From the numerous styles that cameinto existence in response to the Avant-Gardemovement in the 19th Century Art Nouveau is probably one of the mostwell know in general, even now an exampleof this style can be found in many countries in Europe as well North America.
Meanwhile, in Italy,another movement challenged the status quo, the Italian Futurist, whoseinfluence was mostly centred in Italy.Both these movements tried two moves away from the cultural influences of thepast and develop something truly new, each took a different route and in this essay,I will look at the difference and similarities between the two.The Italian Futurist movement wasfounded by the exuberant and vocal poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in 1909. TheFuturists wanted a more modern culture, one based on dynamism, simultaneity, speed, the embrace of the machine, themodern city and the believed that everything from the past should be rejectedand discarded to make way for a new and modern way of living1. Inits infancy, the futurist aimed to capture the intensity of Italy on the vergeof huge modern changes, capturing the image of aUtopian ideal.
Painter’s such as Umberto Boccioni would produce workrepresenting machines and men at work and playing at high speed. Yet by 1919 asthe Fascist movement was officially founded in Italy most of this optimism ofpre-WWI Europe had disappeared.This wasn’t the end of the movementthough, as futurist artists began to concern themselves with all forms of artinclude things such as music, food and many others. The goal of these new futurists was to remake the worldwith a modern eye and disruption became their objective.
While Futurism andFascism have always been linked their relationship is difficult to explain and understand because while the futurist did wantto be the official art movement of Mussolini’s party, he never declared them tobe and in fact preferred more classical styles2. Aview shared by Futurism and Fascism alike was the celebrated war as mean torevitalise and remake Italy3.Furthermore, both movements showedextreme nationalism wanting to reshape Italy politically as well as culturally.With regards to architecture, themovement authored The Manifesto ofFuturist Architecture. Two different manifestos were created, one by theArchitect Antonio Sant’Elia and another by the artist Umberto Boccioni. Boccioni’s Manifesto reflects muchof Henry van de Velde’s advanced engineering application lessons, who was also aleading figure in the Art Nouveau Movement in Belgium, as well as takinginspiration from Adolf Loos’ famous Ornamentand Crime, wanting radically to abolish all decorative work from buildings.
In 1901 during his lessons, van de Velde states that engineers are “the creators of the new architecture”by using “calculation” and newmaterials such as “metals, glass andceramic”, to create “hithertounheard-of objects: locomotives, bicycles, automobiles, sensational steamshipsand the gigantic machinery used in modern industry”. Their creations are toobey “logical and rational laws” andthe esthetic results are not considered a primary objective. Boccioni expandsupon these concepts and declares that works of art, including painting and sculpture, “consist of calculations”. He then transitions into an area thatwould later be called design declaring that “asurgical instrument, a steamship, a machine or a railroad station embodies anecessity of life in its construction which creates a composition of emptyspaces, filled spaces, lines, balanced planes and equations, by means of whicha new architectural emotion is created”. Boccioni concludes his manifestoby condemning the plagiarism and “stylisticmystification” of the past stating that they must do away with “slavery to antique order and styles”and to “foreign styles” reflectingthe general view of all Avant Garde movements at the time4. In many aspects,Sant’Elia manifesto is quite like Boccioni’s.
He similarly fights against a “moronic” mixture of elements from different styles andinvokes an architecture that has its purpose and place in modern life. Sant’Eliaadds that we have lost our taste for “themonumental, the heavy, the static, and we have enriched our sensibility with a taste for the light, the practical, theephemeral and the swift” reflectingthe view of the rest of the futurist movement outside of architecture. In his manifesto, Sant’Elia goes into more detail onhis views, describing those things he supports as well as those things hedespises. Among the latter Sant’Elia has a similar distaste for the “plagiarism”of classic architecture as well as condemning the use of antiquated and costlymaterials. He proclaims that futurist architecture is an architecture of”calculation, of audacious temerity andof simplicity; the architecture of reinforced concrete, of steel, glass,cardboard, textile fiber, and of all those substitutes for wood, stone andbrick that enable us to obtain maximum elasticity and lightness”, yet he reiteratesthat it should remain art and is not to be justbuilt around practicality and usefulness. He encourages the use ofoblique and elliptic stating they are dynamic and “by their very nature possess an emotive power a thousand timesstronger than perpendiculars and horizontals”. He goes on to criticise thedecoration of buildings saying that the decorative value of FuturistArchitecture is solely depended on the arrangement of building materials.
Hefinishes off with an interesting pointstating that by its nature Futuristarchitecture will never be permanent as it is not the building that willoutlive us but rather things will endure less than us and thus must go througha constant change as every generationbuilds their own unique city5.The Art Nouveau Movement developedout of a major faction in the decorative arts movement that first sprang up inWestern Europe in 1892. Many people in this decorative movement were tired ofthe usual repetitive forms and methods and wanted something new rather than the same old endless imitations ofclassical furniture. Like the Futurists,they sought something new and wanted to be free from the influences of the pastand foreign taste. The 19th Century had been a focus on function,with ornamentation, finishing touches, elegance and beauty being made secondary,leaving a need to recreate the decorative arts.
