Friday 21 August 2009


A comparison of two Tate Modern exhibitions from this year: ‘Futurism’, 12th June to 20th September, and ‘Rodchenko and Popova: Defining Constructivism,’ 12th Feb to 17th May.

“The windows of railway carriages, and the wind-shields of automobiles, added to the new speed, have changed the habitual appearance of things.”
– Leger
“We break with the past because we don’t believe in it any more, because its premises are not acceptable, and we will create new ones.” - Popova

Just Look At What The Future Started:

Let’s assume for a moment that Italian Futurism, Russian Cubo-Futurism and Constructivism can all be subsumed under the general heading ‘Futurism’. After all, these sprang from the same question. The clue is in the title of Carra’s 1911 painting ‘What The Tram Told Me.’ Now that technology has pushed daily life so far forward, how can art catch up? How can you paint a racing car or railway station the way you would a pond of water lillies? Boccioni’s twice-painted tryptch ‘States of Mind’ (also from 1911) ostensibly contrasts those climbing aboard a train against the waving platform-ticketers. Yet you sense straight away that it’s actually the modern world which is disembarking from the past, and that art does not want to be among those left behind.

Note that is the tram who is doing the talking, and that Leger prioritises a shift in perception above the more-often-noted ramping-up of “speed”. The train and car do not simply set a new pace of life, or arrive as new objects to push their way onto our canvases. They have remade the world. Just as waterfalls and fields of flowers were to the Romantics, they are themselves both subject matter and inspiration.

The idea that the racing car is already in itself a kind of art object is important, even if they still confined themselves to celebrating it in art. If there’s a science they’re venerating it’s a mad science, where it’s mechanisms not elegantly economical but carreringly unchecked. Their city scenes are tumultuous, crazy free jazz symphonies.

Caught up in gridlock, choked by pollution, we might find it hard to think our way back into this mindset. As Arthur Dent said, “I’ve gone off progress. It’s over-rated.” Even when more contemporary movements borrowed from Futurism there was always an element of irony, such as Industrial music arising at the end of the industrial era. This jaded perception is compounded by a black joke of history, where the Italy fell into Fascism and Russia Stalinism – the two great tar pits of the Twentieth Century. (You can hardly hear a world like ‘Pravda’ now without an Orwellian filter, while at the time it still meant simply “truth”.) Yet once was the time when the radical was the road-builder, not the Crusty occupying the tree.

Italian Futurism burnt briefly but fiercely, between 1909 and 1915. Consequently it lacks the width to fill an exhibition and the middle of the show makes other scenes into points of comparison. While some of these are merely Futurism-lite (particularly Orphism) others are illustrative. However, it’s telling that only the Russians took up the term (albeit modified into ‘Cubo-Futurism’) and, with one possible exception, it is only they who can really give the Italians a run for their money. You’d know that from the room given to them here, even if you hadn’t already seen their earlier dedicated show.

Why should this be? Why not Futurism from France, main exporter of revolution and already a mecca for modernist arts? (Much photographic technology, for example, was devised in France.) As any schoolboy knows the First Futurist mainifesto was on the cover of Le Figaro –a French newspaper. Or why not in Britain, as the show reminds us home to the world’s then most populous city and harbourer of Blake’s great Satanic mills? (In fact British Vorticism is the next-nearest contender. While it was still-more shortlived that Italian Futurism and not quite as innovative, it was largely buried under the self-fulfilling prophecy that Britain was never a centre of modernism.)

But to get our answer, we have to ask the most leading question of all –why not in the New World? If you couldn’t find the future among the skyscrapers of New York, where could you? And yet, while American artists clearly took to Modernism, it was always primarily a European export. In fact for Futurism to ring out it needed to erupt from the old world, like a volcano bursting between two tectonic plates. Significantly, Futurism was centred in industrial Milan while much of Italy was still rural. That “beautiful” racing car they venerated was enhanced in their eyes when seen racing past a peasant’s hay-laden cart. Moreover Italy had been the centre of so much classicism in art, whether Roman or Renaissance, which could be used to keep your hatred sharp. Their infamous First Manifesto made this clear:

“We want to free this land from its smelly gangrene of professors, archaeologists, and antiquarians... We mean to free her from the numberless museums that cover her like so many graveyards.”

