States of Mind: The Farewells, by Umberto Boccioni, 1911 (image: MoMA, Centre Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne)
In its effort to reclaim futurism as a serious school of painting, the Tate has jettisoned some of the best bits, says Owen Hatherley.
The future can be very boring. Marked by the idea of a linear progression towards perfection, the end result of much futuristic design and thought – one only has to think of the banal glorification of oligarchies carried out by the architectural avant-garde over the last decade – is to justify the present. It is however quite difficult to make Italian futurism itself boring, but somehow Tate Modern has managed it, by reducing it to canvases, accessed through a series of grey-painted walls, its history as a movement to transform the world made almost imperceptible. The theme park approach one expects from the Tate would have been more fitting.
Futurism, ushered in by the poet FT Marinetti, was never primarily a painterly movement. It started with poetry, and between 1909 and Marinetti’s 1944 death in Mussolini’s Salo Republic, it encompassed architecture, graphic design, sculpture, music, fashion, politics and cooking, and had a huge and cataclysmic effect on the actual future of at least three of those fields – but only painting, sculpture and a few magazines in glass cases make the cut here.
Futurist painting has always been seen as a poor relation amid the artistic ferment of the 1910s, and the Tate seems intent to redress the view that it went from a derivative post-impressionism to an equally unoriginal cubism, reclaiming it as a serious school of painting in its own right. This suspicion is confirmed when you find rooms occupied by the Parisian adaptations of the Italians. Meanwhile, the exhibition undermines its own case by featuring the far superior mutations of futurism pioneered in Russia and Britain, at the hands of Kasimir Malevich and Wyndham Lewis.
Nonetheless, if you’re not held back by the prejudices of 20th century art critics and their Parisian biases – and there’s no reason why we should be – there is a great deal to enjoy in Italian futurist painting. Some of these canvases are wonderfully rich, sugary confections. Umberto Boccioni’s The Laugh and Gino Severini’s Dance of the Pan-Pan are heady depictions of a boozy, blowsy woman in a seeming haze of absinthe, and a kinetic dancehall scene, respectively; while Luigi Russolo’s The Rebellion takes the same approach to politics, its advancing crowd painted in lush, drunken oranges and greens. In these cases, futurist painting presents a dance-before-the-police-come society of cabarets, booze, speed and sex, and for all its misogyny it is a decidedly sensualist aesthetic. Much of this prefigures the dying, decadent world of Melinda Gebbie and Alan Moore’s recent Lost Girls, a graphic novel depicting in pornographic detail an enclosed, eroticised milieu about to be destroyed by the first world war. Here, and in its particular subject matter – cruise liners, railway stations – futurism appears as the flourishing of something that was, very quickly, to be consigned to the past.
The exhibition cuts off around 1915, with the futurists all signing up for the war. In so doing it manages to efface their notorious involvement with politics – Marinetti formed a Futurist Political Party that would be absorbed by Mussolini’s National Fascist Party, committing the futurists to a practically unbroken collaboration with fascism. Clearly, the curators have done this in order not to distract from the movement futurism was beforehand. But not only have they avoided telling a political story, most of the aesthetic history of futurism is missing too, unforgivably so. Where’s Antonio Sant-Elia, the visionary architect who unknowingly bridged Viennese decadence and 1960s Brutalism? Where’s the designer Fortunato Depero, Vogue cover artist later plagiarised by Peter Saville? Where’s the noise-music of Luigi Russolo that would be so important for 1980s electronic producers? That’s before we even come to the more recondite culinary and clothing experiments. The Tate has tried to fold futurism back into the history of art, but they’ve had to expunge most of it to do so.
The Dance of the Pan Pan at the Monico by Gino Severini, 1909-1911 (image: MoMa, Centre Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne)
Futurism is at Tate Modern, London, until 20 September