Most of the great movements in modern art, from Impressionism to Fauvism, owe their names to enraged critics who mocked the avant-garde. But Futurism was created in 1909 by an expert Italian publicist, determined to pre-empt all abusive comments by hurling tirades of his own. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti felt well-equipped for the task. He was, after all, a writer and poet rather than a visual artist. And he announced the birth of Futurism on Le Figaro’s front page, ensuring his inflammatory message was read by painters, sculptors, critics, dealers and collectors in Paris, at that time the most powerful crucible for modernist rebellion.
Marinetti hated Italy’s obsession with the past and was bent on pushing Italian art into the 20th century. Determined to shock, he was wealthy enough to buy space for his bellicose utterances in newspapers and magazines all over Europe. Some of his 1909 declarations still succeed in alienating us today. “We wish to glorify War – the only health-giver of the world”, he cried, before extolling “militarism, patriotism, the destructive arm of the Anarchist, the beautiful ideas that kill, the contempt for woman.”
But alongside an alarming emphasis on destruction and patriarchal prejudice lay Futurism’s more positive celebration of machine-age speed, energy and “universal dynamism”. Marinetti adored the motor car he acquired from the Fiat Factory in Turin. And he criticised Cubism, his main rival among radical movements, for being mired in an old-fashioned obsession with still life or figures posed in the artist’s studio. He wanted the Futurists to explore the world beyond, savouring “the multi-coloured and polyphonic surf of revolutions in modern capital cities.” And by 1912, when the Futurists held their first major exhibition in Paris, Marinetti had gathered round him a formidable group of young bloods whose work is now assembled in an eruptive exhibition at the Pompidou Centre.
By focusing on contributors to this hugely controversial debut show, staged at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery in February 1912, the Pompidou plays down the work of Giacomo Balla. But he was a highly impressive artist, and the Pompidou survey does include his painting of a girl darting along a balcony. It sums up the Futurists’ obsession with analysing motion. The same figure is seen several times, as in a sequential photograph, and Balla heightens her vitality by simplifying the girl into a series of luminous colour-bursts. Viewed close-to, they become almost abstract. And the Futurists were not afraid of pushing their work towards extreme structural severity.
Take Carlo Carra, who gives electric light a sensuous optical shimmer in his dream-like painting “Leaving The Theatre”. Elsewhere he concentrates on clashing lines that equip his most monumental painting with a ferocious impact. It was inspired by the martyrdom of Angelo Galli, a heroic anarchist killed during the general strike in Milan. Carra had witnessed the battle between police and workers at Galli’s funeral. And he makes us feel pitched into the struggle over Galli’s coffin, with Futurist “lines of force” scything across the canvas, envenoming the fighters’ fury.
Luigi Russolo went even further. The youngest of the Futurists, he was a trained musician and tried from the outset to make his paintings strident. “The Revolt”, an enormous canvas executed in 1911, shows blood-red mechanical figures charging through a blue nocturnal city. Their feverish vigour is reinforced by scarlet bands of colour thrusting forwards. The dark houses seem to reel and shudder, for nothing can stop the diagonal ebullience of these enflamed rebels.
Russolo was soon to develop the Futurist “art of noises”, staging concerts where machines issued deafening sounds redolent of city life at its most jarring. Fellow Futurists relished performing as well, whipping up their audiences into frenzies. And the theatrical Marinetti declaimed his radical poems, called Parole in Liberta, with seismic intensity.
Although the Futurists were highly competitive and aimed at surpassing Cubism in their influence across Europe and Russia, Gino Severini adored Paris. He concentrated on the French capital’s exuberant nightlife, often attaching sequins to his paintings of young dancers who experimented with ever more outrageous and erotic body movements. His most ambitious Futurist canvas, which only survives now as a full-scale replica he painted several decades later, is called “The Pan-Pan Dance at the Monico”. Like Toulouse-Lautrec before him, Severini is enthralled by the uninhibited verve of the performers. But he fills his immense picture-space with fragmented figures, sharp-suited diners and waiters as well as the fashionably athletic dancers. At once chaotic and rigorous, this cleverly orchestrated painting is a triumphant assertion of Futurist panache.
But the most outstanding member of the group was undoubtedly Umberto Boccioni. His supercharged painting “The City Rises” exults in the strength of horses and construction-workers as they surge across a building-site. Fascinated by the transformation of Milan into an industrial power-house, Boccioni sees it as a muscular manifestation of modernity in action. In an impressive triptych called “States of Mind”, Boccioni celebrates the smoke-belching onrush of trains seen from different vantages yet brought together in a dynamic Futurist agglomeration. But he also dramatises the anguish of departing travellers, as they hug their lovers and relatives on platforms before submitting to the speed of the journey, and the forlorn-looking people left behind.
After enthusiastically joining a cavalry unit during the first world war, Boccioni died in 1916. He was only 34, and his tragic loss gave the lie to Marinetti’s callow glorification of violence. Futurism continued during the inter-war years, eventually becoming sullied by its involvement with Mussolini’s Fascism. But the Pompidou’s excellent show succeeds in returning us to Futurism at its youthful pre-1914 height, transforming European art with a timely awareness of rapid, irreversible change.