Futurism at Tate Modern

Carlo Carrà, I funerali dell'anarchico Galli (1910-11), Museum of Modern Art, New York City, USA

In the end, the secret of enjoying Tate Modern’s recent Futurism exhibition turned out to lie in the entertainment of modest, perhaps even downright low expectations.

Futurism‘s reviews were, almost without exception, dreadful. Some could be discounted, admittedly, in the sense that condemning the cutting-edge offerings of our great-grandparents’ mature years for the sole reason that these no longer shock or surprise us is the sort of idiocy best left where we found it. But what can we conclude when even Richard Dorment sets aside his habitual good manners, writing off the exhibition’s installation as ‘more or less incomprehensible‘? And what about the bracing spectacle of Brian Sewell in full denunciatory mode, clearly prompted not only by the fact that he does that particular mode so extraordinarily well, but also because, for once, the organisation of the show in question really and truly deserved it?

The critics were, for once, largely correct. In all sorts of ways, except perhaps in terms of the art itself, Futurism was an unsatisfactory experience. It was disappointing, for instance, to find that only something like eighty percent of the pictures on view at the Paris interation of the exhibition had made it as far as London, notable losses including Joseph Stella’s Battle of Lights, Coney Island, Mardi Gras (1913-14) and Marcel Duchamp’s Nu descendant un escalier n. 2 (1912). This, though, for all its discouraging gravity, was hardly the exhibition’s most serious defect.

The problem was much more elementary, and for that reason considerably less explicable. Perhaps the most basic requirement for any art exhibition is that it should somehow add up to more than the sum of its parts — the gathered objects somehow coaxed into telling a story, making a case or at least conveying an insight. Insofar as Futurism told any sort of story, however, it was one in which the Italian regional specificity of Marinetti’s Futurist movement was swapped for a blandly international smorgasbord including some rather good art that influenced the Italians, some rather weak art influenced by the Italians, and, if one wished to be cynical about it, a few Cubist masterpieces to boost the overall ‘oomph’ quotient, insofar as the rather dry and esoteric alchemies of analytic Cubism might be said to deliver something so coarse as an ‘oomph’.

Futurism was, above all else, an Italian movement, lasting from about 1909 to 1914. Yet of the exhibition’s nine rooms, only one was devoted exclusively to Italian artists, while two other rooms — the display of printed material titled ‘Words in Freedom’, and the final room, ‘War’ — included a handful of Italian works amid the usual international selection. So if one had to scratch together a central thesis for Futurism, it might be this: ‘In the decade before the Great War, as well as at other times, quite a few artists in Europe, as well as other places, were interested in light, mass and movement, as well as other things more or less of that sort, although of course some of them were interested in something else instead’. All of which may well be true, of course, but could equally well have been discovered in the course of perusing Tate Modern’s permanent collection, such as it is, thus freeing up the £12.50 ticket price in order to buy more coffee and cakes in the café afterwards, enjoying as one does so that ceaselessly engaging view across the Thames to St. Paul’s Cathedral, the traffic surging inexorably around it, the stunted forest of steeples and cranes that stands alongside it. Meanwhile, for those who want to learn something about Futurism per se, why not try the Estorick Collection instead?

For to define Futurism too broadly is a sure way of disguising what is distinctive, remarkable and indeed misunderstood about it. More than anything else, to the extent it ever existed as a coherent and self-conscious movement, it was the child of a writer and poet named Filippo Tommaso Marinetti.

Born in Alexandria to Italian parents — no minor point, this, given Marinetti’s later obsession with Italian imperialism — Marinetti was educated by French Jesuits there, arriving back in Italy only at the age of 18 years, at which point he was suddenly forced to reconcile some carefully-constructed inner Italy with the real thing, in this case the relatively modern, down-to-earth city of Milan. Like the Manchester it to some extent resembles, Milan had enjoyed a prosperous nineteenth century. The growth of railways, the Risorgimento and the resulting need for a national financial and industrial centre had all favoured Milan, but at the same time, had encouraged the city to define itself in contrast with all it was not: dying Venice, decrepit Rome, museum-like Florence, chthonic Naples. This matters, because Futurism was always, at least to some extent, animated by the vicious chippiness that comes from being the most absolutely modern, cutting-edge movement possible in a nation far better known for its long-dead, fossilized past. Marinetti’s Futurism wasn’t just Italian, in other words — it was significantly Milanese, projecting its Milanese self-consciousness upon what Marinetti and his mostly-Milanese colleagues all too clearly regarded as a retarded, reactionary and maddeningly backward-looking Italian nation, looking northwards for hints about modernity, fetishising every token of progress it stumbled upon — aeroplanes, the grease-cauled combustion engines emanating from the Fiat works, moveable type, blasphemy, the tawdry ease with which electric lighting gnaws away at night.

