Italian Futurism and English Vorticism by Prudente, Teresa

The publication, on the 11th of June 1909, in Milan, of the first “Manifesto del Futurismo” (followed, 11 days after, by the French translation in “Le Figaro”), marked the official birth of the avant-garde movement destined to be active for the following two decades and to spread, with various results, all over the world. The author of the Manifesto, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, was an Italian writer of wealthy birth who had published, both in Italy and in France, a few collections of symbolist poetry and had founded in Milan, in 1905, an international review called “Poesia”.

The Manifesto represented Marinetti’s total rejection of the past, and gave voice to the new generation’s will to renew the content and the form of artistic expression, to project art in the future of modern life. With violent and uncompromising tones, the Futurist “gay incendiaries” emphatically celebrated both the “death” of all conventional codes of communication and the “birth” of a new artistic “alphabet”. Target of the Futurists’ vehement criticism was, in fact, the concept of art seen as mimesis, which led, in their opinion, to a still representation of life (“literature has, so far, exalted thoughtful stillness, ecstasy, sleep…”), and which was no longer able to reproduce the kaleidoscopic modern experience. The refusal of the previous tradition not only included the rejection of Romantic poetry but also a criticism of psychological and realistic narrative, which, in Futurist conception, prevented, with its static reflection, the subject’s immersion in the flux of life.

The Manifesto insisted on the ideas of speed and simultaneity, showing a close link between the avant-garde movement and the historical setting in Italy, where a late process of Industrialization was taking place. The admiration for technology and for the new horizons opened by its employment, was translated into the purpose of giving life to artistic creations able to generate an impact similar to the one stimulated by fast and powerful machines.

The second Manifesto (1912), born with a less ideological and more “technical” aim (“Manifesto tecnico della letteratura Futurista”), clarified the instruments to be adopted in order to transform art into a “dynamic” expression of life. Focussing mainly on literature, the 1912 Manifesto presented the new rules meant to abolish the old and narrowing linguistic conventions: casual disposition of nouns, use of the infinitive verbal tense, abolishment of adjectives, adverbs and punctuation, attention to the graphic disposition of the text.

The theoretical and ideogical starting point of Marinetti’s Manifestos stimulated in Italy a heterogeneous range of art-works: from free-verse poetry to narrative, from theatre to visual arts. Live performances also played an important part: on one hand, they underlined the conception of art seen more as a flux than as a crystallized form and, on the other hand, they demonstrated a new relationship between the artist and the public. As part of its anti-bourgeois ideology, Futurism attacked the old “passive” modalities of artistic fruition, promoting, instead, the idea of the artistic act conceived as an “aggressive” gesture toward the public.

Thanks to its revolutionary forms and manifestations, and to Marinetti’s international connections, Futurism soon aroused the interest of many avant-garde artists all around the world, from Europe, to Russia, the USA, and Japan.

The relationship with the English art scene started as early as in 1910, when Marinetti held a conference at the Lyceum Club in London (“Un Discours Futuriste aux Anglais””), in which he expressed his violent criticism against Ruskin, seen as the master of the old, static representation of life (“Your deplorable Ruskin…with his sick dreams of a primitive pastoral life…”). Marinetti returned to London in 1912, to introduce, at the Sackville Gallery, the Futurism exhibition which in that year was travelling around Europe. The “Exhibition of Works by the Italian Futurist Painters” showed over forty paintings, and was generally received with astonished scepticism by the English press (“The anarchical extravagance of the Futurists must deprive the movement of the sympathy of all reasonable men”, The Times, 19 March 1912 ). Nevertheless, the exhibition represented the starting point of the interaction between Futurism and English avant-garde, thanks mainly to C.R.W Nevinson’s relationship and cooperation with the Italian Futurist painter Severini and with Marinetti. The connection became evident in “The Post-Impressionist and Futurist Exhibition” held at the Doré Gallery in London in 1913, where Walter SickertPercy Wyndham LewisEdward WadsworthFrederick Etchells and Nevinson exhibited their paintings, which proved to be widely influenced by the Futurist ideas of movement and fragmentation. The exhibition kept feeding both interest and criticism toward the Italian avant-garde movement and Marinetti soon returned to London, where Nevinson and other artists embracing Futurism organized a dinner to celebrate him (on the 18th of November 1913 ). Marinetti and Nevinson met again the following year (April 1914) for the “Futurist exhibition” at the Doré Gallery, which presented eighty works by Boccioni, Balla, Carrà, Soffici and Russolo. The show included a special evening with both Marinetti and Nevinson holding a conference on Futurism and performing an experimental poetry reading with hammer and drums beating.

