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From The Socialist newspaper, 29 July 2009

Exhibition review

Futurism

Reviewed by Manny Thain

Brash, bold and belligerent, the artistic movement known as futurism hit the scene in early 1909. Later, it would give expression to political polar opposites: Italian fascist reaction and Russian socialist revolution. This exhibition concentrates on the formative years, ending in 1915.

Futurism reflected the new, modern world: mass production, cars, speed, danger. It was aggressive, patriotic. It was misogynistic. The Founding Manifesto of Futurism, by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, was published on 20 February 1909. The first two of eleven points express the movement's self-assuredness: "We intend to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness"; "Courage, audacity and revolt will be essential elements of our poetry."

Glorifying war

The ninth point is ominous: "We will glorify war - the world's only hygiene - militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of anarchists, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for women." In 1912, Valentine de Saint-Point issued The Manifesto of Futurist Women, which argued for equality on the basis that men and women should both become 'more masculine'.

The futurists rejected older, static forms of art, partly in reaction to the conservative Italian establishment constantly harking back to imperial Rome: "Set fire to the library shelves! ... Turn aside the canals and flood the museums! ... Take up your pickaxes, your axes and hammers and wreck, wreck the venerable cities, pitilessly!"

Some of the art is stunning. Artists such as Gino Severini, Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo and Giacomo Balla, along with Marinetti, wanted to capture dynamic movement. Carrà's Swimmers (1910-12) propel themselves through the water. Balla's Girl Running on a Balcony (1912) is split up to express a sense of motion, pastel blues, ochres and greens softening the impact. Severini's The Dance of the Pan-Pan at the Monizo (1909-11) is a big, exuberant canvas, a riot of colour and movement, dance, tables and champagne. There are views from speeding cars, street lights transforming the city at night.

Of course, futurism was not alone in exploring the fundamental changes taking place. There is a clear link with the broken lines and transformed features of cubism, which Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque developed between 1909 and 1911.

Meanwhile, modern Russian art was flourishing, drawing on many sources from folk traditions to the most up-to-date technique and materials. Many artists visited France and Italy. In Russia, the crossover led to the development of cubo-futurism (1912/13). Marinetti toured Russia in early 1914 suspicious of this independent spirit and the high proportion of women artists among the cubo-futurists.

Art's politics

The Tate Modern exhibition commentary mentions this tension without developing it, noting timidly that 'several' of the cubo-futurists considered Marinetti's sexism 'unappealing'. That understatement does not help to explain the divergent paths taken by Italian futurism and the Russian avant-garde - not explored in this exhibition. Some Russian women cubo-futurists are featured, however, such as Liubov Popova, Alexandra Ekster and Natalya Goncharova.

The last room is about the First World War. Again, the Tate's lack of social comment is unhelpful. Initially, the Italian state was neutral. The futurists campaigned for military action. Marinetti and others volunteered. Two works by Balla from 1915, Forms Cry Long Live Italy, and Patriotic Demonstration, are flag-waving abstractions in swirling green, white and red. Before May 1915, when Italy joined the war, the only futurist directly involved was the British artist, CRW Newinson, who drove an army ambulance. Bursting Shell (1915) reflects the experience. He became increasingly disillusioned with Marinetti's enthusiasm for war and broke from the futurists.

The political nature of an artistic movement cannot be the determining factor in evaluating works of art as art. Nonetheless, an understanding of social and historical context provides useful, sometimes essential, information. And, from its inception, futurism was a political, as well as artistic movement.

To minimise the political content, and to fail to point out futurism's subsequent trajectory - swept along by socialist revolution in Russia in 1917 or by nationalist then fascist reaction in Italy - is to take it out of context. Tate Modern's art-for-art's-sake approach leaves too many questions unasked. A bit more politics and social history would have enriched what is an artistically remarkable but ultimately frustrating exhibition.

At Tate Modern to 20 September, £12.20

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