Socialists have often felt rather uncomfortable with Futurism. This Italian art movement, founded in 1909, sang the praises of new technology, aeroplanes and the mass media – but it also exalted war and colonialism.
Many of its leaders, such as Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, later became outspoken supporters of fascism.
The Marxist critic Walter Benjamin attacked Futurism in the 1930s, contrasting it to the Russian Constructivist art movement that allied itself with the October 1917 revolution.
The paradox, however, is that Russian Constructivism grew out of Italian Futurism – as this timely exhibition at the Estorick Collection gallery in north London demonstrates.
A Russian group of Futurist artists was formed around 1910. Their first manifesto, A Slap in the Face of Public Taste, appeared in 1912 and was composed by the poet and painter Vladimir Mayakovsky, among others.
The Russian Futurists had much in common with the Italians – they too romanticised technology. But there were differences from the start. Paintings and book illustrations by Kasimir Malevich and Natalia Goncharova show the influence of Russian folk art, particularly the “lubok”, or woodcut.
Against the realist pretensions of bourgeois art, the Russians saw the future in schematic, distorted figures drawn by anonymous peasant artists.
It’s also notable, considering Marinetti’s inclusion of “scorn for woman” in his Futurist Manifesto, that nearly half the Russian Futurists were female – Varvara Stepanova, Olga Rozanova, Lyubov Popova and Natalia Goncharova being the most prominent.
Another difference is the harsh, clear lines that creep into the Russian images from around 1913 onwards. The “metallisation of the human body” promised by the Italian Futurists saw its fulfilment more in Malevich’s robotic figures than in the soft pastel blur of Italian painters such as Gino Severini.
Popova’s painting Portrait (1915), with the word “futurismo” emblazoned across it, shows the mid-point between the two styles.
The Futurist theme of a collision between man and machine took on a very different significance after 1914. Marinetti’s Futurist group volunteered for the First World War. Despite the death of their great sculptor Umberto Boccioni, they remained militaristic even after the war had ended.
The Russian response to the war was more ambiguous. Initially Malevich and Mayakovsky (who had joined the Bolsheviks in 1908, but then drifted away from politics) designed propaganda posters with folksy representations of bayoneted Germans.
Their enthusiasm for war didn’t last long. By 1915 Mayakovsky was roaring out anti-war poems like “You!”.
The war’s presence in Russian Futurist art also changed dramatically. Rozanova’s Universal War series used abstract shapes to create dehumanised depictions of the slaughter.
By 1915, Malevich had effaced human figures altogether and embraced abstraction. Meanwhile Vladimir Tatlin started using actual industrial materials in his exhibits.
Then came the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. Mayakovsky wrote at the time, “October. To accept or not to accept? For me, as for the other Moscow Futurists, this question never arose. It is my revolution.”
Malevich, Popova, Tatlin and others all worked on street decorations, mass festivals and agitational posters for the new workers’ government.
In contrast, Marinetti and his circle formed a Futurist political party after the war – which would soon be absorbed into Benito Mussolini’s fascist movement.
The Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky was a sympathetic critic of Russian Futurism. He corresponded with Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Communist, about the political significance of this new artistic movement.
In a 1922 letter to Trotsky, Gramsci suggests that the Italian left had missed a trick by not making overtures to the Futurist movement.
Gramsci stressed that the Futurists had a large working class audience that was attracted by their iconoclasm, and had defended them in street fights against attempts to break up their exhibitions.
For Gramsci, ignoring the Futurists left them prone to being taken up by fascism, which then had “revolutionary” pretensions and could monopolise the new, anti-traditional cultural forms.
Marinetti himself claimed to be “delighted to learn that the Russian Futurists are all Bolsheviks... but [in Italy] we have a different revolution to carry out”. Nevertheless, Italian Futurism was finished as a movement after its absorption into fascism and ceased to produce seriously innovative work – Severini, for instance, turned back to classical art.
In Soviet Russia, from around 1919 onwards, the Futurists began to describe themselves as “Constructivists” – a phrase that expressed their interest in industry and in building a new society. Their work moved out of the galleries and into the streets – but stayed radical.
An example is the design for a mass festival to celebrate the congress of the Communist International in 1921, made by Popova and Alexander Vesnin.
One side depicts the old capitalist city and its grim tenements, while the other shows a new socialist city of extraordinary, gravity defying structures.
Throughout the 1920s the Constructivists devoted themselves to designs for industry, clothes, mass produced books and buildings. The fascist Italian Futurists had to confine their “new world” to canvas.
The differing trajectories of Italian and Russian Futurism mirror the potentials of technology itself. Technology can be an instrument of slaughter, or of producing useless consumer goods.
Alternatively, it can be the foundation for a society that uses its innovations to serve people’s needs. At their best, the Russian Futurists gave us sketches of what that society might be like.
A Slap in the Face! Futurists in Russia opens at the Estorick Collection, Canonbury Square, London N1, on Wednesday of this week. It closes on 10 June, before moving to the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle from 23 June to 18 August. Go to www.estorickcollection.com