Futurism: room guide, room 9, War Room 9, War

Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson, ‘Bursting Shell’ 1915
Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson
Bursting Shell 1915

When the First World War began in August 1914, Italy remained neutral. Bound by treaties to Germany and Austria-Hungary, while emotionally tied to France and Britain, this was the prudent course. But the policy immediately became the target of interventionist agitation in which the Futurists featured strongly. To Marinetti, neutrality was a symptom of his country’s conservatism, but also betrayed the unfinished business of Italian unification which still required the incorporation of territories in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His longstanding fascination with a technological war as ‘the world’s only hygiene’ converged with his sense of nationhood. 

In November 1914 during the agitational phase of Italian neutrality, Marinetti encouraged Severini to ‘try to live the war pictorially’. The result was a sequence of paintings capturing the dynamism of supply and hospital trains, whose very energy suggests the voracious destruction they facilitate. Balla’s interventionist paintings were, by contrast, more deliberately stirring. They capture the atmosphere of national renewal that led to Italy joining the war in May 1915. Prior to this moment (when Marinetti led the Futurists in volunteering), Nevinson was the only Futurist painter to experience the war. His images, resulting from driving an ambulance in the British army, expose the scale and power of the tragedy.