Main Body

Module 9 Futurism, Dada & World War I

(Duchamp & Kollwitz)

Introduction: Italian Futurism

Essay by Emily Casden[1]

Umberto Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913 (cast 1931), bronze, 43 7/8 x 34 7/8 x 15 3/4" (MoMA)
Umberto Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913 (cast 1931), bronze, 43 7/8 x 34 7/8 x 15 3/4″ (MoMA)

Can you imagine being so enthusiastic about technology that you name your daughter Propeller? Today we take most technological advances for granted, but at the turn of thelast century, innovations like electricity, x-rays, radio waves, automobiles and airplanes were extremely exciting. Italy lagged Britain, France, Germany, and the United States in the pace of its industrial development. Culturally speaking, the country’s artistic reputation was grounded in Ancient, Renaissance and Baroque art and culture. Simply put, Italy represented the past.

In the early 1900s, a group of young and rebellious Italian writers and artists emerged determined to celebrate industrialization. They were frustrated by Italy’s declining status and believed that the “Machine Age” would result in an entirely new world order and even a renewed consciousness.

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the ringleader of this group, called the movement Futurism. Its members sought to capture the idea of modernity, the sensations and aesthetics of speed, movement, and industrial development.

A manifesto

Marinetti launched Futurism in 1909 with the publication his “Futurist manifesto” on the front page of the French newspaper Le Figaro. The manifesto set a fiery tone. In it Marinetti lashed out against cultural tradition (passatismo, in Italian) and called for the destruction of museums, libraries, and feminism. Futurism quickly grew into an international movement and its participants issued additional manifestos for nearly every type of art: painting, sculpture, architecture, music, photography, cinema—even clothing.

The Futurist painters—Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo, Gino Severini, and Giacomo Balla—signed their first manifesto in 1910 (the last named his daughter Elica—Propeller!). Futurist painting had first looked to the color and the optical experiments of the late 19th century, but in the fall of 1911, Marinetti and the Futurist painters visited the Salon d’Automne in Paris and saw Cubism in person for the first time. Cubism had an immediate impact that can be seen in Boccioni’s Materia of 1912 for example. Nevertheless, the Futurists declared their work to be completely original.

Umberto Boccioni, Materia, 1912 (reworked 1913), oil on canvas, 226 x 150 cm (Mattioli Collection loaned to Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice)
Umberto Boccioni, Materia, 1912 (reworked 1913), oil on canvas, 226 x 150 cm (Mattioli Collection loaned to Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice)

Dynamism of Bodies in Motion

The Futurists were particularly excited by the works of late 19th-century scientist and photographer Étienne-Jules Marey, whose chronophotographic (time-based) studies depicted the mechanics of animal and human movement.

[“Étienne Jules Marey – L’ Homme Machine“]

A precursor to cinema, Marey’s innovative experiments with time-lapse photography were especially influential for Balla. In his painting Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash, the artist playfully renders the dog’s (and dog walker’s) feet as continuous movements through space over time.

Giacomo Balla, Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash, 1912, oil on canvas, 35 1/2 x 43 1/4 " (Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo)
Giacomo Balla, Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash, 1912, oil on canvas, 35 1/2 x 43 1/4 ” (Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo)

Entranced by the idea of the “dynamic,” the Futurists sought to represent an object’s sensations, rhythms and movements in their images, poems and manifestos. Such characteristics are beautifully expressed in Boccioni’s most iconic masterpiece, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (see above).

Nike (Winged Victory) of Samothrace, c. 190 B.C.E. 3.28m high, Hellenistic Period, marge, (Musée du Louvre, Paris)
Nike (Winged Victory) of Samothrace, c. 190 B.C.E. 3.28m high, Hellenistic Period, marge, (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

The choice of shiny bronze lends a mechanized quality to Boccioni’s sculpture, so here is the Futurists’ ideal combination of human and machine. The figure’s pose is at once graceful and forceful, and despite their adamant rejection of classical arts, it is also very similar to the Nike of Samothrace.

Politics & War

Futurism was one of the most politicized art movements of the twentieth century. It merged artistic and political agendas in order to propel change in Italy and across Europe. The Futurists would hold what they called serate futuriste, or Futurist evenings, where they would recite poems and display art, while also shouting politically charged rhetoric at the audience in the hope of inciting riot. They believed that agitation and destruction would end the status quo and allow for the regeneration of a stronger, energized Italy.