Yet paradoxically, as a country Italy was young – only unified in 1870. It could therefore be portrayed as embodying a new way of life. Hence Marinetti’s typically euphoric exclamation “born as we are from electricity”, as if she and her citizens were Frankenstein children. Predating the Yippies, the Manifesto brags “the oldest of us is Thirty.” He even conjured up a symbolic rebirth for himself, claiming that following a car crash he emerged anew.

In short, while they were not mere passengers on the tram, the Italian Futurists were still hitched along to it. The future was an inevitability, bursting in like a rushing canal. In Russia it was more of a political question. While even under Tzardom it had both industrial centres and modernist artists, its vast size slowed its pace against its rivals, leaving it mired in the past. The revolution had broken through such barriers, in an instant throwing everything up for grabs. However, the revolution was not seen as complete, conversely it’s occurrence just accentuated the urgency for further action. (The two quotes at the had of this piece hopefully demonstrate this distinction. ‘Knock off the crowns of the last Tzars’ was also a slogan.) Hence, in a quintessentially Marxist notion, the Russian future could only be brought about through conflict. The future, technology and the soviet model all came to be seen as interchangeable.

“True pictorial dynamism”:

So with the Italian notion that its all happening already, that the canals were themselves changing course to flood the accursed museums, perhaps its unsurprising that their main artistic goal was finding a means to capture movement. In too many ways to count, the past was associated with the static, and the futuristic, the scientific, the technocratic with motion. Life was “no longer a fixed moment [but] dynamic sensation.” “With our pictorial dynamism,” they insisted, “true painting is born.”

Of course, like all self-styled innovators they over-exaggerated the gulf they leapt – for painting had never been entirely frozen. Degas was not deluded to depict dancing girls, he merely attempted to suggest the possibility of movement through his brushwork. You can often see the thread from Impressionism running through this show, in much of its subject matter (the street, the cafe, the cabaret; Carra even mimicking Degas’ ‘Absinthe’ of 1870) and it’s dappled strokes (such as in Carra’s 1910 ‘Leaving the Theatre’.)

Yet there was a distinct shift. The Impressionists implied motion to give a sense of veritie to their figures. The Futurists depicted motion as expressed through figures and machines, not snapshots which strove to capture events but diagrams of time designed to convey the motion itself. They insisted “the picture must be a synthesis of what one remembers and what one sees.” In Boccioni’s already-mentioned ‘States of Mind’, it is those who stay behind who are rendered in the more Impressionist strokes – the art of yesterday employed to represent it.

In this they were something more akin to Cubism, with its rejection of the single fixed view. But any formal links are overwhelmed by the different way these two schools feel, as soon as set alongside one another. Early Cubism (later dubbed ‘Analytic Cubism’) dissected the integrity of objects, while Futurism exploded the static moment. Cubism’s subject matter for the most part remained traditional still lives, Futurism always turns to action scenes. This is reflected in Marinetti’s language, as rendingly violent as the Surrealists would later be. “Art can be nothing but violence, cruelty and injustice”, he proclaimed. It would take the Russians, watching from further afield, to synthesise the two into ‘Cubo-Futurism’.

Down Into Line, Down Into Colour:

Whilst there was not one single way in which Futurism tried to break out of the static frame, this show still doesn’t leave you distinguishing between its artists too much. You emerge with an image of them as one flailing, multi-armed mechanism with Marinetti as its mighty-mouthed head. (Their movement’s shorter lifespan might have contributed to this.) Ironically Rodchenko and Popova strained to be seen as part of a movement, forever joining collectives with ever-more egalitarian aims and bewildering acronyms. In the ‘5x5 =25’ exhibition no artist headlined and every participant drew a cover variant for the catalogue. But while they might decry such ‘bourgeois individualism’ as to give them their own show, aesthetic differences between them means this works very well indeed.