Marinetti, no visual artist himself, was at least a prolific and energetic creator of manifesto pronouncements. On 20 February 1909, Le Figaro republished a fortnight-old piece he had written for La gazzetta dell’Emilia, a Bologna-based regional paper, in which he set out the principles on which the nascent Futurist movement would, at least for the better part of five short years, thereafter operate. Of all the overheated adolescent nonsense it included — although as Marinetti was 33 years old at the time, youth is an unconvincing excuse — the phrase that has aged least gracefully was probably this one:

We will glorify war — the world’s only hygiene — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.

For a year or so, the ‘we’ in this sentence seemed largely to signify Marinetti, whose own theatrical and literary efforts, while widely discussed, derided, hissed at and litigated against, lacked general appeal. By 1910, however, he had managed to bring on board three painters: Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, and Luigi Russolo. Gino Severini, like Boccioni a pupil of the Divisionist painter Giacomo Balla, soon came to be associated with Futurism as well. On this rather fragile foundation, then, was Futurism as an art-historical movement shakily constructed.

Divisionism — a method of painting with pure rather than mixed colour, applied in dots and stipples rather than blended brushstrokes — was a major source for Futurism, despite being both French and, by 1909, distinctly old-fashioned, although at least thrillingly associated with Paul Signac’s anarchist credentials. By 1911 or thereabouts, a combination of studio visits in Paris and biennales in Italy further exposed these painters to the full force of Picasso and Braque’s Cubist innovations, which to various extents all left their mark on the Futurists’ work. The key points here are that, whatever its rhetorical claims, Italian Futurist painting was hardly cutting-edge, often deeply indebted to France and in any event only a small part of a grander theoretical project, encompassing music, film, architecture, design, poetry, clothing and even cookery. Only later would Futurism became downright nostalgic and backward-looking, so that Severini would feel no shame in ‘repainting’, c. 1959, a work apparently washed away by ‘the world’s greatest hygiene’ — of which, more later.

Yet Marinetti, at least, remained stubbornly himself, his ideological extravagances unhindered by any signs of mature reflection. A reasonably stalwart supporter of Mussolini, as late as 1930 he would find himself condemning, of all things, pasta: ‘It is heavy, brutalising and gross […] it induces scepticism and pessimism. Spaghetti is no food for fighters.’ Fighting, in practice as well as theory, continued to matter to him. A much-decorated veteran of the famed Alpini regiment — he had been wounded in action — he nevertheless volunteered in 1935, at the age of 59 years, for the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, then in 1942, at the age of 66 years, to serve with the German forces on the Eastern front. Quite remarkably, he lasted four months before being sent home, too ill to be of any practical or indeed sympbol use. He succumbed at last to heart trouble in December 1944, at the bosom of the Salò Republic. He was thus was spared the obligation of trying to reconcile his own youthful pronouncements with the condition in which Italy would find herself only a few months later — an accidental historical kindness which he deserved, frankly, not in the slightest.

All of which explains some aspects of the confusing, in some ways disappointing jumble that is Tate Modern’s Futurism exhibition, whilst simultaneously raising other questions. First, Futurism is composed entirely of paintings, sculpture and a small quantity of graphic material. Yet why give the impression that visual art was central to Futurism, when it’s perfectly clear that all sorts of other modes of expression — theatre, poetry, music, typography, architecture, arguments, ‘happenings’, fights personal and physical as much as general and intellectual — mattered at least as much? Why show so few Italian paintings, but so many French, Russian and British ones? Why not provide a clearer sense of differentiation between the major Italian Futurist painters — their influences, the path of their development, whatever distinctive qualities they brought to support or subvert Marinetti’s programme? And most of all, why use up so much of the exhibition’s badly-organised, often baffling and badly-hung space showing work that was intended, more than anything else, as a criticism of Futurism — which is to say, French Orphism, Russian Cubo-Futurism and English Vorticism — rather than giving us a thorough, complex and critical account of Futurism itself?

There is, admittedly, a more positive way of regarding the curators’ near-indiscriminate inclusivity. Our perceptive Gareth Williams, for instance, positively embraced this big-tent version of Futurism, stating that ‘the real treat […] lay in witnessing and appreciating, side-by-side, the very individual exuberance of artists such as Delaunay, Braque, Gontcharova, Wyndham Lewis, Boccioni and Severini’. This is, of course, true enough. The comparative strategy did, in places, produce quite remarkable results, although these may not have been  the ones the curators anticipated, and in any event shed a rather uncertain light upon the notional subject of the exhibition.

