At Tate Modern

Peter Campbell

The 20th century was not quite ten years old when, in February 1909, Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto was published in Le Figaro. A photograph taken in Paris in 1912 when Les Peintres futuristes italiens was opening at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery has Marinetti in the centre of a row of artists – all in bowler hats, heavy overcoats and shiny shoes. They look like a gloomy delegation of well turned out travelling salesmen.

Umberto Boccioni, ‘Elasticità’ (1912)
Umberto Boccioni, ‘Elasticità’ (1912)

It is appropriate that Marinetti – a writer, never a painter – is the dominant figure. Although it was in the visual arts (not poetry, music or cookery – Marinetti had things to say about those too) that Futurism had its longest run, its place in the history of art is as much a matter of polemics as pictures. It is the attacks on the old art of museums and the ecstatic praise of the new – fast cars, machinegun fire, surging crowds, glittering electric light and violent mechanised war – not Futurist paintings, that best evoke the suffocating weight of the European past and its institutions as it was felt at the turn of the 20th century.

The past no longer presses upon us. Modernism occupies our teaching academies and we have become tolerant ironists for whom the Mona Lisa is an icon both with and without her Duchampian moustache and goatee. But while the challenge to convention Futurism represented is neutered when one finds that the pictures have taken their place on the walls of the very museums that were to be pounded to dust, the manifestos – strident, histrionic, misogynistic and downright silly – still try to pick a fight.

Thirty-two paintings from the 1912 Paris show, as good a representation of the movement in its prime as one could wish for, are among the exhibits in Futurism (at Tate Modern until 20 September). They don’t contradict an abiding impression that Futurism asked more of the visual arts than they could deliver. When it was all still new its inadequacy was recognised by those closest to it. Wyndham Lewis (unlike Marinetti, a painter as well as a writer) characterised Vorticism – despite its manifest connections with Futurism – in terms of opposition to it and to much besides:

by Vorticism we mean (a) ACTIVITY as opposed to the tasteful PASSIVITY of Picasso; (b) SIGNIFICANCE as opposed to the dull or anecdotal character to which the Naturalist is condemned; (c) ESSENTIAL MOVEMENT and ACTIVITY (such as the energy of a mind) as opposed to the imitative cinematography, the fuss and the hysterics of the Futurists.

The early history of Cubism was so closely entwined with that of Futurism that apologists had to state differences firmly. Apollinaire wrote that Cubism would be ‘pure painting’ – and that the Futurists were doomed to become ‘mere illustrators’. They in turn presented Cubism as a style still attached to French (classical) apron-strings. With hindsight, the reason they feel different is clear: the Cubists are brown with verticals and horizontals emphasised. The Futurists are gaudy and things whiz about.

The Tate exhibition (it has already been seen in Paris and Rome) puts things in perspective by sandwiching Italian Futurism between Cubism and Cubo-Futurist variations from Russia and England. The timescale is short – from Braque’s pre-Cubist Viaduct at L’Estaque of 1908 to war pieces like Severini’s Red Cross Train and Nevinson’s Bursting Shell of 1915. The manifestos demanded that painting abandon fixed points in space and time to show what was being thought as well as what was being seen – and what had happened before as well as what was happening now. Reference was made to mathematics, physics and philosophy, but when it came to the point, it turned out that, press as you might, painting was a game in which the rules sanctioned only a few moves.

One was to show overlapping images like those in the multiply exposed photographs of Etienne-Jules Marey. The prettiest excursion along that route is the flurry of legs, tail, a woman’s skirt and a chain in Balla’s famous Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash (it is not in the exhibition but his Girl Running on a Balcony is). Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase does its overlaps with a graphic, Cubist figure that reminds one of the lay figures you see tossed about in slow-motion clips of cars being tested in crashes. Carrà’s Funeral of the Anarchist Galli uses the same device to record the successive positions of the limbs and weapons of protesters and mounted troops.

Marinetti is in the middle; Russolo and Carrà are to his right; Boccioni and Severini to his left.
Marinetti is in the middle; Russolo and Carrà are to his right; Boccioni and Severini to his left.

The Cubist move was to abandon the fixed point of the viewer that linear perspective assumes and fragment the image by stitching together views from many angles, while at the same time reducing objects to collections of diagrammatic detail. The result was a more radical disruption than Futurist painters achieved. Two Braque still lifes confirm the Futurist accusation that Cubist colours were those of dull, old, brown pictures. They also, remarkably, and within limits set by the most conservative of genres, advanced what painting could do.

The only disappointment was that no one apart from Braque and Picasso was able to make much of it, for in other hands the Cubist solution can become a mechanical doing over of a conventional picture. You sense conventional figures in conventional attitudes trying to escape from under Cubist cylinders and triangles in Popova’s Figure + Air + Space and in Metzinger’s Tea Time, as you do in the drawings of block figures used by the 16th-century Mannerist painter Luca Cambiaso to work out poses. Cubist sculptures like Picasso’s Head of a Woman had to abandon the multiple viewpoint (the three-dimensional reality of the piece doesn’t allow for ambiguity about where the viewer is standing): instead the curved volumes of the face are cut into facets, as though the head was chipped out of the material with a straight-edged blade. This vigorous digging into the surface is matched in paintings like Boccioni’s Elasticità – a rider on a horse that would, if rendered in three dimensions, come out very like the Picasso head. When Boccioni did turn to sculpture – for example, with Unique Forms of Continuity in Space – the result is a striding, scalloped figure that tries to absorb notation of movement into the representation of form.

Another way of suggesting simultaneity – of breaking the one-place-at-one-moment-in-time contract most Western pictures had taken out with the viewer – was to fragment the image so that it looked as though it was seen through a piece of reeded glass. This is the effect fragmentation has in a painting like Severini’s Le Boulevard. It was a technique that, suitably softened, became a staple of commercial graphics and illustration.

The short-windedness of the Futurist runners, their dash cut short by the war, is emphasised by the English experience. The Tate’s two great Bombergs – The Mud Bath and In the Hold – are here, as are Wyndham Lewis’s The Crowd and a number of Nevinsons. After the war, Bomberg would turn to quite different sorts of painting, Lewis and Nevinson to writing and journalism. In Russia abstraction flourished but was soon clobbered. Futurism’s Fascist tone and connections have left a bad taste in the mouth. The art isn’t good enough to wash it out.