In this article:
- Retro-futurism is an artistic movement that spun off from the futurism movement, which started with the Manifesto of Futurism in 1909.
- During the 1970s, artists became unsatisfied with the direction that technological advancement had taken in the past and started reimagining a course that technological advancement could have potentially taken.
- Thus, retro-futurism is a movement that imagines the future from the perspective of the past.
- Today, retro-futurism has branched off to include steampunk, cyberpunk, dieselpunk, atompunk, and Raygun Gothic.
Everyone, at one point or another, has imagined what the future might look like. We read the headlines about new technologies on the horizon, think about how the Earth is changing, and how society is responding to all of these changes. Then, we extrapolate and imagine the possible directions in which the future could go. It’s part of human nature.
In literature, the genre of futurism, which involved imagining possible courses of the future, made its official debut with F.T. Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurism in 1909. The 1920s ushered in the beginning of the “pulp era” in which the futurist stories of visionaries like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were published in sci-fi and fantasy magazines.
In the 1930s, the “Golden Era of Science Fiction” began in the United States with authors like Jack Vance, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Philip K. Dick publishing some of the most revolutionary works of futuristic science fiction ever written.
Now, a new artistic movement has spun off from futurism in which artists imagine the future from the perspective of the past while also imagining the past from the perspective of the future.
This movement is known as retro-futurism.
The Origins of Retro-Futurism
As was previously mentioned, futurism begin with the Manifesto of Futurism in 1909, developed into the Golden Age of Science Fiction of the 1930s, and came to a boil with the artists of the 1960s Space Age.
These early futurist visionaries looked at the world around them and imagined how it might look in the distant future: detailing fictional technologies, societal structures, planetary movements, and much more. The result was a myriad of imagined futures, some of which have come true and some of which have not.
As in any artistic discipline, modern artists look to the greats of the past for inspiration. And, with how influential the early futurist artists have been across all art forms from film to literature to illustration, it’s no wonder that the retro-futurist artists of today are emulating the styles of these past greats.
Typically, these artists put themselves in the shoes of someone living in the United States between the 1920s and 1960s and imagine the future from the perspective of someone living in that time period.
The movement really began to take shape during the 1970s, when rapid technological advancements were transforming society. The first test-tube baby was born in 1978. The world’s first personal computer, the Altair, was invented in 1974. Motorola invented the first-ever mobile telephone in 1973. The list goes on.
Despite all of these technological advancements, life didn’t seem to be getting much better for citizens of the United States.
The Vietnam War was in full swing. Environmental degradation was becoming a massive concern. The country was experiencing a crippling oil shortage. Americans began to wonder if technological advancement and applied science were leading them in the right direction.
It’s no wonder that the retro-futurism movement arose during all of this. The artists of the period began to put themselves in the shoes of those who had lived decades earlier and search for alternatives to the “advancements” that had led them to their current era of crisis.
They were inspired by their predecessors’ optimistic view of the future, one filled with flying cars, robot servants, and colonies on foreign planets. In a way, retro-futurism began as a way for those in the 1970s to escape the disappointment of not living up to that ideal.
While retro-futurism started as a way to reimagine past technological advancements, the genre became popular in part because of the retro aesthetic that was pioneered by the early futurists.
Probably the most well-known example of retro-futurism is George Lucas’s blockbuster space opera, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, which debuted in 1977. Immediately after the film hit theaters, its exploding popularity propelled the retro-futurism aesthetic into the mainstream.
Even in the newest movies of the Star Wars series, the spaceships, spacesuits, cities, and technologies still retain that retro aesthetic that they had in the first movie, even though CGI technology today is capable of creating the most futuristic worlds imaginable. Why? Because the retro-futuristic look is part of the hallmark of Star Wars and part of what has made these films so successful.
Fast forward to the 1980s in New York City when Kenny Scharf broke onto the street art scene as an interdisciplinary proponent of retro-futurism. His paintings, sculptures, and interactive exhibitions — heavily inspired by retro-futuristic Hanna-Barbera cartoons such as The Jetsons — reimagined a future full of aliens, spaceships, and fantastical forests.
Scharf is still creating retro-futuristic works today that portray the future as someone in the 1920s might have imagined it.
After retro-futurism broke onto the main stage, the genre took a new turn. Instead of imagining the future from the perspective of the past, some artists began imagining the past from the perspective of the future.
In this version of retro-futurism, artists take the aesthetics of the past and apply them to modern technologies. In this way, a retro-futurist might paint a spaceship in a Victorian style (which would be an example of the style that is known as “steampunk” today). You may also have a space colony portrayed with heavy inspiration from ancient Egyptian forms of art and architecture. This version of retro-futurism has become massively popular in visual art today.
These days, retro-futurism has branched out even more to include popular genres known as steampunk, atompunk, dieselpunk, Raygun Gothic, and cyberpunk.
Retro-Futurism Examples You Should Know
One of my personal favorite examples of steampunk art is BioShock, which is as creepy as it is visually stimulating and fun to play. The game combines a retro aesthetic with futuristic technologies such as underwater robotic battlesuits with drills for hands. The whole game is amazing and the retro-futuristic steampunk style of animation just makes it so much more interesting.
Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky is one of the best examples of retro-futurism in film ever made. On top of the mystifying animation sequences that have become part of Miyazaki’s signature style, the movie features interesting retro-styled robots, aircrafts, and, of course, a floating castle.
The Hellboy series of films falls under the dieselpunk umbrella as the film features many aspects that appear as if they belong in the 1950s United States when diesel technology was prevalent. However, while much of the technology in the films seems to be fueled by diesel, the characters still have access to devices that have impressive futuristic abilities.
For a great example of retro-futurism in literature, check out The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. This book is generally credited with laying out the conventions of the steampunk genre and it’s also just a great read. The story features some aspects of a detective mystery and some aspects of a historical thriller and it will keep you engaged through every page.