It was from the connection and cooperation between Marinetti and Nevinson, who had gathered around him a committee of artists (mostly members of Lewis’s “Rebel Art Centre”) willing to follow Futurist experimentalism, that the first (and only) English Futurist Manifesto saw the light. This was published in The Observer on the 7th of June 1914 under the name of “A Futurist Manifesto: Vital English Art” and presented all the typical features of Futurist vehement poetics: the attack against institutions, the hate for sentimentalism, the call for a new, vital, creative art and for a “recuperative optimism, a fearless desire of adventure, a heroic instinct of discovery, a warship of strength, and a physical and moral courage”. The Manifesto was co-signed by Marinetti and Nevinson, who also mentioned the “Rebel Art Centre” and its members as participants in the declaration. This aroused the discontent of the artists associated with the Manifesto (Atkinson, BombergEpsteinEtchells, Hamilton, NevinsonRobertsWadsworth and Lewis), who hadn’t actually been consulted and had neither read nor approved the document before its publication. A few days later, the rebel artists mentioned in the Manifesto published a letter in The New Weekly in which they firmly replied to Nevinson’s improper use of their signatures, by dissociating themselves from the Futurist Manifesto and by stating their independent position as an experimental group. The event started a process of internal division within the English avant-garde movement, culminating in an animated evening where the artists of the “Rebel Art Centre” attacked Nevinson while he was lecturing at the Doré Gallery and disrupted the lecture.

The issue of being independent from Italian Futurism was central to the “rebel artists”: Wyndham Lewis and three other artists (Cuthbert HamiltonEdward WadsworthFrederick Etchells) had founded the group in 1912 with the intention to free themselves from the influence of the dominating Roger Fry’s Omega Workshop and with the project to move on from Post-Impressionism: the perspective of being seen as the English branch of a “general” avant-garde current, led by the Italian movement, appeared to be too narrowing for them. Nevertheless, there were also other, more theoretical reasons, which were clarified when the “rebel artists”‘s opposition to Futurism took the shape of a new movement: Vorticism. Although doubtlessly indebted to Futurism, English Vorticism, as it appeared clearly from the Manifesto published in the new magazine Blast (1914) and from the artworks of its members (London Group’s Exhibition, March 1914), presented some original features which could explain its critical position toward Futurism. The idea itself of a vortex (defined by Pound as “the point of maximum energy”) suggested a different conception of movement, where the forces conveying to the focal point of the image and drawing the observer into the picture, revealed a more abstract and logical approach to the theme. Futurism’s sequential depiction of movement was felt, by the Vorticistst, to be a superficial form of experimentalism, focussing exclusively on the surface of the phenomena and showing itself to be too heavily influenced by French Impressionism. Instead, Vorticism combined the Futurist attention to speed and movement with the Cubist use of geometry and structure, thereby suggesting the intention to concentrate more on style than on content. In this respect, the theme of technology was interpreted by Vorticism in a more detached way, showing a classical search for control and rationality which contrasted with the Futurist exaltation of modernity and desire for immersion in the flux of life. The Futurists’ involvement with Fascist propaganda also contributed to the Vorticist’s critical approach toward the Italian movement: the Futurist exaltation of war and its call on the masses marked, in Lewis’s view, the movement’s ephemeral and populist character and showed, again, Futurism’s inability to move on from irrational forces towards a more mastered form of art.

With the rise of Vorticism, Futurism seemed to lose its leading role within the avant-garde panorama and, in England, only Marinetti and Nevinson were left to embody the principles of the movement. Through the pages of Blast, Vorticists kept paying attention to Futurists, both applauding them (and thus tacitly recognizing their debt to the Italian Movement) and criticizing them for their limits in (“Futurism and identification with the crowd is a huge hypocrisy”, Blast2).

The beginning of World War I, and the increasing involvement with Fascism, marked the progressive isolation of the movement and opened the way to a disintegration of Futurism’s international character: the various movements born around the world started to develop autonomously, becoming thus more and more independent from the common Futurist matrix. In this respect, Nevinson’s experience appears to be meaningful: the English painter, following Futurist ideology, took an active part in the conflict and went on realizing artworks which showed his lasting Futurist ideas (see, for instance, the sculpture “The Automobilist”, 1914). Nevertheless, at the end of the War, Nevinson started to show a more critical approach toward Futurism’s extremism and cult of violence and ended up dissociating himself from the movement and regretting, as we can read in his autobiography, his involvement with a movement which “ended in Fascism”.


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