“We want to glorify war – the only cure for the world – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.”
So wrote the Italian poet Filippo Marinetti in the 1909 manifesto that launched Futurism. His words are unlikely to endear the movement to socialists, and its later association with Fascism leads many to reject it entirely.
However, the best of the work in the Tate’s new exhibition, timed for the manifesto’s centenary, helps us grasp the tremendous upheaval of the early 20th century in Italy.
Marinetti and the other Futurists – the painters Balla, Carrà, Russolo, Severini and painter-sculptor Boccioni – are hailed in the show as champions of modernity.
They embraced the dynamism of rapidly expanding industrial capitalism and hailed technological innovations in electric lighting, railways, aeroplanes, cars as harbingers of a brave new world.
Carrà’s The Funeral Of The Anarchist Galli drew on working class action and revolt. Broken into “force lines” of reds, oranges and blacks, the picture shows workers demonstrating at the funeral of a Milanese anarchist killed by police in 1904. It was designed to draw the viewer into a violent and confusing movement on the canvas.
Boccioni’s The Forces Of The Street is a violet and black street at night, brightly lit by streetlights that fragment into jagged shards while the pavement seems to buckle and distort, projecting the dislocation of life in the new electrified cities.
Artistic reactions to economic and social changes at the start of the 20th century were by no means restricted to the Futurists, but the specific conditions in Italy shaped the way those concerns were expressed.
Marinetti, who was educated in Paris, railed against the comparative backwardness of Italy.
Industrialisation in Italy led to a growing urban middle and upper class in the north while workers faced poverty. Before 1912 the vote was limited and class struggle was expressed in violent revolts and brutal repression.
In the run up to the First World War class and regional divisions widened. The government was squeezed between workers’ strikes and strident nationalist demands for imperialist ventures.
The Futurists expressed their ideas in nihilistic language – the destructive power of violence, preferring death over unfulfilled life, the need for a dictator to replace moribund democracy.
Their clamour for novelty and change did, however, connect with a wider frustration in Italy – with the common desire to wrest control of society from its conservative and rigid rulers.
As an artistic movement, the Italian Futurists are given greater prominence in this exhibition than they deserve – and far greater prominence than the Russian Futurists who supported the revolution in that country.
Highpoints are mainly the work of Umberto Boccioni, the most talented artist in the group.
His brilliantly fluid sculpture of motion, Unique Forms Of Continuity In Space, and three paintings inspired by travel and farewells are particularly powerful.
The exhibition doesn’t fulfil its promise, however.
It almost entirely ignores the political dimension to Futurism, so that it becomes a piece in a jigsaw of art movements
that interlock solely because of shared or influential technique.
This means that the distinctions between, for example, the Italians and Russians are not adequately drawn.
It also misses an opportunity to explain the political and ideological ferment in Europe that the individual paintings are a window to.
There is another problem, which is with the art itself. The more Futurism combined with extreme nationalism the poorer its art seems to have become.
So the end of the exhibition entirely loses the energy of its beginnings – rather like the movement itself.
Futurism is a the Tate Modern in London until 20 September