Futurism’s first wave lived fast and died young – but has it left a good-looking corpse?

One hundred years ago, in February 1909, the Italian poet and dilletante FT Marinetti hijacked the front page of Le Figaro to promulgate the white-hot gospel of a provocative new art movement. As just one among a rash of aesthetic ‘-isms’ profilferating at the turn of the century, Futurism needed to make itself heard above the din of other people’s rhetoric. Declaring a total break with the past, Marinetti called on his contemporaries to “destroy the museums, the libraries, every type of academy,” and embrace the thrilling new world of flux brought about by mass mechanisation.

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti

Above all, Futurism was about speed: instead of the curves of bathing ladies, the new art would celebrate the sleek lines of roaring racing cars; in place of haystacks and water lilies, the landscape painting of the future would describe the kinetic, jutting rythmns of urban space as seen blurring by in the windows of a railway carriage.  The leap from gas lamp to street lamp meant painters saw society, quite literally, in a new light. “Let’s murder the moonlight!” urged Marinetti, determined to jettison the soft-focus impressionisms of the late 19th century in favour of modernity’s electric pulse.

Marinetti was soon joined by a clutch of Italian artists that would make up Futurism’s inner circle:  Luigi Russolo, Giacomo Balla, Umberto Boccioni and Gino Severini.  Marinetti’s sloganeering made them come across as a boorishly macho bunch – a kind of bohemian version of the Top Gear team, and they allowed him to take them into some distinctly dodgy ideological territory.  The Futurist Manifesto combined an unpleasant streak of misogyny with a dose of nationalistic militarism, washed down with some quasi-Nietzschean posturing:  “We want to glorify war – the world’s only hygiene – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman… Art, in fact, can be nothing but violence, cruelty and injustice.”

But for all their visionary ardour, the Futurists’ ambition far outstripped their artistic and technical resources.  Were it not for a handful of iconic images, it would be tempting to dismiss the movement as little more than a backwater tributary of Cubism. For a movement that prized clarity and energy, the Italian Futurists’ painting could be surprisingly turgid and over-wrought; their choice of colours gauche and dismal, almost kitsch. No wonder Apollinaire warned that the Futurists were in danger of becoming “mere illustrators.”   As if in recognition of these weaknesses, the Tate has bolstered the show with more heavyweight fare bearing a tangential relationship to Futurism, including Picasso’s Head of a Woman (Fernande) of 1909, as well as works by artists such as Braque, Malevich and Duchamp.

Yet the best of the Italians’ work is truly memorable, some of it brilliantly so. Boccioni’s sculpture Unique Forms of Certainty in Space (1913) is a muscular, striding figure that looks like some new breed of soilder-citizen on the march, and manages to be both beautiful and disturbing.  Russolo’s The Rebellion (1911) is still a deeply arresting image, with its scarlet spearhead of anarchistic rioters surging as one body into the geometric grid of the streets. Similarly, Carlo Carra’s stunning The Funeral of the Anarchist Galli from the same year also documents the movement’s early identification with anarchism, thrillingly re-imagining the battle scenes of classical painting through the swirling vectors of the new art. Carra also responded to the augmented realities of the nocturnal city: Leaving The Theatre (1909) captures opera goers bursting out of La Scala into the night air, transformed by the street lights into abstracted jellysfish, the whole canvas ablaze with ghostly motion smears.

The exhibition does well in exploring the cross-pollination between different national expressions of the movement. Its forays into Russian Futurism are fascinating, particularly the work of one of the few women represented, the brilliant Natalia Goncharova.  We also get to see examples of Futurism’s Parisian equivalent, Orphism, which was altogether more lyrical and transparent, more French – two highlights here are Leger’s The Wedding and Picabia’s Dancers At The Spring.

Next we are in England, where the movement influenced Vorticists like Windham Lewis and the superbly gifted sculptor Jacob Epstein, a frangment of whose masterpiece The Rock Drill  (1913-16) features here. This sleek, black dystopian man-machine, with its humanoid progeny seeded in its ribbed belly, is disturbing and prophetic; its visored torso could serve as the prototype for virtually every automaton in popular culture since, from The Terminator to Attack of The Clones. This exhibition teeters on the brink of World War I.

The final room includes a few examples of Futurism’s wartime utterances, including CRW Nevison’s Bursting Shell (1915).  As a member of an ambulance unit in the conflict, Nevison’s affiliation with the war-mongering Futurists died in the trenches – he disassociated himself from the movement from then on. It is Balla’s Patriotic Demonstration of 1915, a piece of interventionist agitation against Italy’s wartime neutrality, that hints at the movement’s future trajectory.

But here the trail ends. There is no reference to the course Futurism took next, which was, inevitably, to align itself with Fascism. Marinetti saw Mussolini as the political corollary to his super-austere aesthetic. In 1924 he issued his pamphlet Futurismo e Fascismo, enrolled in the fascists’ party, and eventually joined Mussolini in his rump Fascist Republic at Salò, dying in northern Italy in December 1944.

That the Tate makes no mention of this, nor includes a single one of the artworks that issued from this second phase of Futurism, seems bizarre, especially given that its Fascistic leanings are made conspicuously evident at the entrance to the exhibition, where Marinetti’s demagogic Manifesto is blown up in wall-sized text.  This is a kind of vanilla-isation of Futurism, an unforgivable omission for a show about a movement in which the fizz of ideas was every bit as powerful as the lure of its images – sometimes more so. Futurism runs until 20 September.

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