These rather miscellaneous juxtapositions, for instance, underscored for me the fundamental stillness of Braque’s precise, grave and unarguable compositions, reminded me how little interest Wyndham Lewis ever showed in the application of paint per se, and proved spectacularly the fact that while David Bomberg’s In the Hold is banal in reproduction, it does in fact really ‘work’ when one is standing a few feet in front of its vast, confusing, sparkling, thoroughly disorienting surface. Epstein’s Torso in Metal from “The Rock Drill” (1913-14), somehow neutralised in the photos that make it look like something left over from a sci-fi film, is infinitely more sinister when encountered at its true scale and seen in the round — it exerts a gravitas sufficiently dark and inhuman that one hesitates to turn one’s back on it. The Malevich canvasses, though not in themselves particularly impressive, were nonetheless a poignant reminder of how desperately Russian artists depended upon France to provide a critical language with which to interrogate their own Russian identity, and how costly was the silence when the line went dead on that long-running cultural conversation.

Against all expectation, Robert Delaunay — memorably characterised by John Richardson as one of those ‘draft-dodging Parisian modernists who lived off rich wives and shared an envious hatred of Picasso’, emerged as a minor star of Futurism. Not least, his L’Equipe de Cardiff (3e representation, 1912-13) — when seen in real life, anyway, because neither in the catalogue nor anywhere on the internet do photographic images manage to get the colour values right — is a surprisingly powerful painting. This is less because of some supposed proleptic relationship with Pop Art or the later oeuvre of Nicholas de Stael, incidentally, than because of the way in which those delicate patches of shimmery, fresh yet elusive colour relate to one another, coupled with the insistent way the picture draws the eye upwards and around, everything somehow rising — eyes and arms, ‘Astra’, the arc of the wheel or the sweep of the tower, up to where the boxy little aeroplane holds itself near-weightless above the clouds, fragile yet still inspiring. (Gareth, incidentally, offers a fascinating meditation on rugby and art here.)

What any of this has to do with Futurism, however, remains unclear. Orphism, for instance, makes sense as an undemanding, easy-on-the-eye spin-off of Cubism, but its relationship with Futurism was, as far as I can see, essentially an adversarial one — Orphism was recreational, pretty and subjective, where Futurism would have preferred, at least rhetorically, to be mechanical, violent and scientific. I suppose that L’Equipe de Cardiff did, in some sense, remind the viewer of all that Futurism was not — but if that’s the point, then why not hang work by Botticelli, or de Chirico, or Cy Twombly? Why hang any one thing, indeed, rather than another? But if the curators had a clear answer to this question, it wasn’t apparent from the pictures lining those dead-white walls.

And thus it is that we come, through these various long and indirect stages, to the Italian Futurists themselves. Both while getting lost at the exhibition, then later while perusing the catalogue’s not-quite-English text, I found myself wishing for a clearer account — well, any account, really — of the central figures of Futurist painting and sculpture: Severini, Russolo, Carrà and Boccioni. For although all four were quite similar in age — born between 1881 and 1885 — and briefly conjoined under Marinetti’s inky banner, there were nevertheless important differences. Severini, for instance, lived in Paris from 1906 onwards. Boccioni and Severini both studied with the Divisionist painter Giacomo Balla. Carrà was perhaps the most political of all of them. As a young student in Paris c. 1900 he sought out decrepit yet stalwart survivors of the Paris Commune, and in London a few years later, he consorted with anarchists in the East End, yet after the Great War he fell in with Giorgio de Chirico, apeing his style and becoming a fairly enthusiastic Fascist by the mid 1930s. Russolo, on the other hand, was as interested in making experimental music as he was in making pictures or political statements, and spent much of the 1920s in Paris, seeking to escape Italian Fascism.

And so on, and so forth. To anyone who knows anything about Italian Futurism, of course, all this must seem obvious as the fact that Titian spent much of his life in Venice while Michelangelo based himself in Florence and Rome — and yet one struggled to gain even this modicum of biographical differentiation from an exhibition notionally centred on Italian Futurism. It’s at moments like this, in turn, that one understands, echoes and indeed amplifies the bad reviews that Futurism garnered in such quantity. One further goes on to question why an exhibition could possibly have been allowed to go up with so little focus, such vagueness regarding its subject, such a lack of purchase its own significance. And after a while, one starts to suspect that it all comes down to politics.

For unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to write about the Futurists without using that other tiresome F-word. It’s a sad fact that most British art enthusiasts, even the relatively well-informed ones, ‘know’ about the Futurist association with Fascism, even if they know nothing else whatsoever about the Futurism. Whereas, the curators presumably love these pictures, these statues, the still-pulsing vigour of these texts. Correctly, they realise that art associated with a thuggish, clumsy, racist, destructive and ultimately murderous political doctrine is unlikely to appeal to a general mainstream audience. And so they do their best to leave the politics out altogether — blurring the lines between Futurism and its contemporary movements, ignoring the minor supportive role played by Futurist visual art within a wider ideological programme, stopping history on or about 1914. Oddly, the effect of this silence, as with the recent Russian Constructivists exhibition, is to leave the viewer absolutely mesmerised by the elephant in the room, rather than, for instance, politely oblivious to its proximity.

