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Oct 2009 Journal

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Art Notes (review)

If Futurism is the collective noun for modern art, its 1910 manifesto, pledged by the Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, declares war on all before it. It condemns art critics, sentimentality, imitation and the (nauseous) nude.

Nonetheless, one of the first paintings you see in Tate Modern’s Futurism exhibition is a nude by Georges Braque. The Futurist pledge has all the dogma of a Communist-style manifesto, stating that without aggression there is no masterpiece. Indeed, its response to the machine age that changed the world and the way artists saw it was filled with the raw, uncompromising energy that Apollinaire identified as a move towards abstract art.

The influence of these Italian modernists ignited Cubist France and, later, the British Vorticists and Russian Futurists. Their message was essentially aimed at post-industrial society. As urban life changed, electric street lighting blurred day and night and, much as Einstein’s relativism saw colours change with movement, so an artist looking through the window of a moving cab could reveal new ways of seeing new colour formations.

Umberto Boccioni watches human shapes drift from conical to fish-like. His Faces on the Street features surreal pointed arches, shadow figures and lots of purple, and his triptychs on the excitement of travel and the anguish of separation follow another Futurist credo - to combine psychological and physical states, synthesising what you remember and what you actually see. A particular exponent of this is Luigi Russolo, for whom past and present exist simultaneously in the consciousness, seen in his colourful swirls of faces, houses and windows, all jumbled up in a space-time continuum.

Futurists were often Cubists, like radical exponents Picasso and Braque. Picasso’s Woman in an Armchair has more muted colours in beige, browns and yellows. Gino Severini stands somewhere between Cubism and Futurism; his colours are strong but darker. The Boulevard looks clearly post-Impressionist and Carlo Carra’s colourful, bowed figures with dappled light (Leaving the Theatre) indicate that it is not so easy to leave the Impressionist past behind you. But then again, Severini’s satirical Dance of the Pan-Pan at the Monico, a brilliant cavalcade of dance, flirtation, faces, feet and wine glasses, is a multi-sensory Cubist jumble of non-stop colour and energy. The original 1909 version was destroyed in the Second World War and this replica was repainted in Rome by the artist in 1959-60 from postcards.

Despite being considered an aggressive movement, the Futurists’ response to war in 1915 was confused. Severini’s Red Cross Train depicts the wounded, but Giacomo Balla’s Forms Cry Long Live Italy is a dramatic whirl of colourful tongues, demonstrating his patriotism.

The Danish Neo-Expressionist Per Kirkeby, also at Tate Modern, is a trained geologist whose work spanned Pop imagery to rest finally on his austere reflections on nature itself. Using common household paints and Masonite, Kirkeby moves from cowboys to Mayan folklore, from the Bible to Byzantium, often working on several paintings simultaneously. The gloomy, Nordic landscapes of the l970s-80s give way in 2005 to a joyful, exotic freedom.

Gloria Tessler

previous article:‘GOD ON TRIAL’
next article:AJR Report