This is in fact visible from the first room, where they occupy opposite walls. Rodchenko’s focus is on the line, which he claims “has revolutionised our view of the pictorial surface by changing the idea that form is no more than a patch of colour.” Even his preparatory sketches look to be made with rulers and set-squares. Painting normally obscures the line, often quite literally painting it out. To Rodchenko it was the one vital element, with everything else mere decoration and hence disposable. In this he couldn’t have been more at odds with Futurist convulsiveness. Meander was to him the most counter-revolutionary sin of all. With Popova it is colour, her lino-cuts in particular look almost like Platonic pieces of ‘pure’ colour. Significantly, when they went on to teach art Rodchenko’s subject was ‘construction’ while Popova’s was ‘colour’.

Nevertheless, influenced by Cubo-Futurism even as they moved beyond it, they were at this stage more interested in formal qualities – not focused on getting a changed world down on canvas so much as changing painting itself. The importance of the surface texture of their works is demonstrated by the “preparatory sketches” for one of Popova’s linocuts, realised in watercolour they look almost nothing like the vibrant finished article.

Rodchenko and Balla both suggested their sculpture was an advance, and out of similar-sounding reasoning. Rodchenko claimed it moved beyond painting into “real space”, Balla that “the single plane of the canvas did not permit the suggestion of the dynamic volume of speed in depth.” However, Rodchenko’s sculptures look an advance, the Futurists’ a dead end. His retain the linearity of his artwork, and hence an important sense of “see-through-ness.” Ironically, his nearest neighbour in sculpture might well be Duchamp. (Though this in some ways mitigates the works’ reality, we remain aware that they are in some ways still ideas, diagrams and plans.)

But Boccioni’s ‘Development of a Bottle in Space’ (1912), for example, can only be seen as a failure. The ‘flow of energy’ supposedly radiating from the bottle, once set in bronze, does not give off a charged hum but stands rigidly. Rather than break down the bottle’s solidity, it works the other way round. It’s like looking at a circuit diagram carved into a stone tablet.

”The streets are our brushes...”

Whether we see the scarcely new discipline of sculpture as a stepping stone or not, it has to be said the Russians went a step further - beyond painting -while the Italians did not. Perhaps, having invented “new painting”, they saw no reason to go beyond it. While they railed against “museums, libraries and academies” galleries were notably left from the list. The teeming street became a common enough Futurist subject to get a room to itself here (“we will sing of great crowds”), but subject it stayed. Conversely the Russian Futurist poet Mayakovsky proclaimed “the streets are our brushes, the squares our palettes.”

Accordingly, in September 1921, as part of the 5x5 exhibition, both Rodchenko and Popova signed a formal renunciation of fine art - much as you’d sign a political petition. Rodchenko now found even his own paintings “as useless as a Church. They serve no purpose whatsoever.” Instead the slogan became “art into life” as they threw their weight into a mission to totally transform everyday life. The ‘work’ in ‘artwork’ becomes dominant. At this point, where their art leaps of the canvas, the exhibition becomes truly alive, everything from architecture down to cups and saucers falling under their eager gaze. Some of this work was overtly agitprop, some had no specific or explicit political content at all. Some was even nakedly advertising! (By then limited private enterprise had become unavoidable so the state brands needed pushing. Ironically, much of Rodchenko’s best work is here – in the marketplace he so despised!)

Many of these new media we now think of as less expressive than painting or sculpture, and more documentary, for example Rodchenko’s turn to photography. Yet their art continued to be declarative, never merely reflective of reality. Rodchenko’s photos see the world for a ceaseless succession of new angles and viewpoints, never flat or neutral, never something self-evidently ‘real’ which merely required recording.