I wrote a moment ago that most British art enthusiasts know all about the connection between Futurism and Fascism. How real, though, was that connection?

Personally, I’d say it was a lot more casual, a lot less inevitable than is generally believed. For instance, it’s often assumed that the Futurists’ much-asserted connection between art, technology and a rejection of tradition somehow directed them towards fascism. Not true. Rather, the central Futurist mistake — that cheerful if in retrospect grossly misguided certezza that by shrugging off the accumulated weight of history, superstition and irrational nostalgia, it would surely be possible to live in a new and better way, characterised by speed, scientific progress, the breaking down of old distinctions and barriers, the elevation of youth, the celebration of mass media, the violent disruption of comfortable bourgeois habits wherever these were encountered — differed little, really, from that of the Russian Constructivists, for instance, whose movement developed in part out of Futurism, and whose own impatience with the past led in time to enormities more ghastly than anything even the wretched Marinetti ever advocated. Certainly, there was nothing ‘reactionary’ about Futurism, any more than there was with Constructivism — or, for that matter, most of the earlier expressions of Italian Fascism. Instead, these movements were all in a sense ‘progressive’ — not that left-wing commentators, or indeed their faithful Cameroon running-dogs, really enjoy having this pointed out to them. Futurists, Constructivists and the earlier Fascists all wanted change, the end of history, a brave new world. The naked futility of that desire should cast no aspersions upon its genuineness.

Of course, it’s perfectly true that in the decades that followed the Great War, both Marinetti and Carrà — who, in any event, had by 1914 fallen out with Marinetti and taken his mostly Florence-based supporters with him, thus splitting the movement in half — were loud in their support for Mussolini. But all that happened after the point at which the Futurists were creating the work for which they are now remembered, clearly didn’t involve Boccioni who by 1916 was already dead, having been thrown from his horse in the course of a cavalry exercise, and appalled poor Russolo. Whatever Marinetti might have wished to the contrary, there was nothing homogeneous about Futurist politics. His pretense to the contrary was, in any event, a fragile thing, lasting less than half a decade.

Had Marinetti not existed, of course — or had he been killed, rather than merely wounded at Plava, on the banks of the Isonzo — it’s highly questionable whether the general Anglophone understanding of Futurism would have been so permanently stained with Fascist associations, for all the world as if a particular mode of painting written up in a particular way could possibly bear the blame for squadrism, political assassinations, a destructive sequence of political and military alliances, half a million dead Italians, the Ardeatine Caves, the Holocaust and pretty much every other appalling thing that happened to Italy during the middle decades of the twentieth century. By the same token, had Mussolini taken a serious and independent-minded interest in art, rather than taking advice on the subject from his lover Margherita Sarfatti ( nee Grassini), it’s perfectly possible that he might have rejected the somewhat enervated neo-classicism into which the ex-Futurists had, in the main, slipped by the 1930s, demanded its substitution with something else, and hence truncated the all-too-neat Futurist-Fascist shared lineage. And as far as that goes, the accident by which Hitler didn’t much like modernist art has saved right-thinking, left-of-centre art historians a lot of uncomfortable questions.

The truth, it seems to me anyway, accords rather less efficacy to art-writing and its products than some art-writers may, however unconsciously, like to suppose. Futurist rhetoric latched onto some of the same desires, antipathies and fears that Fascism did, not because the two were integrally linked, but rather, because those simply happened to be the desires, antipathies and fears that dominated working-class, urban, nationalistic northern Italian sentiment at the time. This was, I think, rather what Antonio Gramsci implied when, writing to Leon Trotsky in 1922, he blamed the pre-war Italian Left for failing to reach out to the Futurists — something he thought should have been possible, given the common ground they shared.

So let us try, at last, if only just for a moment, to set aside that thick distorting lens of historical hindsight and look directly, insofar as such a thing is possible, at the actual paintings and sculpture the Italian Futurists produced. And here, despite the disorganised and disorienting layout of the exhibition, the gappy labelling and the works lost between Paris and London, there was much genuine pleasure to be had, as well as a degree of visual education, encounters with old friends and a few real surprises.

Two of Carrà’s paintings, for instance, made a great impact, both as records of early twentieth century modernity and as magnificently successful applications of paint to canvas. Uscita dal teatro (c. 1910) is a painting about electricity, urban life and disconnection. A small crowd of figures scatter in the night, shawls pulled up over downward-turning heads and averted faces, perhaps to keep out a sudden shower of rain, hansom cabs splashing by in the background, while the entirety of space is eaten away by savage flickering nodules of disintegrated light, lemon yellow, vermillion, prussian blue and ivory black. Everything is atomised and in motion, and while the psychological insightfulness of, say, Edvard Munch is evident, the composition itself is much more intelligent, much less childish than Munch even at his best, the scene at once sumptuously weird and also rather distressing in its inability to hold together — because in a moment, we can tell just by looking, everything will fall off the edges of the scene. The energetic callous unease of the urban night can rarely have been evoked so elegantly. The West End still looks like this sometimes. Uscita dal teatro is very much a thing of its own time, yet effortlessly transcends it.

