Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Back to the future

I went to see the Tate Modern's futurism exhibition at the weekend. Despite taking quite an interest in modern art, I was actually fairly ignorant about futurism, and what I thought I knew turned out to not be quite right.

Futurism was related to, and had some similar concerns as cubism. How to depict the age of light, speed and machines? An Italian invention, futurism rejected the veneration of the old, the fusty museums that covered Italy, and sentimentalism. Instead they gloried in the speeding train, the electric street lamp, but also nationalism and war. Marinetti, who wrote the futurist manifesto (and what is an art movement without a manifesto?) was also a thoroughly nasty misogynist.

Now if that all sounds a bit fascist, you might be surprised to learn that the early futurists were more interested in the anarchist riot than the fascist state, although in a thoroughly macho way of course. But beyond the political posturing, both what the futurists depicted and how they depicted it were revolutionary at the time and are still compelling today.

Futurism proper only lasted about 5 years, ending with the onset of the First World War. The Italian futurists agitated for Italy to end its neutrality and enter the war, yet those futurists who actually encountered the war for real quickly reassessed their views. CRW Nevinson, the only English futurist drove an ambulance during the war and soon rejected his pro-war positions. Perhaps fittingly, it's his picture of an exploding shell which ends this exhibition.

The exhibition doesn't deal with fascism at all, which took up the futurist aesthetic which suited it very well. But since that was the only bit I already knew, it was good to find it wasn't nearly the whole story. I'll finish with an extract from a futurist statement called Vital English Art, published by Marinetti and Nevinson. In the section titled 'Against' they write:
2. The pessimistic, sceptical and narrow views of the English public, who stupidly adore the pretty-pretty, the commonplace, the soft, the sweet, and mediocre, the sickly revivals of medievalism, the Garden Cities with their curfews and artificial battlements, the may-pole Morris dances, Æstheticism, Oscar Wilde, the Pre-Raphaelites, Neo-primitives and Paris.
If they'd been writing a century later, they may well have added ITV costume dramas to the list...

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