These positions led the Futurists to support the coming war, and like most of the group’s members, leading painter Boccioni enlisted in the army during World War I. He was trampled to death after falling from a horse during training. After the war, the members’ intense nationalism led to an alliance with Benito Mussolini and his National Fascist Party. Although Futurism continued to develop new areas of focus (aeropittura, for example) and attracted new members—the so-called “second generation” of Futurist artists—the movement’s strong ties to Fascism has complicated the study of this historically significant art.


Neue Sachlichkeit


Neue Sachlichkeit (or The New Objectivity) was an artistic attitude that arose in Germany in the 1920s in reaction to Expressionism.

Public Life in Weimar Germany

The New Objectivity (in German: Neue Sachlichkeit) is a term used to characterize the attitude of public life in Weimar Germany, as well as the art, literature, music, and architecture created to adapt to it. Rather than some goal of philosophical objectivity, it was meant to imply a turn towards practical engagement with the world—an all-business attitude, understood by Germans as intrinsically American” (Dennis Crockett, German Post-Expressionism: The Art of the Great Disorder, 1918-1984).

The term was originally the title of an art exhibition staged by Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub, the director of the Kunsthalle in Mannheim, to showcase artists who were working in a post-expressionist spirit, but it took a life of its own, going beyond Hartlaub’s intentions. As these artists rejected the self-involvement and romantic longings of the expressionists, Weimar intellectuals in general made a call to arms for public collaboration, engagement, and rejection of romantic idealism. The movement essentially ended in 1933 with the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazis to power.

Before the First world War

Leading up to World War I, much of the art world was under the influence of Futurism and Expressionism, both of which abandoned any sense of order or commitment to objectivity or tradition. Expressionism was in particular the dominant form of art in Germany, and it was represented in many different facets of public life—in theater, in painting, in architecture, in poetry, and in literature.

Expressionists abandoned nature and sought to express emotional experience, often centering their art around inner turmoil (angst), whether in reaction to the modern world, to alienation from society, or in the creation of personal identity. In concert with this evocation of angst and unease with bourgeois life, expressionists also echoed some of the same feelings of revolution as did Futurists. The New Objectivity was a reaction against this.

The External World: Verists and Classicists

The New Objectivity comprised two tendencies, characterized in terms of a left and right wing: on the left were the verists, who “tear the objective form of the world of contemporary facts and represent current experience in its tempo and fevered temperature;” and on the right the classicists, who “search more for the object of timeless ability to embody the external laws of existence in the artistic sphere. ”

The verists’ vehement form of realism emphasized the ugly and sordid. Their art was raw, provocative, and harshly satirical. George Grosz and Otto Dix are considered the most important of the verists. The verists developed Dada’s abandonment of any pictoral rules or artistic language into a “satirical hyperrealism,” as termed by Raoul Hausmann, and of which the best known examples are the graphical works and photo-montages of John Heartfield. Use of collage in these works became a compositional principle to blend reality and art, as if to suggest that to record the facts of reality was to go beyond the most simple appearances of things. This later developed into portraits and scenes by artists such as Grosz, Dix, and Rudolf Schlichter. Portraits would give emphasis to particular features or objects that were seen as distinctive aspects of the person depicted. Satirical scenes often depicted a madness behind what was happening, depicting the participants as cartoon-like.

The Eclipse of the Sun by George Grosz
The Eclipse of the Sun by George Grosz, 1926. George Grosz exemplified the verist style of New Objectivity.

Other verists, like Christian Schad, depicted reality with a clinical precision, which suggested both an empirical detachment and intimate knowledge of the subject. Schad’s paintings are characterized “an artistic perception so sharp that it seems to cut beneath the skin”, according to the art critic Wieland Schmied. Often, psychological elements were introduced in his work, which suggested an underlying unconscious reality.

Max Beckmann, who is sometimes called an expressionist although he never considered himself part of any movement, was considered to be a verist and the most important artist of Neue Sachlichkeit.

Compared to the verists, the classicists more clearly exemplify the “return to order” that arose in the arts throughout Europe. The classicists included Georg Schrimpf, Alexander Kanoldt, Carlo Mense, Heinrich Maria Davringhausen, and Wilhelm Heise. The sources of their art include 19th-century art, the Italian metaphysical painters, the artists of Novecento Italiano, and Henri Rousseau.



Dada was a multi-disciplinary art movement rejecting prevailing artistic standards by producing “anti-art” cultural works. In addition to being anti-war, Dada was also anti-bourgeois and had political affinities with the radical left.

