Thursday, 6 August 2009

Futurism in London and Venice

One of the featured exhibitions in London this summer is Futurism at the Tate Modern. For anyone going to London, the Tate Modern is a required stop. The huge revamped power station housing modern and contemporary art is an experience. Located at the end of the lovely Millennium Bridge and just a few feet from the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, it forms the centerpiece of a substantial new tourist area.(By the way, these articles are accompanied by photographs if I could easily get permission; otherwise, I’m dependent on what I can link you to. So this article will have some links.)

The two major exhibitions there were Futurism, which had already been shown in Rome and Paris, and a retrospective of paintings by the Danish artist (b. 1938) Per Kirkeby. Since I can go free with my ICOM card, but Tom has to pay, we chose for him to go to Futurism and I would zip through Kirkeby by myself. I had just seen the ballet Romeo and Juliet in New York, with strongly colorful set and costume designs by Kirkeby, so I wanted to see a series of his paintings. It’s a fairly interesting progression through various levels of abstraction and landscape, mostly large very colorful works, but also with some from earlier periods when he used more black and brown.

I had high hopes for Futurism. This year is the 100th anniversary of the Futurist Manifesto and thus the founding of Futurism in Milan, Italy. I think I only studied Futurism as an undergraduate, but I was fascinated by the paintings of people, animals, or automobiles depicted in motion and always wanted to see more of those action paintings. One of the first paintings in the exhibition, Giacomo Balla’s Girl Running on a Balcony, satisfied that desire, but there were actually very few pictures that did. Perhaps it’s the nature of Futurism that it inspires expectations on which it can’t deliver.

The exhibition began with F.T. Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, which he no doubt intended to be as inflammatory a statement as it is. While the poet who later became a fascist sympathizer celebrates the movement of the automobile and of modern life in general and predictably castigates museums and academies and traditional arts organizations, probably the most disturbing part of the document are his celebration of war as a virtue to be pursued, and his damning of women and feminists. There is actually little in the Futurist painters’ work that supports his more radical statements, but the painters certainly attached themselves to him and his ideas about machinery and movement. I’m not aware that Marinetti had an influential career as a writer beyond the Manifesto, although he continued to be active as a poet, activist and fascist supporter well into World War II.

After showing a relatively small selection of paintings by the Italian Futurist artists, who gathered and defined themselves in Milan and then in 1912 created a scandal via an exhibition of their work in Paris, the exhibition moves to the sources and followers of Futurism, so that it includes far more works that may have been influenced by the Futurists than actual Futurist paintings. There’s a gallery of Cubist paintings, then one of Russian Constructivists (including women Natalia Goncharova and Liubov Popova), French Orphists (including Robert and Sonia Delauney and Delauney’s American follower Stanton MacDonald Wright), and British Vorticists. One never learns what became of the Italian painters - Umberto Boccioni, Giacomo Balla, Carlo Carra, Luigi Russolo, and Gino Severini - most of whose dates indicate that they lived into the 1950s and 1960s. I was really curious about what they all did between about 1920 and their deaths, but that was not provided in the exhibition. It was somewhat frustrating. In the last gallery a label describes how Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson, one of the British vorticists, actually participates in World War I and gives up any romantic notions of battle. It’s pretty clear that the Futurist celebrations of war were romantic illusions of youth.

Nonetheless, there were some really wonderful paintings, including Boccioni’s The Forces of the Street, a tour de force of blues and purples evoking cars and street lights at night, and Luigi Russolo’s brilliantly colored The Revolt, of 1911, depicting figures rushing across a cityscape in exactly the type of formation I had hoped for. And that girl on the balcony by Balla.

When we arrived in Venice, I noticed that the Peggy Guggenheim Museum had a small exhibition of Futurist works from its own collection. This included perhaps 20 paintings, but it was strictly limited to Italian Futurists and Futurism as it developed in these artists’ work and it provided considerable satisfaction after the Tate experience. Labels articulated both how the artists came to Futurism and how they departed from it in their later careers, giving a much clearer picture of the essence of the movement, and offering several of those paintings that depict movement – including a dog running and Boccioni’s Dynamism of a Cyclist. There was also a study for the Boccioni painting The City Rises from the Museum of Modern Art, which I never could really see before I read the Guggenheim label, and which captures the energy and excitement of the growth of cities at the beginning of the last century. One of the gallery guides in the Guggenheim mentioned the major Futurism show in Paris and I thought perhaps the Tate show was so limited because all the good stuff had gone to the Centre Pompidou, but they were of course the same exhibition, perhaps with fewer paintings lent to the London showing. It still seems that Futurism is an elusive movement, promising dynamic responses to the industrialization and forward motion of the new 20th century, but somehow wandering off from its full exploration.

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