Perhaps the whole thing is summed up in the final room, with Rodchenko’s life-size model for a Workers’ Club. A chess board fuses in design with the table and chairs intended for those playing the game, with their echoing both its squares and black-and-red motif. The concepts contained in both game and room are intended to seep out into the world surrounding them. Art is but a vehicle for the ideas it contains, a means to inject them into the world whereby they might transform it. Anything which is not essential to express those ideas, in the most succinct method possible, is jetsam. (This was consequently a quick exhibition to get through, even for a chin-stroking ponderer like me.)

Perhaps not altogether surprisingly, it’s not clear how well these bold plans made it into practice. It may have become a means for the artists to work more collaboratively with a wider range of creators, with writers, theatre directors and film-makers. The desired erosion of the boundary between art and reality did not occur, they merely sprung the trap of one medium to land in a slightly wider one. As the catalogue notes “the Constructivist dream of reshaping social space could only be realised within the limited parameters of the stage or cinema screen.” Nevertheless, the work is by turns compelling and tantalysingly suggestive of what might have been.

One interesting aspect of these photos and posters is the utilisation of art for reproduction, an interest of Popova since her linocut days. Perhaps this makes for the biggest division from the Italian Futurists of all. Outside the exhibiton, before we even see the first of their works, is a wall-size photo-reproduction of the Futurists themselves. Belying the modernist dynamism of their works, they are dressed in the style of their day – strangulating collars under sober ties, shoulders weighted down under heavy coats. Yet look among the gallery-goers and every T-shirt is an artwork!

However, deficiencies in the Futurist exhibition do not so much magnify this division as turn it to caricature. While they might have never gone beyond painting, they mixed it with other media as thoroughly as any other modernist movement. As Norbert Lynton has commented “Futurism embraced poetry, novels and plays, painting and sculputure, music, photography, film, typography and architecture.” (’’The Story Of Modern Art’, Phaildon) Well, not here they didn’t.

Their “disruptive performances” are alluded to (“crazy electric storms... with their corollary of scuffles in streets and squares”), but only in the notation. Similarly we are told that Russolo swapped art for music (okay, noise) but are never treated to any of his works. There are filmshows but only as special events on certain dates (with booking advised), not as part of the regular exhibition. Futurist architecture, surely the nearest neighbour to the Constructivists’ “art into life”, is nowhere to be seen. Should regular readers of my exhibition reviews exist, they would know this to be a common bugbear of mine. However, things had seemed to be getting better in recent years. Which makes the throw-back deficiencies of this show all the more disappointing.

The Word is Image Too:

However, it could be argued one moment of parity on display is the word. The Futurist exhibition starts with Marinetti’s First Manifesto, just as many would have encountered them at the time. Indeed he always insisted his proclamations didn’t merely describe or announce Futurism – but were themselves Futurist works. Indeed, if you thrill to the heady rush of his ceaseless hyperbolic assertions you’ll probably find you like the paintings, and vice versa.

However word and image are rarely fused. Words and letters stray into paintings, in a trick picked up from the Cubists. But mostly they follow parallel courses, as if cut into different channels. – separate canals set against separate museums. Again, the Constructivists stole ahead. It is not just that, for example, Rodchenko frequently collaborated with the Futurist poet Mayakovsky. Their works incorporated the iconography of type, where text was incorporated in the design and its shape taken to be as important as any other element. Popova’s ‘slogan posters’ often incorporated nothing but type, yet are visually compelling.

Instead, as the exhibition alludes without quite saying, Marinetti pioneered perhaps the biggest innovation of Futurism – hype. He wrote not reasoned treatises but pithy sound-bites, calculated to provoke not thought but outrage, which he got not into scholarly journals but onto the cover of Le Figaro. He was not the vacuous celebrity of today, for his biting words still resound over the years. But he was a celebrity, the self-made poster boy of shock. Marinetti was the Stan Lee of modernism.