In terms of artistic medium, dadaists worked in collage, creating compositions by pasting together transportation tickets, maps, plastic wrappers and other artifacts of daily life. Dada artists also worked in photomontage, a variation on collage which utilized actual or reproductions of photographs printed in the press. In Cologne, Max Ernst used photographs taken from the front during World War I to comment on the war. Another variation on collage used by Dadaists was assemblage, the assembly of everyday objects to produce meaningful or meaningless pieces of work, including war objects and trash.

Dada began in Zurich in 1916 Key figures in the Dada movement included Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, Hans Arp and Raoul Hausmann, among others. The movement influenced later styles like avant-garde, and movements including surrealism, Nouveau réalisme, pop art and Fluxus.

Plaque commemorating birth of Dada movement.
Plaque commemorating birth of Dada movement. This plaque is from the Cabaret Voltaire, the first venue where Dada artists showcased their work in 1916.

Dada was an informal international movement with participants in Europe and North America. The beginnings of Dada correspond to the outbreak of World War I. For many participants, the movement was a protest against the bourgeois nationalist and colonialist interests that many Dadaists believed were the root cause of the war. The movement also spoke against cultural and intellectual conformity in art and society. According to Hans Richter, Dada was not art, it was “anti-art. ”

When World War I ended in 1918, most of the Zurich Dadaists returned to their home countries, while some began Dada activities in other cities.

Dada soiree collage
Dada poster from 1923. This poster for a Dada soiree references the medium of collage.
Like Zurich, New York City was a refuge for writers and artists from World War I. Frenchmen Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia met American artist Man Ray in New York City in 1915. The trio soon became the center of radical anti-art activities in the United States.

During this time, Duchamp began exhibiting “readymades” (everyday objects found or purchased and declared art) and was active in the Society of Independent Artists. In 1917, he submitted the now famous Fountain to the Society of Independent Artists exhibition.

Initially an object of scorn within the arts community, the Fountain has since become almost canonized by some as one of the most recognizable modernist works of sculpture. The committee presiding over Britain’s prestigious Turner Prize in 2004, for example, called it “the most influential work of modern art”.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain.
Marcel Duchamp, Fountain. Duchamp’s appropriation of a urinal as a piece of art challenged the prevailing definition of sculpture.

By 1921, most of the original Dadists moved to Paris, where Dada experienced its last major incarnation. Inspired by Tristan Tzara, Paris Dada soon issued manifestos, organized demonstrations, staged performances and a number of journals.

While broad, the Dada movement was unstable. By 1924, artists had gone on to other ideas and movements including surrealism and social realism. Some theorists argue that Dada was the beginning of postmodern art.


Marcel Duchamp

Käthe Kollwitz “In Memoriam Karl Liebknecht”

Essay by Shawn Roggenkamp[4]

Käthe Kollwitz, Memorial Sheet of Karl Liebknecht (Gedenkblatt für Karl Liebknecht), 1919-1920, Woodcut heightened with white and black ink, 37.1 × 51.9 cm (Art Institute of Chicago)
Käthe Kollwitz, Memorial Sheet of Karl Liebknecht (Gedenkblatt für Karl Liebknecht), 1919-1920, Woodcut heightened with white and black ink, 37.1 × 51.9 cm (Art Institute of Chicago)


In the political turmoil after the First World War, many artists turned to making prints instead of paintings. The ability to produce multiple copies of the same image made printmaking an ideal medium for spreading political statements. German artist Käthe Kollwitz worked almost exclusively in this medium and became known for her prints that celebrated the plight of the working-class.

The artist rarely depicted real people, though she frequently used her talents in support of causes she believed in. This work, In Memoriam Karl Liebknecht was created in 1920 in response to the assassination of Communist leader Karl Liebknecht during an uprising of 1919. This work is unique among her prints, and though it memorializes the man, it does so without advocating for his ideology.

History and politics

From the end of the First World War in late 1918 to the founding of the Weimar Republic (the representative democracy that was the German government between the two World Wars) in August 1919, Germany went through a period of social and political upheaval. During this time, Germany was led by a coalition of left-wing forces with Marxist sympathies, the largest of which was the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). Other, more radical groups were grappling for control of Germany at the same time, including the newly founded German Communist Party (KPD).

The Socialists and Communists both wanted to eliminate Capitalism and establish communal control over the means of production, but while the Socialists believed that the best way to achieve that goal was to work step by step from within the Capitalist structure, the Communists called for an immediate and total social revolution that would put governmental power in the hands of the workers. In this spirit, the KPD staged an uprising in Berlin in January 1919. Military units called in by the SPD suppressed the uprising and captured two of the leaders, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. Liebknecht and Luxemburg were murdered while in custody on January 15, 1919. Their deaths struck a chord across the left-wing landscape and they were widely celebrated as martyrs to the Communist cause.