Meanwhile, I funerali dell’anarchico Galli (1919-11, illustrated at the top of this post) conveys a completely different mood. My five-year old son, admittedly a keen fan of BBC News 24, instantly recognised the subject. This is a political demonstration that’s gone badly wrong. It could as easily represent last spring’s G20 protests or the Poll Tax riot as what it actually shows, which is the aftermath of the funeral of an assassinated anarchist which took place in Milan in 1904, in the course of a general strike, and at which Carrà himself was present. Even in reproduction, it’s possible to see how well Carrà has combined the imperatives of historical illustration, emotional expressiveness and formal unity, as well as sneaking in rather more references to dead quattocento Florentine painters than Marinetti might have liked. What reproduction does not convey, however, is the experience of standing up close to this enormous canvas (198.7 x 259.1 cm, apparently) which, like a big Pollock canvas, radiates its power a few feet beyond the picture’s surface, so that its terrible violent energy starts to pull at the viewer’s intellectual resistance, that egg-yolk sun in the chartreuse-and-shattered-glass sky darkens the air, it’s not just their battle but suddenly our battle, too. The faceted space that looks glib and easy at a distance is no such thing close up — it’s truly threatening, unstable, broken. Carrà’s calligraphy of violence feels hard-won, the diving pennants and raised poles more than a simple trope for conflict. The end result is as beautiful and clever as a good heraldic emblem, but terrible, too, in what it signifies. In that sense, it’s a perfect painting for the early twentieth century. And I suppose if this had been the only painting on show at Futurism, seeing it would have made my visit worthwhile.

At the other end of the spectrum in all sorts of ways is Severini’s  La Danse du ‘pan-pan’ au Monico, painted 1909-11, lost and presumed destroyed somewhere in Germany in the course of the Second World War, and then re-painted by Severini, using a postcard as his guide, in 1959-60. The ironies here are sufficiently glaring as to render exegesis superfluous. What we can safely say, however, is that Severini’s shard-like fragmented space is here not remotely threatening or scary, but rather exhilarating — evoking mirrored surfaces, giddy music complete with happy-funny dissonance, the yeasty fizz of another-glass-of-champagne-please (the bottles are chilling there in the lower-left corner), the face we glimpse for just a second out of the corner of an eye but that vanishes again immediately. This is, in short, yet another paen to electric lighting and its power, and probably also to a rather democratised sphere of leisure-time activity. If it’s lost something in charisma through repetition — which, at a guess, is almost certainly the case — then it still stands as unanswerable evidence of yet another aspect of Futurism: its decorative, popular and even demotic side.

David Bomberg, apparently, learned a lot from this painting, the difficulty of squaring his cramped crepuscular East End stairways with this scene of Parisian frivolity being ultimately a rather enjoyable visual challenge, eased significantly by encountering, in the room dedicated to the English Vorticists, Bomberg’s In the Hold (c. 1913-14). (Incidentally, for anyone who’s interested, an ancient review of mine — dating back to February 200 — of a Vorticist exhibition at the Estorick Collection is reproduced here.)

The brace of Russolos included in the exhibition were hardly enough on which to form a defensible opinion. In contrast, Boccioni remains, for me at any rate, stubbornly hard to admire. A painting like Idolo moderno (1910-11) is, well, ugly — and not in a good way, either, as is sometimes the case with ugliness as found in the work of Giotto, Goya or Sickert. The composition is facile, the application of paint uninteresting where it isn’t downright unattractive, the psychological implications insufficiently subtle. By 1910 there was nothing particularly novel about crude unpleasant brushstrokes, or using ‘wrong’ colours — or using ambivalence about women as a substitute for being able to paint them properly. Boccioni’s hard-faced, down-lit whore, or whatever she’s meant to be, is a pitiably weak sister to everyone from this to this to this, and suffers by comparison. And although the failure may well say more about me than it does about Boccioni, I also found the Stati d’animo series formulaic, literal-minded and more than slightly juvenile. It’s as if having a good idea for a picture somehow compensated for a certain lack of engagement, let alone skill, involved in the course of its execution. A painting like La città che sale just comes across as laboured, over-obvious yet totally unconvincing, all those rearing horses and sub-Tintoretto straining figures more laughable now than inspiring.

