Futurism

July 13, 2009

“factories suspended from the clouds by the thread of their smoke” – F. T. Marinetti, The Futurist Manifesto

Ignoring the questionable political orientation of F. T. Marinetti – arguably something that the current Futurism exhibition at the Tate Modern appears to do – it’s worth taking a minute or two to read the text in full (here). As it contains some of the most wonderfully lucid imagery of a long-past futurescape.

I wanted to provide a slightly longer reworking of the yesterday’s post which was there as much to jog my own memory as to provide a useful point of embarkation for a discussion of the Futurists. Having visited the Tate Modern’s current exhibition on Futurism on Saturday I must plead my dilettante status with regards to this particular group. What I, and I’m sure many people know, whether through further investigation or vicarious information is the association of the Futurists and the dependent ism, most notably founder and author of the Futurist Manifesto, F. T. Marinetti, with the Fascism of Musollini. While he remained a member of the Fascist party till death and openly advocated the political and moral positions of the Fascists, the legacy of Futurism post 1915 is cryptically absent from the exhibition. Odd, considering the impact of the group, to disassociate the artistic practice from the political praxis. There seems to be little reason to do so, especially given that the majority of products of Futurist art – and I use the term here to cover the wide range of disciplines that the group involved itself in, not just traditional paint and canvas production – do not stand up particularly well to scrutiny.

While the bold typographical treatments of Blast and other Futurist literature still read well, at least in aesthetic terms, today, much of the painted work fares less well. Rapidly abandoned for an apparently more sophisticated Cubism, the Futurist mode of portraiture appears now as oddly infantile; the subject matter of factories, dock yards, cars, and other metallurgical wonders evocative of a set of ungrown men fascinated with what we could now classify as rather boyish objects. Aesthetically, the manifesto led format of painting – subject centred and fragmented into the background in order to convey an effect of interacting ambiences and situations, notions of simultaneity and multiple viewpoints – is relatively rudimentary.

What I find interesting about the Futurists as avant-garde, is the inspiration that they drew from what was an increasingly fast-paced urbanisation. While many subsequent avant-garde groups have been formed as a result of a dissatisfaction with cities, we can point a finger at the Situationists here, the Futurists sought to embrace development, speed, and all that promised to gleam. It’s a group fascinated with fetishised commodities, proponents of a relentless capitalism fascinated with the results of its production, at odds with the vast majority of the 20th century’s subsequent avant-garde. Something that the exhibition disappointingly fails to make mention of.

What I will give Marinetti credit for, although without wishing to provide too clear a path, Stewart Home will not, is the quality of the writing in the Futurist Manifesto. Whether you view it as needlessly prolix and insufficiently evocative, or proto-Ballardian in tone, is a matter for subjectivites, but it is undoubtedly worth reading at least once.

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