Shock and awful: Back to the Futurism

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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;

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick