part of Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson's The Arrival 1913 © Tate

Future Perfect

19th June 2009

A new exhibition at Tate Modern celebrates the centenary of Futurism, a movement that set out to modernise Italian art and social attitudes, and mingled with other Modernist developments across Europe.

Jack Watkins went back to the future…

Present-day sensibilities recoil from the watchwords of Futurism, which seem like the call to arms of the hooligan. What other response can be possible to a movement that sloganised the glory of war – ‘the sole hygiene of the world’ – and hailed the deeds of the anarchists, called for the destruction of museums and libraries, and professed a hated of women?

But picture Italy in 1909: a fledgling nation, not yet past the 50th birthday of the Risorgimento and still in thrall to its Roman past. Practitioners in the art world laboured under the long shadows cast by the classical monuments of antiquity and the paintings of the Renaissance masters. The legacy was mighty, but it stifled innovation, and seemed to bear little relation to the lives of ordinary people. Step forward Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, a poet who had been born in Alexandria, Egypt, and was by then living in Milan. In 1909 his manifesto – le Futurism – was like a brick through the window of the Duomo, a full frontal assault on all that the establishment held dear. “Put simply,” he said, “…our aim is to energetically combat and destroy the cult of the past.”

Everything about the Futurists shouted out a joy of living in the present. In the early 20th century, the world was quickening, new inventions were being patented by the day and the future looked golden. Marinetti and his followers gloried in the technology – trams, telephones, cars and railways – ignored by academicians. Speed was to be worshipped and to Marinetti, a roaring motor car was more beautiful than the third century BC marble sculpture Nike of Samothrace.

The Tate Modern exhibition focuses on the early years of the movement from 1909 to 1915, before the realities of the First World War exposed some of its naiveties. It includes the work of the key men who, alongside Marinetti’s writings, shaped its art – Umberto Boccioni, Giacomo Balla, Luigi Russolo, Gino Severini and Carlo Carra. It also examines its links with Cubism, with Russia’s Cubo-Futurism, and with exponents of our own linking Vorticist movement: men such as Wyndham Lewis, CRW Nevinson and David Bomberg.

Marinetti’s manifesto was really aimed at fellow poets. Like many ‘isms’, Futurism’s concerns were not restricted to art. It addressed literature and architecture and – albeit in a somewhat brashly high-flown, student newspaper way – aimed at political engagement. Still, it undoubtedly created some fine art. One of the most striking works in the exhibition is Carra’s Funeral of the Anarchist Galli, which heaves with the dynamic sense of movement for which Futurist art is famous. It’s also a work of compositional balance, that yet sucks you, the viewer, into the centre of the violent, cane-hurling throng.

Futurists, in common with Cubists, had a word for what they were trying to achieve in their art: ‘simultaneity’. Unlike the French movement, however, which saw it essentially in visual terms, the Italians understood it in a more generalised way – not merely the look of things, but the sounds and smells, and our emotional reactions to all that was before us. Think of it this way: when you look out of a window, what you experience is not some structurally ordered scene as on a painter’s canvas or in a photo, but an audio-visual impression – the rustle of leaves, the chatter of birds, the motion of traffic or people, undistinguished shades or colours and, all the while, a host of associations flashing through the mind. It was this that the Futurists attempted to catch. It brought some chaotic results, but when it worked it was thrilling.

Among the best examples here are Severini’s Dance of the Pan-Pan, which brightly captures the look and feel of the new, electric-lit, whirling intimacy of early 20th century night life. Balla’s Girl Running on a Balcony, deeply indebted to the Divisionists, is one the simplest, yet most effective outcomes of Futurist ideas about movement.

Boccioni’s sculpture Unique Forms of Continuity in Space is perhaps the most famous work that the movement ever produced, and it’s here. Not, said the artist, the construction of a human body as such, but the embodiment of pure, plastic rhythm. The sculpture has had a rough time of it. It was smashed to pieces by workmen cleaning a courtyard where it had been stored following Boccioni’s death in 1916, and later pieced together with its original plaster finish now encased in bronze. Another great and curious work is Russolo’s The Revolt, where ‘the masses’ advance in a series of red arrows across the blue blocks of a retreating townscape.

When a Futurist exhibition arrived in Paris in 1912, advertised appropriately enough in recently patented neon lighting above the gallery, Cubists rejected its conflation of plasticity with the hubbub of the street. The exhibition allows you to compare the subdued stately gravitas of the works of such as Georges Braque, with their limited palettes, with the vibrancy of the Italians.

The Futurists made less of an impact in Russia where they already had their own proto-Futurists like Natalya Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov. Nor did they quite fuse with the English Vorticists like Lewis and Bomberg, who were engaged in more angular, abstract constructs. The English, said Marinetti, lacked passion for the future and a thirst for revolution. Only Nevinson – whose The Arrival is one of the outstanding pieces to hang in this exhibition – joined them. Even he would break with them soon enough. His Bursting Shell, the last picture in the show, recaptures the effect of an explosion. Within a month of the war, he began to feel disgust at Marinetti’s ideas and that he had ‘been living in a nightmare’.

Futurism, in fact, would continue into the 1930s, Marinetti still at the helm and controversially close to Fascism. By then, though, the movement was an older, wiser beast than that which had advocated genocide in its innocent early years.

Futurism continues at Tate Modern until 20 September.
See www.tate.org.uk for details, and to book, or call 020 7887 8888.

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