- Ester Coen
Italian painter, printmaker, writer and composer. The fourth of five children, he was trained in music by his father, who was a clockmaker and organist. In 1901 he went to Milan to join his family, who had moved there so that his two brothers, Giovanni and Antonio, could study music at the conservatory. Diverging from his father’s inclinations, Luigi was attracted towards other forms of art, especially painting. Though not actually enrolled at the Accademia di Brera, through new friends he indirectly followed the ideas taught there. In the same period he worked for the restorer Crivelli in Milan, serving his apprenticeship working on the interior decorations of the Castello Sforzesco and on Leonardo’s Last Supper in the refectory of S Maria delle Grazie. In December 1909 he took part in the exhibition Bianco e nero at the Famiglia Artistica in Milan, contributing a series of etchings, made during the preceding year, which show a definite leaning towards Symbolist forms and images. The undulating quality of the line in such etchings as his portrait of Nietzsche (c. 1909; Milan, Gal. A. Mod.), which seems to translate a musical rhythm into visual form through a strong, enveloping sign, remained a distinctive and individual feature of Russolo’s work and poetics, especially in his Futurist work.
At the end of 1909 Russolo met Umberto Boccioni, of whom he recalled in 1933: ‘Our ideas proved to be similar, our artistic ideals very much alike: a common hatred for the ready-made, the warmed-over and the commonplace in art brought us immediately into intimate contact. We became friends, very close friends’ (Maffina, 1978, p. 263). Russolo’s friendship with Boccioni opened new horizons to him and led him away from late 19th-century themes. Together they explored the possibilities of a more modern language capable of expressing the new sensibility of the contemporary industrialized world. This interest emerges clearly in prints dating from the early months of 1910. Though he was still attached to the Symbolist spirit, Russolo now turned his attention to contemporary reality, depicting suburban landscapes (e.g. Sleeping City, 1909–10; see Maffina, 1978, fig.) or portraits of his mother (e.g. Woman Sewing, 1909–10; see Maffina, 1978, fig.) in a style strongly reminiscent of that of Boccioni.
At the beginning of 1910 Russolo met Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, to whom Boccioni proposed an innovative action analogous to the battle already begun against traditional literature. As Russolo later remarked of the origins of Futurism in painting: ‘Marinetti not only approved the idea, but invited us to write down our ideas on painting as soon as possible, promising to publish and launch them! Thus the Futurist painters’ manifesto was born, and with it the adherence of Boccioni, Balla, Carrà, Russolo and Severini to the Futurist movement, which up to then had been purely literary’ (Maffina, 1978, p. 263). Russolo was one of the signatories of the Manifesto dei Pittori Futuristi, published as a pamphlet dated 11 February 1910, in which he and his fellow painters rejected all the painting of the past and upheld a modern style intended to represent modern life and its rhythm. He also signed La pittura Futurista—Manifesto tecnico, which appeared on 11 April, in which dynamism was defined as the goal of the avant-garde battle. This new adventure excited Russolo, and he was always in the front rank at the evening meetings organized by the group to spread the new Futurist word.
Russolo’s adherence to the revolutionary ideas of Futurism stimulated him to seek different expressive forms in his painting, forms that were no longer so nervous and visceral, but freer and more harmoniously related to modern times. He was also attracted by techniques and styles with which he had not previously experimented, such as divisionism, as a sign of revolt against a figurative approach that was still explicitly rooted in the 19th century. Building on these influences, he produced the first paintings in which he explored a new poetics of movement and light, such as the Street Light—Study of Light (1909; New York, MOMA), sharpening the angles of perspective and accentuating the sense of flight in order to negate the static vision of academic 19th-century images. In Lights (Rome, G.N.A. Mod.) the atmosphere is conceived in bright hues, following the laws of complementary colours, to create a greater impression of luminosity, one created not only by the tonal juxtapositions but also by the impalpability of the rays passing through the air.
