“We have to persecute, lash and torture all those who inveigh against speed.” One thing about Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, an Italian poet who wrote in French: he knew how to get your attention. In 1909, Marinetti got much of the world’s attention by launching futurism, the Italian arts movement that worshipped machinery, velocity, strength, force and all things new. It was an explosive and still somewhat underrated cultural episode, and it makes for an indispensable new show at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City, curated by Vivien Greene, that’s on view through Sept. 1. You might say it makes futurism timely.
We remember futurism now mostly through the work of its artists. But for 35 years, Marinetti was its chief theorist, pamphleteer, impresario and motormouth–“the caffeine of Europe,” as he liked to call himself. Born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1876, the son of a wealthy corporate lawyer, he never lacked money as an adult–unusual for an avant-garde poet but useful for a man determined to evangelize across Europe, preferably from good hotels. By sheer force of will, Marinetti established his new movement with his first “Futurist Manifesto.” A peerless promoter–PR was the art he really excelled at–he managed to land it on the front page of Le Figaro, the leading Paris daily. He knew it would make more of a splash there than in resolutely nonfuturist Italy, a largely preindustrial nation obsessed with past glories, especially since it could claim no artists of consequence since the 18th century. If nothing else, futurism would put Italy back in the art-historical game.
Marinetti lived to provoke. He transmitted to the realm of culture and politics the rhetorical shock tactics of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. That’s Rimbaud we hear in Marinetti’s most notorious promise: “We will glorify war–the world’s only hygiene.” And Rimbaud again in the title of his second delirious manifesto: “Let’s Murder the Moonlight.” Within a year, summoned by his irresistible voice, the first circle of self-proclaimed futurist artists began to gather. Their shared goal was to represent speed, force and movement on canvas. As a start, they reached back to the pointillism of Georges Seurat–in Italy called divisionism–the technique of placing staccato strokes of contrasting pigments next to one another to create a mist of pulsing colors. One of the first masterpieces of futurist art is Umberto Boccioni’s The City Rises, from 1910, in which municipal dynamism is represented by an exploding red stallion formed out of a whirlwind of brushstrokes. Part Pegasus, part Budweiser Clydesdale, part volcanic eruption, that spectral bronco links the explosive machinery of the new century with the horsepower that built the old world. Around the same time, Giacomo Balla applied a cascade of divisionist chevrons across Street Light, not just to suggest the glow of an outdoor lamp but also to make visible the voluptuous force field of electricity itself.
Soon the futurists adopted the Cubism of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, giving them new ways to fracture the picture plane and disassemble forms. In the stop-action photographs of Eadweard Muybridge and Étienne-Jules Marey, they found means to represent the appearance of bodies and limbs in motion. When Boccioni sculpted a bronze of a stationary object, Development of a Bottle in Space, in 1912, he drew it out into swirling vectors. In futurism, no object is stationary.
The futurists’ favorite objects were the ones built for speed. Automobiles were their fetish par excellence, more dazzling than any ancient Greek marble. “A roaring car that seems to run on shrapnel,” Marinetti wrote, “is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.” With the advent of the airplane, they produced a sub-category of dizzying “aeropictures” like Tullio Crali’s Before the Parachute Opens.
In Antonio Sant’Elia, the movement had its own architectural visionary. Just 28 when he died in World War I, too young to have built anything, he nonetheless left behind spectacular imaginings of the futurist future, a world swept free of the architectural past. It was also free of any direct reference to nature, a touchy realm for the futurists, suspect to them precisely to the degree that it bore no mark of human invention. So the drawings of tall buildings Sant’Elia made in 1913 and ’14, long before there was an actual skyscraper anywhere in Italy, have no trace of trees, grass or water. All the same, he invests his steel and concrete mesas with something like the majesty of nature. Many decades before they became a cliché of hotel atriums, he also gives them glass-enclosed elevators.
The futurists applied themselves in every field of the arts. In poetry that meant “words in freedom,” liberated from syntax, grammar or even sense, a technique that produced ingenious image-texts like Francesco Cangiullo’s Large Crowd in the Piazza del Popolo, from 1914. There was futurist music assembled from noise and futurist theatrical events that were forerunners of performance art (and ideally ended in near riots). There was even futurist cuisine, with sauces concocted from chocolate, red pepper and–why not?–cologne that make present-day molecular gastronomy look like comfort food. Because “spaghetti is no food for fighters,” Marinetti also detested pasta and started a campaign to eliminate it from the Italian diet. You know how far that got.
What Marinetti had in mind was not simply a movement in the arts but a complete transformation of society. So by 1918 he had produced “A Manifesto of the Futurist Political Party,” a grab bag of ill-formed ideas. The following year, still struggling to synthesize socialism, anarchism and capitalism, he merged the Futurist Party with Mussolini’s Fascists, a very bad move. By that time, World War I had claimed the life of not only Sant’Elia but also Boccioni, arguably the best artist ever associated with the group. It would be Marinetti’s misfortune to live until 1944, time enough for him to lobby foolishly to make futurism Italy’s official state art and attempt an unlikely rapprochement with the church. Though he resisted admitting German anti-Semitism into Italian life, much less Hitler’s loathing of “degenerate” modern art, in his struggle to preserve futurism after Mussolini’s rise to power, he became an on-again, off-again apologist for the regime.
Marinetti’s accommodation with Fascism has thrown a retroactive shadow over futurism, giving to its worship of strength and force a sinister cast that it partly deserves. All the same, its influence was incalculable. The Russian avant-garde–another would-be vanguard in an even more backward nation–absorbed the futurists’ worship of machinery. Dadaism took up their anarchic cabaret and experiments in poetry. The Surrealists adopted their ambition to change the world. And though the dandyish Marinetti would have turned up his nose at their torn T-shirts, even British punk rockers owed a debt to the futurist summons to annihilate tradition. “Let’s murder the moonlight!” That’s a line Johnny Rotten could have written.
This appears in the March 10, 2014 issue of TIME.