Visual Arts: Metal machine music

Futurism emerged at the turn of the century, flick-knives flashing, from the mean streets of Milan - more of a marketing campaign than an artistic movement, and a Fascist one to boot. But how else to sell the romance of the machine?

Archaeologists can accurately date any civilisation simply by looking at its vision of the future. Few things are more historically specific, more evocative of temporary local concerns, than the artistic expression of our expectations. Futurism was Italy's first contribution to modern art: an eclectic body of painters, pamphleteers, controversialists and typographers, brought together by a journalist and prankster of genius called Emilio Filippo Tommaso Marinetti.

At the time Italy was the most technically backward of the advanced countries. This, of course, encouraged a belief in the infinite possibilities of the future. It's a curiosity of modernism that the most extreme expressions of the desire for progress came not from Paris and New York, but from pre-industrial centres. The constructivist El Lissitzky and the Suprematist Kasimir Malevich came from the meanest, remotest oblasti of imperialist Russia. For them, modernism offered a clean redemption from the grime of serfdom. But Marinetti was not from Siberia. He was from Milan (although the fact that his famous "Futurist Manifesto" was published in Paris, in Le Figaro, says all you need to know about contemporary Milanese mass media).

What was Marinetti's Milan like? Baedeker in 1899 comforts travellers that hotels "of the first class have lifts" (a comment eloquent of the others) and helpfully adds that a fiacre from the central station to the Duomo might cost 50 centesimi. It was the town of white marble and veal cutlets. The great Edwardian gourmet traveller, Colonel Newnham-Davies, describes the hilarious atmosphere of the restaurant Savini and says "a fire or a revolution could not excite the waiters more than their ordinary duties do". The Savini is still there. Bersaglieri officers strolled down the Galleria. They still do. Just as Marinetti was limbering up to denounce fine art and advocate racing cars and machine-guns in its place, Puccini was just finishing La Fanciulla del West.

Given Marinetti's distaste for gallery art, it is perhaps not surprising that Futurism's paintings are the least impressive of its achievements. With their roots in symbolism, but giving a nod to contemporary scientific interests in speed, the pictures of Giacomo Balla, Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carra, Gino Severini, Luigi Russolo and Ardengo Soffici are in truth only art historical curiosities. Instead, the great expression of Futurism was in typography and in performance.

And here is Futurism's significance: it realised the mood of the moment, captured and projected it. "Zang Tumb Tumb" was Marinetti's onomatopoeic poem about cannon used in the Balkan War of 1912. Later, Marinetti performed an acoustic poem about an aerial dogfight in which he made all the noises of the planes and the guns himself. This was before the talkies.

Marinetti wanted to destroy libraries, although, like Nicholas Negroponte of MIT's media lab who had to write a book to describe the awesomeness of Being Digital, the Futurists were equally committed to the expressive power of print. During the life of Futurism, more than 300 books and manifestos of one sort or another appeared.

"My revolution," Marinetti wrote "is aimed at the so-called harmony of the page, which is contrary to the flux and reflux, the leaps and burst of style that run through the page. On the same page, therefore, we will use three or four colours of ink, or even 20 different typefaces if necessary. For example: italics for a series of similar or swift sensations, boldface for violent onomatopoeias and so on." The concept was styled parole-in- liberta, or words-in-freedom. If the effect is not always comfortable, then you must remember that Marinetti had no interest in maintaining the smug and easy conventions of the old culture.

Futurism is rebarbative. It is about lust and destruction, not love and creation. Music should be replaced by noise. Factor in a strong misogynist element, a love of speed and car crashes - also an influence on Puccini - and you realise there are no cliches here. You make notes about Futurism and the key words are bellicose, perverse, confrontational. It is fragmented, not cohesive. Futurism offers solutions rather than asks questions. Does any single utterance better summarise the conceit of modernism than Marinetti's remark that a racing car is more beautiful than the Nike of Samothrace (the classical Greek sculpture which stands at the head of the stairs in the Louvre)?

And while I think that Marinetti was not half wrong, it must be conceded that he was a borderline lunatic. He is always stained by links with Fascism. Mussolini promised Italy an artistic revolution to follow the social revolution he was busy organising, and Marinetti taught Il Duce that Fascist art must be quintessentially Italian and should repudiate the charm and femininity of the past. When Mussolini writes of the "spiritual eroticism" of Nietzsche, you can't help thinking that Marinetti must have helped him mix his metaphors.