Kollwitz was not a Communist, and even acknowledged that the SPD (generally more cautious and pacifist than the KPD), would have been better leaders. But she had heard Liebknecht speak and admired his charisma, so when the family asked her to create a work to memorialize him she agreed.

A Lamentation

Memorial Sheet of Karl Liebknecht is in the style of a lamentation, a traditional motif in Christian art depicting the followers of Christ mourning over his dead body, casting Liebknecht as the Christ figure. The iconography would have been easily recognizable by the masses who were the artist’s intended audience.

Max Beckmann, "The Martyrdom," plate 4 from Hell, 1919, lithograph, 54.7 x 75.2 cm (The Museum of Modern Art, NY)
Max Beckmann, “The Martyrdom,” plate 4 from Hell, 1919, lithograph, 54.7 x 75.2 cm (The Museum of Modern Art, NY)

Other memorial works

Several artists at the time created memorial works for Liebknecht and Luxemburg. The most well known (along with Kollwitz’s work) are Max Beckmann’s “The Martyrdom” from his portfolio Hell of 1919 (above), and Conrad Felixmüller’s People Above the World from that same year. In contrast to those works, Kollwitz’s In Memoriam Karl Liebknecht focuses not on the man himself, but on the workers who had put their faith in him,. The focus on those broadly affected, rather than those in the spotlight is a constant theme in the artist’s work, reflected in her most famous works from the War cycle, which depict not the soldiers or the fighting, but the suffering of the women and children left behind and starving.

The composition

The composition divides the sheet into three horizontal sections. The top section is densely packed with figures. Their faces are well modeled and have interesting depth in themselves, but the sense of space is very compressed – the heads push to the foreground and are packed into every available corner of space. It gives the impression of multitudes coming to pay their respects, without compromising the individuality of the subjects.

The middle strata contains comparatively fewer details, further emphasizing the crowding at the top of the printing plate. This section draws attention to the specific action of the bending mourner. His hand on Liebknecht’s chest connects this section to the the bottommost level of the composition, the body of the martyred revolutionary.

Woman holding a child (detail), Käthe Kollwitz, Memorial Sheet of Karl Liebknecht (Gedenkblatt für Karl Liebknecht), 1919-1920, Woodcut heightened with white and black ink, 37.1 × 51.9 cm (Art Institute of Chicago)
Mourning woman holding a child (detail), Käthe Kollwitz, Memorial Sheet of Karl Liebknecht (Gedenkblatt für Karl Liebknecht), 1919-1920, Woodcut heightened with white and black ink, 37.1 × 51.9 cm (Art Institute of Chicago)

Above the bending mourner, a woman holds her baby up to see over the heads of those in front of them. Women and children were a central concern of Kollwitz’s work, making her a unique voice in a creative environment dominated by young men (in fact, Kollwitz was the first woman to be admitted into the Prussian Academy).

Woodblock prints

Woodblock printing is a technique in which a design is carved into a slab of wood which is then covered with ink and printed onto paper. Ink coats the original surface of the wood block, which prints as black, while the cut away areas stay the color of the paper. This is different from printmaking methods such as engraving in which the ink is caught in the recesses carved into the metal plate by the stylus and therefore the lines print black and the untouched areas of the plate come out white in the print.

The German Expressionist artists, in particular Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and the Brücke group, used woodcuts as early as 1904 to capture the rough, vital energy that they perceived in the work of so-called “primitive” societies without a fine art tradition.

Kollwitz’s career overlapped with the German Expressionists but she was not an Expressionist herself and was about a generation older than most of them. Her use of such a trendy technique was uncharacteristic, and in fact, she only worked in woodblocks for a few years after the First World War. Kollwitz created some of her most powerful and affecting work in this style, including the War print cycle of 1924. She embraced the raw effect of woodblock printing to create pieces works that have cast off the subtlety and finesse of her earlier work in etching and lithography. Kollwitz’ felt that her protest against the horrors of war was best communicated in the rough edges and stark black and white that woodblock prints afforded.

  1. Smarthistory CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0]
  2. Boundless Art History July 21 2015, CC-BY-SA 4.0
  3. “Dada.” Boundless Art History. 21 July 2015. CC-BY-SA 4.0
  4. Smarthistory CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0)


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Art 205 "Western Art from 18th to Mid 20th Century" by Whatcom Community College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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