Shock and awful: Back to the Futurism

100 years ago the Futurists launched their avant-garde creative manifesto. They were fantastic publicists, says Tom Lubbock. Shame about the art

We don't really do art manifestos now. The YBA brand was very successful, but it was a journalistic creation. It didn't declare itself. The artists certainly made a loose grouping, but they never produced a 10-point programme announcing their principles. If it had even crossed their minds, it would have struck them as hopelessly uncool.

It could have only been done as a joke and they did their publicity straight. Other art-forms have been more hospitable. There was the Dogme 95 doctrine in Danish cinema, abjuring all tricksy film-making. There was a British literary movement called The New Puritans, abjuring all tricksy writing. And both of them got media attention, as such things do. And I mustn't deny that there has been an art version of sorts, the anti-Turner Prize initiative, The Stuckists. But that was a joke, in effect, a prank – though again, it got attention. Serious or not, the trick generally works. If you want to get a move on, get a movement.

A hundred years ago there was one of the definitive avant-garde declarations, and it still gets us going. The Italian poet, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, issued "The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism". It was published in Paris, in Le Figaro, in February 1909. It was an enthusiastic and violent text, blending Nietzsche and modern technology and general opposition to the past. It didn't have much specifically to say about visual art, beyond calling for all museums to be destroyed, and pronouncing the racing car as more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace. But it's very quotable, and it's printed big at the entrance of Futurism, the new survey show at Tate Modern.

"We want to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness... We want to hymn the man at the wheel, the ideal axis of which crosses the earth, itself hurled along its orbit ... We want to glorify war – the world's only hygiene – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman... Art, in fact, can be nothing but violence, cruelty and injustice."

How seriously you take this attitudinising, how seriously anyone ever took it, is hard to judge. Its mixture of opinions shouldn't be so surprising. Militarism paired with modernist art? Well, around 1909, it was normal enough to find socialism and eugenics going hand in hand. Our current liberal alliances hadn't settled down then.

Of course, because war and misogyny are still with us, we take Marinetto's remarks rather grimly. By contrast, since nobody is offering to blow up our galleries or libraries, or not exactly, those demands seem more jolly. As for the cult of speed, danger, courage, it's on the TV all the time. Couldn't Clarkson be persuaded to do a doc? Put him in a 'tache and a bowler, and cast him spouting as Marinetto?

And there they are, the men themselves, standing in the obligatory avant-garde group photo, lined up on a pavement, with their spokesman in the middle, easily the tallest and the finest figure. He's flanked by slightly unimpressive artist-colleagues, but each stands in a good winter coat. The art movement had taken off. This was February, three years later, in Paris again, at the opening of Les Peintres Futuristes-Italiens, displaying their work to the world.

By this stage, art-isms had got out of hand. They've been building up since the middle of the previous century. There had been Realism, and of course Impressionism. There'd been Symbolism, and Post-Impressionism, incorporating Divisionism (also known as Pointillism and Neo-Impressionism), and Synthetism, and Cloisonnism. There had been Fauvism. And now came Cubism and its abundant progeny, like Purism and Orphism, aka Simultaneism (in France), and Cubo-Futurism and Rayonism (in Russia), and Vorticism (in Britain) and Synchromism (in America). In the middle of all that, more loudly than most, Futurism arrived.

The Tate Modern exhibition has decided to show a bit of everything. It has some Cubism to show where Futurism took off. It has the feeble Purism of Sonia and Robert Delauney, to show (I guess) Cubism failing to take off. It has the vigorous Malevich and Popova, before they went totally abstract. And it has Vorticism, to show where Futurism itself was picked up, and turned it into something really surprising (see Wyndham Lewis's Workshop, David Bomberg's In the Hold).

The whole story, as told here, is over by 1915. What the Futurists did under Mussolini is tactfully wiped. But even with early Futurism, the question still hangs over it: were the manifestos or the art more important?

The various manifestos are fun and awful and memorable, and possibly they were needed. They did excellent publicity. They encouraged some of the artists to change their ways. And they in turn produced their own manifestos. Umberto Boccioni's "Futurist Painting" is very lively too: "We fight against the nude, as nauseous and as tedious as adultery in literature." But they are something separate from the art itself. And if it hadn't thrived at all, I doubt whether these declarations would hold much interest beyond historians of the avant-garde.

Goodness knows, Futurist art is pretty dodgy itself. It can be analysed briskly. It has three devices. There's fragmentation, as the scene shatters into pieces, the image-bits multiply half-repeating as through a prism, and are arranged into a slipped jigsaw. There's vaporisation, with glare and glow, blur and smear, forms shimmering and swirling and dematerialising. And there's energisation, dynamic design, with zooming diagonals, dancing zigzags, shuddering parallels, bursting radiations.

Things go into breakdown and into movement. Sometimes the emphasis is punchy and mechanical, with sharp-edged elements, and imitations of stop-frame photography. Sometimes it's more spiritual, more atmospheric, with floating figures fading into spooks. Sometimes its simply a shouting blare.

The show sadly doesn't include the very best Futurist picture, Giacomo Balla's Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash. That shows a dachshund, scuttling furiously along on a dozen short whirring legs, the legs of its lady owner shown likewise (and cut-off at the ankles like the maid in Tom & Jerry). There's another Balla here, also with animation effects, but this is his triumph. Futurism often pursued raucousness, but Dynamism of a Dog is something else: a genuinely funny Futurist picture.

Fortunately you can see that deeply mysterious scene, Carlo Carra's Leaving the Theatre. Ghostly figures, leaning forwards, in iridescent veils, are treading across a glowing gas-lit snow-covered street. It's a paradox: a haunted urban square, blazing in the night. And there's that even more mystical glimpse set on a railway station, Umberto Boccioni's triptych States of Mind: Those who go, The Farewells, and Those who stay. These are psychic portraits of travellers. There are two series, both here, and the first one is much more powerfully misty, a vision – especially in Those who stay – of lost souls, nobodies drifting nowhere.

Even among these artists, though, masterpieces are few and far between. The others in the group, Gino Severini and Luigi Russolo, have very little to be said for them. And the competition that this show sets up, between the Futurists and their foreign rivals, certainly doesn't strengthen their hands.

But when you turn back to the Futurists, you notice something that none of their contemporaries have. They are drawn to a startlingly horrifying palette. Look at Boccioni's The Laugh, or Russolo's Memory of a Night, or Cara's The Movement of Moonlight. They work in emerald greens, cherry reds, dandelion yellows and bright purples, usually together. These acid colour-combinations recur often enough that they look deliberate, planned visual cacophonies.

And they are. And it's certainly something. How many other artworks do you know that can stay bad taste for almost a century? We're always praising the modernist pioneers for being offensive, subversive, disturbing, revolutionary. But Cubism has become beautiful and Surrealism is now a joy. Only Futurism hasn't domesticated. It still looks, not just incompetent, but absolutely and actively dreadful. Which of us can hope for the same?

Futurism: Tate Modern, London SE1; everyday, until 20 September (020 7887 8888; www.tate.org.uk)

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