To the extent that such pictures are what a lot of people imagine Futurism to be in its entirety, it’s no wonder that plenty of people look elsewhere instead, or write the whole thing off as fundamentally Fascist in nature, and hence undeserving of attention. Futurism might, in a slightly different world, have made a strong case for the merits of Futurist art. As it is, we’re left with the realisation that no Futurist painted with as much intelligence as Braque, as much charm as Delaumay or as much sheer verve as Picasso. Low expectations are, in other words, thoroughly met. It’s the other ones, the memory of Futurism as it appears at the Estorick Collection or even at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, that prompt that lingering sense of mildly bemused disappointment.

Don’t get me wrong. If one set out to make the case against Futurism, it wouldn’t exactly be hard work. The Futurists were amongst the first to make art intended, in effect, to illustrate written manifestos about what art should be like. The manifestos themselves have not improved with age, if only because, in the years since 1909, Europeans have learned a lot about the realities of wrecking old cities, burning important libraries, ‘beautiful ideas worth dying for’ — rarely as beautiful as the resulting dead may have imagined them to be — let alone ‘the destructive gesture of the freedom-bringers’.

Even if the writing had been less foolish, though, the art might not have been any better. Accepting, for a moment, the logic of the Futurist big tent, we pause to consider the spectacle of Wyndham Lewis, whose dry and uncharismatic pictures rarely if ever lived up to the thoughts and texts supporting them, or Boccioni and his portentous, would-be-expressive sludginess. And then, perhaps, our minds turn to a beautiful, serious, unforgettable little painting like Severini’s Le Boulevard (1911), or Jacques Villon’s Soldats en marche (1913) with its delicately shimmering surface, or the casual perfection of one of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s little ink drawings (not present in this exhibition), all of which stand as a silent yet searing reproach to all that bombast.

The problem here, in other words, isn’t just the point that what was once new and urgent — nightime illumination, biplanes, analogue film on celluloid — is now brittle with nostalgia, but rather, that the dark side of art-that’s-all-about-art has become all too evident. The whole business of thinking up new techniques to suit new subjects, new people, new ways of being — that, not Fascism, is the colocynthic seed that Futurism nurtured in its vitals.

This is, admittedly, less evident in most of the paintings themselves, their production still governed by some atavistic sense of pride in craftsmanship and objective aesthetic effectiveness, than everywhere else in the Futurist project — those meaningless unwatchable plays, the unbearable ‘music’, the tedious nonsense-poetry, most of all those endless, numbingly self-important manifestos, proclaiming their loud unlovely urgency to everyone yet also to no one in particular, flashy and dull, violent yet thankfully ineffectual and hence entirely pointless. If other layers of practice would eventually settle on Futurism’s legacy, the shape of contemporary art itself — layers of irony, self-referential obsessiveness, ‘pluralism’ — no small measure of the blame for the resultant mess must lie with Marinetti. All of which, of course, is no excuse at all for an exhibition that was messier, less incisive and far less interesting than it ought to have been, but at least explains why low expectations have come to seem such familiar, well-worn gallery-going companions.

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21 Comments

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21 responses to “Futurism at Tate Modern

  1. Gaw

    Thank you, Bunny, for providing the art historical context – fascinating stuff. Also truly beautiful appreciations of two of the Carras and the Severini.

    You’ve also enlightened me about the critical response to the exhibition (I’d read none of the reviews). It seems I liked the exhibition for the precise reasons it was disliked by the critics.

    Personally, I didn’t find an exhibition solely on Italian Futurism that enticing (mistakenly as it turned out – I will be seeking out more Severinis and Carras for sure). So I was pleased to stumble across a rather eclectic cross-section of paintings from across Europe each seeking to capture – in sometimes strikingly refreshing fashion – the impressions and impact of the new urbanism and industrialism. The jumbled nature seemed an inevitable consequence of taking such a broad geographical canvas and illustrating it across such a limited five-year period.

    I wonder whether the biggest mistake of the curators was the exhibition’s title?

    Whilst wondering around the exhibition, I found myself in a state of admiration, if not awe, at how so recently so many contemporaneous painters could have such original and fresh responses to their environment (in paint, too!). It confirmed a feeling that we’re living in something of a re-tread world, where so much art seems to consist of doodling around Duchamp, probably the least interesting (at least visually) of the artists of the period. Post-inspiration as much as post-modern.
    A punter speaks!

  2. Hmm, interesting. I don’t mind jumbled exhibitions per se — I loved 1900: Art at the Crossroads and Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution (both Royal Academy, both Robert Rosenblum’s creation) precisely because they were jumbled — so perhaps Futurism should in fact have been even more jumbled, but with a more forgiving title.

    Wrong titles for exhibitions, though – now, there’s a rich topic. This, for instance, was not the major retrospective the name suggested, and indeed should have had the phrase ‘the later, darker paintings’ appended to it, while this set up a relationship the exhibition itself undermined constantly. This was likewise inaccurate, displaying as it did a rather worrying confusion both about what constitutes ‘Britain’ and, in fact, about the difference between the words ‘and’ and ‘in’. And so on, and so forth. Or perhaps I should just learn to be slightly more tolerant of perfectly rational marketing decisions?

