By Christine Lindey in Britain:
Tate Modern until 20 September (£12.20, seniors £11.20, concessions £10.20)
Monday 29 June 2009
Discovering some beautiful imagery with some ugly ideas in the Tate Modern‘s Futurism exhibit
It has been 100 years since Futurism first burst upon an unsuspecting world. Invented and named by the Italian poet Marinetti it celebrated the machine age.
Recent technological marvels including telephones, phonographs, motor cars, x-rays, as well as electric trams, metros and street lighting, had transformed communications and urban life.
The new artform rejected the past, embracing these new complexities and the dynamism which they brought.
Declaring speed to be the new beauty, Marinetti asserted that a roaring racing car “is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace,” a classical Greek sculpture in the Louvre museum.
Marinetti believed that only with aggressive action and daring could inertia be conquered to forge the new art. “We will glorify war – the world’s only hygiene – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn women”, he wrote in the first of many manifestos.
A well-heeled bourgeois, he financed and promoted his own movement. Adopting the methods of advertising and of mass culture, he manipulated public opinion and the press by courting scandal and controversy at a time when mass media awareness was still in its infancy.
Thus he arranged for his first manifesto to be published on the front page of Le Figaro, the French national newspaper.
He provoked hostile reactions, and so publicity, for his Futurist performances of sound poetry and noise music by holding them alongside conventional acts in music halls (including London’s Coliseum).
This use of the shock tactics of capitalist mass culture would become Futurism’s strongest, questionable legacy to the avant-garde.
By 1910 the painters Balla, Carrà, Boccioni, Severini and Russolo had joined and within two years Marinetti exhibited their works in Paris, London and elsewhere.
The paintings contained few formal innovations. Rather they exaggerated, adapted and amalgamated existing approaches to new and traditional subject-matter.
In Balla’s Girl Running Along a Balcony, (1912) the sequential repetition of the child’s legs to suggest the click-clacking of her boots was derived from chrono-photography, while the dashes of blues and oranges which add to the staccato effect came from 1880s divisionism.
The city as a symbol of modernity was pioneered in the 1860s but the Futurists added a sense of urgency by depicting it in a fragmented visual language adapted from recently invented Cubism. Their distortion of form and colour to convey states of mind stemmed from 1890s Symbolism.
When synthesised, these diverse sources succeeded in creating a new and modern dynamism. Carrá’s The Funeral of the Anarchist Galli (1910-11) conveys the viciousness, anger and chaos of a political demonstration being attacked by mounted troops and police.
Challenging conventional perspective, the repeated and interacting curves and straight lines, the sudden reds and yellows bursting out of dark browns and purples, suck us in so that we feel the danger and struggle.
But many works merely superimposed several visual styles to create superficial, programmatic works.
Russulo’s The Revolt, (1911) with its strident primary red, blue and yellow, its fierce arrow-like diagonals pushing schematic figures across repetitive city buildings, evokes the energy and anger of a political protest.
Yet its lack of emotional or intellectual depth is as univalent and sensationalist as an advertisement.
A reactionary stance lay at the heart of Futurism’s progressive calls for innovation, the fascination with revolution stemmed mostly from romantic yearnings for action rather than from principled commitment to progressive change.
From the mid-1880s the political situation in Italy was highly charged. Rapid industrialisation had created a politically active proletariat whose frequent strikes and demonstrations were fiercely counter-acted by the police and army.
Marinetti was aligned with a group of bellicose nationalist anti-parliamentarians who called for an authoritarian corporate governance to restore traditional values and national unity via “cleansing wars” of colonial expansion.
In 1909 Marinetti produced his first Futurist political manifesto, in 1913 he published his political programme and in 1918 he founded the Futurist Political Party. In 1919 Mussolini based his fascist party on Marinetti’s programme.
None of this is mentioned at the Tate. By averting its eyes from this sinister political context the exhibition sanitises Futurism.
The focus is on Italian Futurism, but there is also an interesting over-view of its aesthetic and ideological dialogues abroad.
While sharing some of their preoccupations, French Cubists and Orphicists, British Vorticists and Russian Futurists were largely opposed to the Italians’ ideological stance.
Léger and Sonia and Robert Delaunay‘s interest in the simultaneity of modern experience was rooted in a more rigorous understanding of the subtleties of Cubism, as were the Russian Futurists.
Despite its name, the latter developed independently of the Italians and was rooted in a progressive humanism which opposed Marinetti’s proto-fascism.
Popova, Goncharova and Larionov also welcomed modernity but with a generosity of spirit and sense of fun rooted in respect for human beings. It is a pleasure to see their works.
Simon Basketter explores creative resistance from a century ago at the Art in Revolution: 1911 exhibition in Liverpool: here.