War As Art By Other Means:

But perhaps the ultimate reason to prize Constructivism over Italian Futurism is not artistic but political. While we might think of Fascist Italy and Stalinist Russia equally dimly, we tend to make different allowances for their adherents. In Russia there may have been a genuine desire for egalitarianism, however hopelessly misplaced – while the fascists proclaimed their noxiousness from the start. This website perhaps sums up the popular view of Italian Futurism, listing their accomplishments then adding “too bad they were all fascists.”

Yet Stewart Home has argued “to dismiss Futurist politics as fascist is as common as it is incorrect.” (The Assault On Culture, Unpopular Books) Indeed, perhaps they were even anarchists! The First Manifesto celebrates anarchism, while in 1911 Carra painted ‘The Funeral of the Anarchist Galli’ (above). Galli had been killed by police during a general strike, who then attempting to prevent his funeral becoming a rallying point. Carra had been present at the ensuing riot.

Yet however powerful the painting, we should not mistake present for involved. The show later notes how Russolo’s ‘The Rebellion’ (1911, see up top) presents “revolutionary violence in a somewhat abstracted form, removed from any specific, social or political context” – comments which could equally apply to Carra. Similarly, the First Manifesto celebrates “the destructive gestures of the anarchists” alongside ““militarism, patriotism” as “the beautiful ideas which kill.” It later asserts “except in struggle, there is no more beauty.”

In short, what is being celebrated about the anarchists is that they’re good for a punch-up. This is the cartoon anarchism of brazen bomb-hurling. Marinetti was a political magpie, chasing any colour provided it was gaudy. While I could find nothing online about Galli, given the era was a high-point for Italian anarchist movements, it seems unlikely he’d welcome such a ‘celebration’ of his politics.

The Futurists’ infamous amour for war came out of a similarly boyish excitement for action. Peace is boring, but a still life while war is an action painting! Even their buzzword ‘avant garde’ was itself appropriated from military terminology. This naiveté was extended, for when Italy didn’t at first join the war they joyously depicted it anyway. Marinetti told his brethren “try to live the war pictorially, studying it in all its mechanical forms.” He personifies the juvenile rush to enlist we read of in history books but struggle to understand.

Perhaps fittingly, the paintings here become almost abstract, writhing forms welling up into shape. (Balla’s 1915 ‘Forms Crying Out Long Live Italy’ is as tellingly titled as Carra’s ‘Tram’.) Artistically these works are splendid, an astonishing development in so few years. But their lack of anything even representing the figure suggests the price of human life had been forgotten along the way.

A year after the war ended Marinetti notoriously joined the National Fascist Party, though it’s sometimes forgotten he walked out again the following year. (Admittedly as Mussolini obstinately remained in power he seems to have regretted this rash gesture, and sought ways to re-gratiate himself.) As we now see Fascism and modernism as implacable foes, this might seem as inexplicable as it is indefensible. If Fascism now appears as something monolithic and contemptuous of artistic experiment, so it became. But in order to gain power in this era it had to become a spoiler product for other, more genuinely revolutionary movements. Hence it tried to keep a foot in both classical and modernist camps. (Being named after a symbol of the Roman Empire.) Marinetti was far from the only sucker. Once in power, it strengthened its ties to classicism – provoking his walkout. (Needless to say, his motives were aesthetic not humanitarian.) Yet only much later did Italy import Nazi Germany’s hostility to “degenerate” art.

The Future – No Place For Girls?

A Russian contrast to Carra, on show in the same exhibition, might be Natalya Goncharova’s cubo-futurist ‘The Cyclist’ (1913). While the Italians celebrated the self-powered mechanism of the tram or the indivisible nature of the urban crowd, Goncharova depicts an individual human figure fused with his machine, in a kind of partnership. Later this focus would sour into the heroised workers of Soviet ‘realism’, but here the political statement is genuine. As Gil Scott Heron would later put it, “the revolution will put you in the driving seat!”