    Before turning over this new leaf, however, I shall seize the opportunity to nag you about the absolute necessity of going for a gentle amble round the Estorick Collection next time you’re up for a bit of art-related exploration. It’s not far away, the cafe is a delight and if, in the end, you decide you can’t bear the Futurists, you’ve only wasted £5 on gaining this useful information. You know it makes sense.

    In any event, I agree unreservedly with your final paragraph. There’s something exhilarating about spending time amid art that’s neither ironic, self-critical nor cynical — art that seems genuinely engaged with the world around it — whether that world is a matter of objects on a table, street violence or simply beautiful colours held in perfect balance with each other. I do, though, think that some of the art included in Tate Modern’s Futurism presaged, in some sense, the deadening of that exhilaration. If, however, my grumpiness on that point spilled over into feeling grumpy about other aspects of the exhibition, that was an unfortunate and unfair slippage. As we both have said, in our different ways, Futurism did, in the end, contain some memorably good art.

    Last but not least — having worried that the hospital food had finished you off, I am glad you are now back in the land of the (virtually) speaking punters.

  3. Gaw

    Thanks for shedding some light on the Rothko. Having thought I liked Rothko, I left the exhibition deeply disappointed – as a colourist he seemed very much a one-trick pony, and a rather drab one at that. But if I was only seeing the product of a later, darker period I will need to reassess (again).

    Estorick is one of my ‘recovery milestones’. I have set off down this road a couple of times now (paper shop, Italian cafe, barbers, etc) and hope to get far enough this time to take in some Italian Futurism. Good for the spirits I’m sure!

    Back to the exhibition, your positing that Futurism’s neophilia marked the beginning of a fatal spiral is very thought-provoking. Deserves a great deal of mulling over. (Finally and incidentally, your penultimate para also contains the wonderful and, for me at least, ground-breaking word ‘colocynthic’. I’m sure you don’t come across many of them in the blogiverse.)

  4. I could pound facts into my skull all day and not match this kind of erudition, at which point there would be no oxygen left to produce this kind of writerly charm. Well done, Bunny.

  5. Gareth, the Estorick Collection has, as you probably know, quite a lot of stairs — not entirely convenient — but is otherwise a worthy goal. Last time I checked, the espresso in the cafe was as convincingly Italian as anything this side of the Alps. And yes, I did always rate art exhibition spaces by the standards of their cafes even before my son turned up!

    Colocynthic: not an entirely proper word, perhaps, for all its utility (i.e. more purgative than mere ‘bitter’ would be) but also not entirely my invention. Unfortunately, although I well remember where I found it, the story is, in itself, well … colocynthic, and would do none of us any good, early on a Sunday morning. Which is, I suppose, appropriate, in a way. Why don’t you take to using it all the time and, as it were, ‘mainstreaming’ it?

    And as for you, Franklin — even if any of what you wrote above was true, and leaving aside the praise that ought to be heaped more or less continuously on your various online activities, I can’t, of course, paint nasturtiums — so the rest is just compensation on my part. (Thanks, though.)

  6. Gaw

    Just wanted to say those nasturtium watercolours are stunning, and what a great story behind them.

  7. Agreed. For a couple of days I kept my browser open at the top of that page, just so I could keep looking at those nasturtiums.

  8. Glad I could spread some joy. Many thanks to both of you.

  9. I’m glad you cleared up “colocynthic”, although I’d worked out the meaning on my own (with generous help from Google, of course). It’s very rare for me to need to check the dictionary, but you had me doing so not once, not twice, but three times — in one article! For the record: chthonic (which I should know but always forget), colocynthic, and sympbol. I’m actually not sure what sympbol is all about, actually. It could even be a typo for all I know.

    Franklin’s right, though. I could pound facts into my head all week and still not catch up. Do you do a lot of research for these pieces, Bunny, or do you really just keep a lot of this stuff in your skull? Either way, it’s beyond me.

  10. Ah yes, ‘sympbol’ — meaning ‘the half-blind and frequently distracted author really should not be allowed to type when she isn’t wearing her glasses, let alone put things online without having some kind soul to proof-read for her’. I devoutly hope you didn’t waste too much of your valuable time Googling that one, Chris!

    On the substantive point, though, I wish I had more time to research the posts here, but the whole motherhood thing makes that impossible, so most of what appears is gleanings from the exhibition catalogue topped up with dimly-recollected factoids left over from back when I still had free time, a normal attention-span and a functioning short-term memory. The typos, of course, are all my own original work.

    Writing it all down, though, at least clarifies the experience in my own thoughts (no bad thing — c.f. the point about short-term memory above, just in case you’ve already forgotten it, because heaven knows, I soon shall) — and then if anyone else finds it interesting, well, that’s a great feeling, obviously.

