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Umberto Boccioni
Unique Forms of Continuity in Space 1913, cast 1972
Forme uniche della continuita nello spazio
Photocredit : Tate Photography
Copyright: Tate

Curated by Matthew Gale

Tate Modern


12 June – 20 Sept 09








A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!


The transition between the 19th and 20th Centuries was without doubt, one of the most dramatic eras of change in history in terms of technology and invention. Following the wide spread use of electric light, came the invention of neon in Paris in 1911 by Georges Claude, which, inspired the Italian Futurists to utilise a neon sign on the front of the gallery boldly announcing their first ever exhibition in Paris in 1912. Surely this brazen use of the latest technological invention, in itself a manifesto of sorts, may have been just one of many reasons why the first Futurists exhibition in the city of lights raised such a furore, which even then must have generated great publicity and, subsequently, curiosity, prior to the exhibition’s European tour.

Described as a ‘pre-WWI moment’ in art by the exhibition’s curator, Matthew Gale, Futurism, with its love of machinery, speed and technology, and anti-romantic philosophies which, ironically, romanticised the even then antiquated, nationalistic concepts of war appreciation as well as the cavalier notion of ‘scorning women,’ is a movement celebrating modernity that reverberates through the ever shifting transitions of art and artists to this day. This exhibition, the first in London to focus on Futurism for over thirty years, celebrates the 100th Anniversary of the Futurists’ manifesto of 1909, Le Futurisme written by poet and artist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti denouncing everything old in the then new country of Italy, which had only been in existence in terms of unification for less than 50 years. "We want no part of it, the past", Marinetti wrote, "we the young and strong Futurists!" This comprehensive exhibition initially highlights the anarchic philosophies and varied artworks of the major instigators of this influential movement, spanning the years from 1909 to 1914, courtesy of its primary founder, Marinetti and his fellow practitioners: Giacomo Ballo, Umberto Boccioni, Crolo Carra, Luigi Russolo and Gino Severini.  The first three rooms of the exhibition are designed to recreate, as much as possible, the experience of viewing that first ground-breaking Futurist exhibition in Paris in 1912, as it boasts several of that exhibition’s surviving, pivotal paintings.


Carlo Carra
Funeral of the Anarchist Galli, 1911
Oil on Canvas
198,7 x 257 cm

Subsequent rooms seek to place the Futurist movement in historical and artistic context by providing glimpses of Cubism, the controversial parallel movement going on in Paris at that time via major artworks by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Art by the three Du Champ Brothers occupies a small room of its own which is fitting as the pieces collectively appear to be hovering somewhere between these two movements, though their art was and is distinctly their own.  The exhibition also touches on the Salon Cubists – those artists whose work continued to be shown in public salons after Picasso and Braque had withdrawn from that arena, (preferring to display their work in their dealer’s galleries instead) who would have represented Cubism in the public’s eyes. The Orphists, whose work draws on Cubism, with the addition of a more colourful pallet and a move towards a purer form of abstraction are also represented. Movements inspired by those who came before are also touched upon via Russia’s distinctive Cubo-futurism, a small but definitive collection surprisingly comprised mainly of work rendered by female painters.

The British response to Futurism, Vorticism, spear-headed by author/artist Wyndom Lewis’ publication of Blast, seems to anticipate the geometric prints indicative of the 1960’s with its precise lines and angles of two or three colours. Another small but intriguing ‘Archive’ room houses glass protected writing and artefacts of Futurism along with some hard to classify artworks which in their day were reliant on more than one sense (i.e. sight and sound) to express themselves. The circle closes with the final room, which portrays the original Italian Futurists artistic and personal responses to WWI, which inadvertently sounded the death knell for two of its founding artists, as well as the movement itself. However, Futurism continued in various guises, though the ‘20’s and ‘30’s under the impetus of its original founder, Marinetti, though by that time, the movement had, understandably lost its original power and vigour.


Bursting Shell 1915
Oil on canvas
frame: 930 x 724 x 75 mm
support: 760 x 560 mm
Purchased 1983

At first glance, what is most striking about the Italian Futurists artworks is their tremendous energy, which jumps out at you as if to say, ‘wake up’ though the next phrase they would proclaim would definitely not be, ‘and smell the roses’, but ‘get moving!’ The vibrancy of their modernist artworks is unsurpassed and it is a vitality which is all the more engaging for its often, youthful zeal. Most of the Futurist practitioners, with the exception of their mentor, Gicacomo Balla were young artists, at the beginning of their careers and their hunger and excitement shows in their work. However, despite the Futurists love of speed and technology, the exhibitions paradox, which was often revisited by curator Gale is that in order to appreciate the variegated artistic timelines it conveys, it is essential that viewers take their time when moving through it, in order to appreciate the Futurists’ genuine love of speed and machinery as they relate to their place in the modern urban landscape of cities.

It is always a welcome surprise when one finds oneself responding enthusiastically to the work of artists who had previously been on the periphery of one’s consciousness, as participants of a movement, and such was the case for me with the lively, ‘on the scene’ paintings of Gino Severini whose work often features angular shapes, which somehow, suggest vigorously moving dancers, seem to engage not only the eyes, but all of the senses. In Yellow Dancers (c. 1911 – 1912) for example, Severini bathes his forms in the artificial glow of a spotlight, something which would have been a novel idea during an era which had only recently seen the wide spread use of electric light. But despite the animated pleasures of seeing Severini’s smaller work displayed along side of his epically scaled frantically animated painting, The Dance of the “Pan-Pan” at the Monico 1909 – 11/ 1959 – 60 (the original was destroyed during WWI and recreated by the artist from a postcard) depicting the uproarious goings on in a Parisian nightclub, for me, the most inspiring series of paintings in the exhibition were the three progressively more contemplative works which comprise Umberto Boccioni’s triptych States of Mind: Those Who Go (1911), The Farewells (1911), and Those Who Stay (1911).  The three original hastily painted prequels to the final paintings are along side of the trio and the impact the finished works, with their indistinct shapes, almost subliminally suggestive of separation and sorrow is collectively, very moving. The fact that Boccioni whose famous sculpture Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913 cast 1972) also graces this exhibition, along with several more of his diversely impressive paintings, perished in 1916 in WWI makes the viewing of his work even more poignant.

It is also interesting to note the Futurists influences and/or preoccupations through their artworks: the post-Impressionist inspired Girl Running on a Balcony (1912) with repetitive its dots of colour reminiscent of the pointillism of Seurat, albeit, with the added, Futurist dimension of its fragmented figure being duplicated again and again as in cinematic frames, Carlo Carra’s powerful painting, The Funeral of Anarchist Galli (1911) with its thoughtful applications of vivid colour in an otherwise muted work, which heightens its political impetus, Luigi Russolo’s seemingly simplistic (in terms of its abstract forms) yet amazingly forceful painting, The Rebellion (1911) from which one actually gets a sense of the tension generated by the thrust of an angry mob.

There is much to contemplate in this exhibition and, the Futurists’ works, along with that of their predecessors and subsequent satellite groups work together to effectively fill in any blanks we might draw in relation to their fascinating and endlessly influential movement.


Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson 1889-1946
The Arrival circa 1913
Oil on canvas
support: 762 x 635 mm
frame: 895 x 775 x 60 mm
Presented by the artist's widow 1956



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