How significant might it be that this work is by a woman? Futurism is in general open to the charge of being phallocentric, mechanistically mindless, boys playing with their toys. This was a charge Marinetti was keen to take on, with his “scorn for women” and clarion calls to “fight feminism”. Yet three-fifths of the ‘5X5’ exhibition had been women, while an old Royal Academy show had focused on six Russian women artists (‘Amazons of the Avant-Garde’, 1999/2000). Even the boys had championed their cause, one of Rodchenko’s propaganda posters proclaiming ‘The Trade Union is a blow to women’s enslavement, and a defender of female labour’!

Yet if they were present, if they were even encouraged, were these women artists really painting on an even easel? It would be a simplification to suggest that Rodchenko designed buildings and Popova cups and saucers – but not that much of a simplification! For example, both designed fabrics yet Rodchenko always worked for men’s clothing. As you walk through their exhibition, you don’t entirely shake the feeling that women’s art was a variant of women’s work.

This view is compounded by a clip from Kuleshov’s 1927 film ‘The Female Journalist’, on which Rodchenko worked. Not only were few films of the time titled ‘The Male Journalist’, the title character is a neurotic ‘female’ juxtaposed against the productive activity of some male workers. (‘Neurotic’ of course being associated with ‘petit-bourgeois’ in the culture of the time.)

Of course when even these advances were later rolled back by Stalinism, it feels almost like carping to mention them. Nevertheless, a limited advance should be labelled as such.

My Future Is Finer Than Yours:

In case it’s not yet been made obvious, we here proclaim the Russians as the more progressive force. It’s rather like the difference between punk and post-punk. Vibrant, powerful and recklessly audacious, punk may grab your attention first. But after a while this swagger subsides. It then comes to feel not just one-note but beset by its own contradictions, it can shout and proclaim but rarely actually argue. Post-punk creeps up upon you more slowly, but you eventually realise that while it may be less gesticulatory it’s actually the more audacious one.

Of course the Constructivists came later, at most only five years later, but those years had been busy ones. Perhaps the Italians’ greatest defence is that they had always set themselves up for such a fall, never claiming their revolution to be complete. “When we are forty”, they insisted, “let younger and stronger men than we throw us in the waste paper basket like useless manuscripts!” Their succession by the Constructivists might have come more quickly than even they thought, but they only considered themselves one station in an ever-speeding journey.

However, is it possible to over-accentuate the differences? Both exhibitions place Cubo-Futurism at their periphery, while a focus on it might emphasise their linkage and continuity> Moreover, do both actually share the same failings and it’s merely that the Constructivists fail a little better? After all, they share the reductive functionalism we’ve now come to see as dehumanising. Even when human forms are incorporated, it’s only ever to epitomise some bigger idea or wider force. Figures often morph into their clothes, machines or just the overall composition. Men don’t express ideas, so much as ideas express themselves through the medium of men. Rodchenko in particular seems almost to define idealism in a literal sense, using art as a blueprint to build a better world from the noblest of diagrams. As such idealism beached against war and dictatorship, this gives us pause to reflect on uncritical optimism.

But more importantly, to quote Marinetti one last time, perhaps we also react this way because we do not remember even being alive. We fear the loss of an ‘individualism’ defined by brand-name consumption, while shying away from seeing ourselves as active forces in the world. We’re no longer Futurephilic, and assuming we can hasten its arrival, but Futurephobic yet assuming we can do nothing to prevent its advance. The Aphex Twin summed up our view, “the future is a registered trademark.” Unlike Popova, we accept the world as it is, without even asking whether we believe in it.

More on ‘Futurism’ (including booking info) here.
Archived info from ‘Defining Constructivism’

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