    On the other hand, Chris, I’d give a lot to be able to achieve either the 150-watt lucidity or the sheer dismissive perfection of this — with which, for what it’s worth, I agree entirely.

  11. It says something about my respect for your language skills that I assume I’m ignorant before I decide you spelled something wrong. I don’t even extend that courtesy to Franklin, and he’s very good.

    As far as motherhood, one mother of my acquaintance once said to me, “It’s a little-known fact that babies get their neurons from the mother’s brain.” Which conjured up visions of brain cells dutifully marching across the placenta.

    What I’ve found, twelve years on, is that a) children take their neurons from both parents and b) they don’t stop after they’re born.

    If you’ve held together this well, I can only imagine what you were like before kids.

    As far as my own writing, thank you wholeheartedly. I tend to feel I put more effort into that dismissal than it deserved.

  12. I’m not about to dissent from the results of your twelve-year long research programme into neurons and neuron-vampires, err, children, Chris. Sadly I do, sometimes, look back at the stuff I used to write for Electric Review and, well, wish I could write a bit more like my younger self. But then, within a few moments, I’m distracted by thinking about laundry, name-tapes or spelling tests. It turns out that advancing middle age is, despite its grim appearance, not bereft of the odd minor kindness after all.

    As for dismissing Richard Prince, though — and by implication, one of the most useless Tate exhibitions in recent memory, which is truly saying something — the effort definitely wasn’t wasted. NYC Art should sort out the London art scene more often!

  13. Twelve years and counting!

    As far as NYC sorting out London, the end result was London fighting back with the Turner Prize, and look how that worked out.

  14. The Turner Prize is great, isn’t it? And this is a vintage year. For instance, as the BBC patiently explains, there’s a woman called Lucy Skaer who — brace yourself, Chris — puts ‘found’ ordinary items, such as a chair, in the gallery, but — are you following this? — apparently being in a gallery changes the items’ context and makes us look at them more closely.

    Back in the glory days of Craig-Martin-led, BritArt hegemony, it was a standard complaint on the part of Peter Fuller and his brothers in arms that art schools no longer taught anything but, in effect, Duchamp For Beginners. Now they don’t even seem to teach that any more.

    There is also a very cutting-edge painter who paints his abstract compositions directly onto the gallery wall, so that later they’ll have to be painted over, and also someone who displays bits of dead animals processed into ‘art’. Short-term memory — who needs it, eh?

    The winner, needless to say, will in due course quite possibly become a Tate trustee, at which point he or she will be able to approve the purchase of his or her own work, and work of other artists represented by his or her own gallery, for inclusion in public collections, to be bought with public funds. So, you see, there is a degree of creative genius somewhere in the whole Turner Prize setup after all.

  15. Now they teach Duchamp for I’m Bored Already, Get Us a Drink, Would You, Love?

    This is why I was so happy to read that the Stuckists were out protesting. I found point 5 from their 1999 manifesto quite perfect: “Art that has to be in a gallery to be art isn’t art.”

    But now I’m just repeating my own blog posts. In a way, I guess, I should be heartened to see that the art world insanity occurs everywhere, not just here in stupid old New York.

  16. To give the Stuckists their due — and, um, repeat my own blog posts — they’ve done heroic work not just in ripping apart the intellectual foundations of a lot of what turns up at Turner Prize exhibitions, but also in uncovering the squamous tangle of financial, social and professional relationships underpinning the whole project. David Lee of the Jackdaw deserves credit, too, along similar lines.

    For the rest of us, I’m never sure whether it’s better to denounce the Turner Prize once again, or alternatively, to ignore it, on the basic theory that attention of any sort only encourages it.

  17. Personally I’m still in the Don Quixote phase of my art world development.

  18. NB.

    You could do worse than sticking with the Don Quixote phase a little while:

  19. How I adore the whole Beggarstaff oeuvre, NB! Even the more casual items, e.g. this London urchin, are absolutely perfect. As mentioned here, I’m convinced that William Nicholson is one of the very greatest of Britain’s 20th century artists — still underrated by the critics, that excellent Royal Academy show notwithstanding, if (alas) not by the auction markets. What’s remarkable, though, is that he’d probably qualify for greatness either on the quality of his (and James Pryde’s) Biggerstaff graphic work, or on the quality of his painting, even if the other didn’t exist, if you see what I mean.

    And as far as that goes, it’s actually quite interesting to compare his career, and what he actually achieved in it, with both the stated aspirations and the actual achievements of the Futurists … thanks, NB!

  20. Sally

    who wrote this article?

  21. Sally, everything on this site is written by me, Barendina Smedley — more information here, if you’re interested.

    (Oh, and sorry for deleting your first two attempts to ask this entirely reasonable question. I thought at first you might be a spambot, whereas I’m now increasing certain you’re not. O tempores o mores ….)