On the 22nd of December 1891 Siegfried Bing, returning from an assignmentin the US, opened a shop named Art Nouveau. This store would eventually give its name to the movement, but this designationfails at encompassing the whole of the movement as it would rise in manyEuropean countries and even make its way to America and the style Art Nouveauwould vary depending on the country and prevailing taste6. The revolution of Art Nouveau started off in England wherethe movement gained a foothold due to architects such as A.W.N Pugin.
Whilepeople such as art critic John Ruskin were the originators of the movement architectssuch as Phillip Webb and Walter Crane would soon become its figureheads. Around them arose a group of new designers,illustrators and decorators who create beautiful works composed of decorativecaprices of flora and fauna both animal and human. As mentioned before theItalian Futurist would completely ignore anything belonging to the past orother cultures even going so far as to openly reject these already existingstyles, meanwhile Art Nouveau and the decorative movement saw no shame intaking an example from other cultures andthe past and were a lot more lenient in that regard. Despite this, though it still worth noting that theynever meticulously copied their sources of inspiration and always just took bitand pieces of it to create a new an original style7Most of these architects didn’t seeany problem in being both architects and decorator, in fact, many of them strived to achieve a perfect balance betweeninterior and exterior. In contrast Boccioni in his writings on futuristarchitecture states that “Even the outerfaçade of a building must descend, ascend, decompose, withdraw or extendoutwards, according to the requirements of the rooms within”, suggestingapproached that focused more of the functionality of the interior of thebuilding rather the aesthetic of the exterior. Furthermore, where bright andpastel colour was introduced into ArtNouveau buildings the futurist suggested that only the colour created by theraw building materials were important and that things such as paint anddecoration were only secondary over the structure and functionality of abuilding. Finally, in England, there wasa desire to redo everything from overall structural ornamentation to thehumblest domestic object which again heavily contrasts with Sant’Elia’s drawingsthat features large grand designs with only minimal attention paid to smallerdetails8.
From England the movement spread to Belgium, here itwas adopted by local architects such a Victor Horta, Paul Hankar, GustaveSerrurier-Bovy and Henry van de Velde. These four artists were a lot lessconservative resulting in them being a lot less influenced by tradition andbeing almost completely unassociated with it. In Belgium, the new decorative movement began to adopt lines andcurves based on torsions and dances forming a “delirium of curves, obsessive in appearance and often torture to theeyes”. Belgium wasn’t as chained to tradition as England was and Belgian architectswere mainly focused on discovering new and comfortable interior arrangements,yet however successful they were in this regard they were still expected tosatisfy the Flemish Taste for abundance and elaborative decoration9.Art Nouveau would then move on to France were it thepassion for it was different. Instead of decorating with schematically stylisedflora and fauna, French artists concentrated on ornamentation that retained theflower’s natural grace and showed the figure at its best. They looked for thenovelty in absolute realism.
Many artists grew came out of Art Nouveau in France,but it really exploded when posters designed by Alphonso Mucha began to beplastered all over Paris as well as architect Hector Guimard who style, deridedas style nouille(translating to “noodle style” another term used for Art Nouveau) would shape the identity of the ParisMetro. Afterwards Art Nouveau would spread to muchmore country in Europe as well as to America. Unfortunately, in the end, it would stray far away from its originalaspiration, becoming an expensive and elitist style10.While these two movements differ invarying ways the most prominent difference might well be the scale, while theFuturists were largely confined to ItalyArt Nouveau would spread across most of the then Western World. Yet asmentioned before the nature of Futurism makes it so it will never be permanentbut rather forever change reflecting itsviews of dynamism and renewal.
Meanwhile,Art Nouveau is even now admired by many modern architects and might have becomein a way its own version of “classical”as architecture for our current generation of architects and designers.As two of the largest movements inthe Avant-Garde, Art Nouveau and theItalian Futurist could not be more different. The Futurists while limited in its scope, lifetime and scale, whererevolutionary in their Utopian ideals ofspeed, dynamism and the idea of the modern city, based on functionality rather than aesthetic.
Art Nouveau not unlike theFuturist movement aimed to find a new identity but rather than the latter they did not reject their pastbut rather used it to inspire a new an original style balancing both aestheticand functionality. And while different movements of Art Nouveau varied fromcountry to country they also still retained to desire to find a new an originalstyle. Personally, I think this one of the only aspects in which the Futuristand Art Nouveau match, they both have adesire to create a style that was new a unique and they succeeded in this goal asevidenced by the many differences between the two movements.