Friday, 10 July 2009

Back to the Futurists

Tate’s new retrospective misses the mark.

To mark the centenary of the Futurist movement, the Tate Modern is now displaying what it describes as a “ground-breaking exhibition”. Despite this bold claim, the experience is actually rather low key and captures little of the feverish drama of early 20th century Italian modernity.
In 1909, F. T. Marinetti penned the Futurist manifesto in the newspaper Le Figaro, and declared his contempt for all backwards looking forces that should inhibit the full expression of modern speed and vigour. With all its madness, destructiveness, misogyny and (rather uninformed) glorification of war, the Futurist movement was a celebration of the new. 100 years later, Marinetti finds himself firmly in the grasp of the “archaeologists and antiquarians” he so despised.
The new tate exhibition is a stale retrospective study of futurist and futurist influenced painting and sculpture of the sort that would provoke the most acerbic reaction from any self proclaimed partisan of the movement. The thing about Futurism is that its all talk, showing off, bombast, cacophonous noise and demented writings. Nothing of the movement’s pretense or energy is really captured by a series of paintings accompanied by boring historical prose. The Futurists were not seminal painters, they were enshrining an idea, and to celebrate their anniversary by purely focusing on this is to miss the point spectacularly.
That isn’t to say that there weren’t some superb works on display. Futurism’s borrowing of simultaneity of experience from Cubism, combined with their particularly visceral choice of subject matter certainly produced some striking images. Carra’s huge "Funeral for the Anarchist Galli" canvas depicting a police raid and subsequent riot, looms over the viewer and draws you in with its mechanistic violent shapes and dynamic force lines.
Umberto Boccioni’s “Forces of the street” allows the viewer to experience the speed of an approaching tram as it looms in the distance, clatters towards and eventually over you in a single instant. Modern life, it seems, moves much faster than our perceptions will allow us to comprehend.
Another work by Boccioni is better still, his 1911 triptych “states of mind” depicts travel in the three images “The Farewell”, “Those Who Go” and “Those Who Stay”. The pictures sing of movement and excitement, but the anonymous figures, bent double in the whirl of speeding landscapes, are desolate and heart rending.
On leaving the exhibition, I was left with the strong feeling that this was an opportunity missed. A look back at such a vigorous, but naive an artistic movement as Futurism, shouldn’t have been such a studious affair. Perhaps though, these anarchistic, patriotic and warped children of modernity got just what they deserved; a dedication that represents their own personal hell.
“Futurism” is on now at the Tate Modern and runs until 20th September.


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