Futurism and Fascism shared the idea of combative opposition to the status quo, wherever it might be found, whatever it looked like. Publication of the Futurist compilation Guerra solo igiene del mondo (War the only world hygiene, 1915) led to Marinetti's (and Mussolini's) arrest in a Rome street fight. And the Futurists were present at the launch of the Popolo d'Italia, forerunner of the Italian Fascist party.

But, to be fair, there was also present a motley of anarchists, syndicalists, communists, republicans, catholics, nationalists and liberals. History relates that it was a chaotic (rather than sinister) gathering. No one knew quite what was going on, although when some direction eventually emerged it seems that the Futurists had influenced it. Policies included returning land to the peasants, workers' representation, incongruous votes for women and decentralised government.

Marinetti contributed to the first Fascist riot when, on 15 April 1919, he helped sack the offices of Avanti!, a socialist newspaper. By way of thanks, in 1926 when Mussolini set up an Italian academy, Marinetti was one of the first elected (along with Mascagni, Pirandello and the physicist Enrico Fermi).

But there is something a little innocent about all this pre-atrocity posturing and play-acting. Futurism's lasting achievement was to explore new media and articulate the romance of the machine. Fortunato Depero was probably the most authentic of Futurism's talents. His book Depero Futurista (1927) used two industrial bolts to hold it together, 40 years before Pontus Hulten published a metal-bound book to celebrate the machine age at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

And what else did Futurism leave behind? Marinetti's daftest (and therefore most memorable) publication was Cucina Futurista (1931) (Futurist Cook Book) in which he advocated stroking a little velvet while sniffing eau- de-cologne. This seems to have had very little influence on Ruthie Rogers and the River Cafe crowd, although the epochal scooter can claim an aesthetic and technical inheritance from the ideas swimming and flying about the Futurist review Estetica della macchina. Piaggio's designer, Corradino d'Ascanio, who drew the Vespa, was a chum of Marinetti's bizarre accomplice, the poet d'Annunzio. And who knows? Maybe Marinetti's 1927 book Scatole d'Amore in Conserva (boxes of love conserved) later inspired Piero Manzoni so famously to can his own excrement. But, all in all, Futurist "art" was a blind alley.

Instead, we can see that what Futurism did was to reassign leadership in the visual arts from painters to designers. Anyone who has admired a poster and found fine art wanting is in touch with the spirit of Marinetti and Fortunato Depero. In fact, Futurism was more like a marketing campaign than an artistic movement. Their fascination with and exploitation of mass media anticipated and influenced advertising in the 20th century.

Depero (1892-1960) wrote in Numero Unico Futurista Campari (1931), a book about advertising art: "Although I paint freely inspired pictures every day, my commercial productions are created with an equal harmony of style, with the same love, with no less enthusiasm and care."

And then, after a sustained discharge of disrespectful and anarchic energy, Futurism wound down. By the mid-Thirties life was not imitating art; life had utterly transcended art in its ability to exalt, astonish and dismay. For all his perverse genius Marinetti could not imagine anything as striking or as solemnly beautiful as, say, a Savoia-Marchetti plane, or as ravishing as an Alfa-Romeo 8C car.

Nor could this man, this urbane Edwardian journalist and pamphleteer, intimate of bersaglieri officers, imagine anything as horrifying as the Blitzkrieg - although he did live to see it. If he had been on the Polish front witnessing the cavalry attempting to stop the panzers, you suspect that for all his mechanistic bravado Marinetti's true sympathies would have been with the riders not the tanks.

This is what you think when you visit "Zang Tumb Tumb" at the Estorick Collection, just a few hundred yards from the filthy roar of Highbury Corner. It is a superlative little exhibition in an idiosyncratic building of hilariously inappropriate elegance and charm. An hour here, sustained by a panino tricolore and a glass of prosecco, is just about the most civilised way I can imagine spending an hour in north London.

Marinetti standing in N1 would scarcely have believed how his vision had been achieved and even surpassed. The roar of traffic, the throb of a helicopter, the rumble of a jumbo. As the Futurists would have said: BiZ+18. Liberating words from their Latin prison was quite an achievement, although what Fortunato Depero would have made of Adobe Photoshop we can scarcely imagine. As I say, archaeologists can accurately date any civilisation simply by looking at its vision of the future.

`Zang Tumb Tumb, the futurist graphic revolution' runs until 11 April at The Estorick Collection, 39a Canonbury Square London N1 2AN (0171-704 9522). Wed-Sat, 11am - 6pm; Sun, Noon-5pm. Admission pounds 2.50; concessions pounds 1.50

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