Around 1911 Russolo’s painting became freer and more autonomous as he broke away from his former influences. With The Revolt (1911; The Hague, Gemeentemus.) his concept of dynamism, reflected in the image of a seething crowd, was concretized in coloured rhythmic forms that succeed each other in a rushing tempo accentuated by pauses. The suggestions of music and Symbolism give way in this and related works to a more purely abstract expression of mood through form and colour. In his paintings of 1911 and 1912 Russolo aimed to give visual shape to musical sonorities and cadences through the repetition of elements, like the repercussions of an echo. After participating in the group exhibition of Futurist painting held in Paris at Bernheim-Jeune in February 1912, he moved towards a formal language aligned to Cubism but with a greater emphasis on surface than volume. This can be seen in the Plastic Synthesis of a Woman’s Movements (1913; Grenoble, Mus. Grenoble), which represents the closest he ever came to synthetic abstraction.
In 1913 Russolo abandoned painting to devote himself entirely to musical studies. After publishing a manifesto on the musical implications of noise (‘L’arte dei rumori’, Milan, 1913, republished in expanded form as a book in 1916, see U. Apollonio, ed., Futurismo, Milan, 1970, pp. 126–33), he and the painter Ugo Piatti (1880–1953) began constructing musical instruments designed to produce new timbres and to give tonal form to the noises accompanying every moment of modern life. As Russolo wrote in ‘L’arte dei rumori’: ‘Our multiplied sensibility, after gaining Futurist eyes, will at last have Futurist ears. Thus the motors and machines of our industrial cities may one day be artistically intoned, so that every workshop will be an intoxicating orchestra of noises’ (Maffina, 1978, p. 134). In the years preceding World War I Russolo wrote articles and musical pieces, which he called ‘noise spirals’, performed in Modena, Milan and London in 1913–14; these included a piece entitled ‘Della rete di rumori: Risveglio di una città’, orchestrated for howlers, boomers, cracklers, scrapers, exploders, buzzers, gurglers and whistles (published in Lacerba, 1 March 1914). He also directed concerts using instruments that he called intonarumori (‘noise intoners’). He took up these activities again at the end of the war, after serving as a volunteer and passing through a long period of inactivity caused by a serious head wound.
During the 1920s Russolo was completely absorbed in music and in the invention of his new instrument, the rumorarmonio (‘noise-harmonium’), which he played in performances of Futurist pantomime in 1927 at the Théâtre de la Madeleine in Paris. In summer 1929 he moved to a suburb of Paris and began painting again. The paintings of that period, exhibited at Galerie 23 in Paris (where he also gave his last concert) in 1929, and in 1930 at the Venice Biennale, were all later lost. In late 1931, after being introduced to the study of oriental philosophies and occult sciences, he abandoned his musical activities. Russolo continued to explore these new interests during a trip to Tarragona, Spain, in 1932; on his return to Italy in summer 1933 he settled in Cerro di Laveno on Lake Maggiore and began work on a philosophical treatise, Al di là della materia (Milan, 1938). Russolo returned once more to painting, in 1942, this time in a style that he described as ‘classical-modern’. These last works were exhibited in one-man shows in 1945 and 1946. A new volume, Io e l’anima, was left unfinished at his death.
See also under Sound and art.
- L’arte dei rumori (Milan, 1916)
- Al di là della materia (Milan, 1938)
- M. Zanovello Russolo, U. Nebbia and P. Buzzi: Luigi Russolo: L’uomo, l’artista (Milan, 1958)
- G. F. Maffina: L’opera grafica di Luigi Russolo (Varese, 1977)
- G. F. Maffina: Luigi Russolo e l’arte dei rumori (Turin, 1978)
- G. F. Maffina: ‘Russolo, Luigi’, Futurismo & Futurismi (exh. cat., ed. P. Hultén; Venice, Pal. Grassi, 1986), pp. 558–62
For further writings and bibliography see Futurism.