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’. Continue reading