomotive. He did not write the piece intending to evoke a train, but found that the idea worked perfectly well for the finished composition:

Futurism also gained a strong following in Russia, and industry was the focal point of two works by Sergei Prokofiev and Alexander Mosolov. Prokofiev's Le pas d'acier (The Steel Step) was a ballet that was arranged into a four-movement orchestral suite, the last of which is titled The Factory:

Much in the same vein, Mosolov's ballet suite Stal (Steel) has a movement called Factory: machine-music, though it is more often referred to as The Iron Foundry:

Like Doc Brown, these artists were enamored with what the future held, and saw the promise in the growing fields of industry and technology. Though time travel itself seems a bit out of our reach, our technological leaps within the past century have been quite impressive, and I’m sure even in the current 2015, 1985s Doc wouldn’t be able to help but say, “Great Scott!”


Joshua Zinn

Joshua Zinn

Producer, Houston Matters

Joshua is a producer for Houston Matters on News 88.7 as well as the host of Encore Houston on HPM Classical. He joined Houston Public Media as a radio intern in 2014 and became a full-time announcer the following year. Now he prepares segments and occasionally records interviews for Houston...

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