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July 09: Futurism at the Tate Modern: a review by Peter Brooke

Ten years after

The Francis Boutle series ‘Painting and its Laws’ is concerned almost exclusively with principles of pictorial construction – the interplay of verticals, horizontals, diagonals, curves. We do not suggest that this is the only thing in painting that is interesting and important or that everyone should make it their exclusive concern, only that it is interesting and important and that some people – especially among practising artists – should make it their exclusive concern. One of the three books published so far brings together the essay From Cubism to Classicism by the Futurist painter Gino Severini, and Painting and Its Laws by the Cubist painter, Albert Gleizes. It is in this light that we approach the exhibition devoted to the Futurists currently on show at the Tate Modern.

And a curious light it is. By 1921, when he wrote From Cubism to Classicism Severini was arguing that the perspective system, which Cubism and Futurism had both challenged, was an objective, scientific truth which painters had to respect. Gleizes was also arguing for an objective, scientifically verifiable basis to painting but that, contrary to the perspective system, it had to respect the essential objective property of the picture plane – its flatness. Both Severini and Gleizes in their wildly different approaches argue that painting can engage not just in an organisation of space but also of time. Both, in discussing the ‘time’ aspect, use the term ‘rhythm’ and both evoke as a major theorist of such ‘rhythm’ the Sorbonne-based ‘psycho-physicist’ Charles Henry, better known for his influence on the late nineteenth century neo-Impressionists, Georges Seurat and Paul Signac. In this context it is interesting to note that the Director of the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, which hosted the Futurist invasion of Paris in February 1912, was Félix Fénéon, previously known as the great champion of Charles Henry, Neo-Impressionism and of a scientific – as opposed to Symbolist/’mystical’ – approach to painting.

On the face of it the worlds of Severini’s classicism in 1921, of Cubo-Futurism in 1912, of neo-Impressionism in the 1880s/90s would appear to be far removed from each other but what is really interesting and moving in all this is the continuity and seriousness of the intellectual work that was going on underneath all the excitement and noisy proclamations of the individual moments we encounter along the way. It may be churlish to complain but the Tate exhibition would have been much more interesting if it had covered a much wider time frame.

Cubism v Futurism

The exhibition was originally shown in the Pompidou Centre in Paris under the title Futurism in Paris and though it also evokes the impact of Futurism in Russia and England the main emphasis is on the interaction between Futurism and Cubism. Many years later, in 1948, Gleizes summed up what he saw as having been important in the Futurist contribution as follows:

"After what has already been said, we should now be able to at least suspect the possibility that the painting-object, incarnate act of the painter, can be endowed with movement, since movement is a capacity of the eye ... Nearly forty years ago, there was a group of painters who attempted to realise this movement.  They talked of pictorial dynamism, because they had the intuitive awareness of a capacity which, up to that point, had been thought of as being foreign to painting.  These painters were the Italian Futurists.  Let us salute them in passing, and above all among them, my friend, Boccioni, killed before his time, in 1914." (L’Homme devenu peintre, Paris, Somogy, 1998. My translation. The book was not published in Gleizes’s lifetime. Boccioni was actually killed in 1916.)

Gleizes’ reference to Boccioni as ‘my friend’ might surprise readers of the Futurism catalogue which sees nothing but antagonism between the two groups, with Gleizes the furthest removed from the Futurists, and indeed the friendship is not obvious from the literature published at the time. But in a Hommage  to Gleizes published after his death Severini said that Gleizes had been more 'generous [expansif] and supportive’ to the Futurists ‘than anyone’ (Jean Cassou et al: Hommage à Albert Gleizes,Lyon 1953, p.19).

Movement and agitation

The emphasis on time and movement is indeed the salient characteristic of the Futurists. Among the Cubists in the Tate exhibition we can see that there is a great emphasis on the organisation of space and therefore a solidity, often emphasised by vertical and horizontal lines. Among the Futurists there is a deliberate effort to destroy any suggestion of solidity or monumentality. Or to quote the review by Peter Campbell in the London Review of Books, exaggerating somewhat with regard to the Cubists but not much with regard to the Futurists: ‘The Cubists are brown with verticals and horizontals emphasised. The Futurists are gaudy and things whizz about.’ But what is lacking in this Futurist incorporation of movement is any sense of organisation. The eye looking at a painting is launched into time and movement through the use of the diagonal, curve and arabesque which can be used to direct that movement in an organised fashion so that it interacts with and may even strengthen the sense of monumentality. Colour and the tendency of the eye to move from one colour to another can also be used. But the diagonals, curves, arabesques and bright colours that abound in the Futurist paintings are not used in this way. They give no direction to the eye. Boccioni talked about ‘succession’ as ‘the one single form which produces continuity in space’ ("Plastic Dynamism" Lacerba, 15 December 1913 in Umbro Apollonia, ed: Futurist Manifestos, Thames and Hudson, 1973, p.93) and his concept indeed remains spatial and therefore, ultimately, static.

The Futurist idea of movement was psychological and kinetic rather than plastic – that is to say it was based on the operation of memory (our perception is always necessarily based not on what is happening but on the memory of what has just happened together with all the feelings that are associated with it) and of the simultaneous presentation of the different stages of an object in motion (‘a running horse has not four legs, but twenty, and their movements are triangular’ – Futurist Painting: Technical Manifesto, Poesia, 11 April 1910 in Futurist Manifestos, p.26). It was an experiment that had to be tried but it was so alien to the requirements of the medium that it equally well had to be abandoned. The same could be said of the typically Cubist device of extracting different views of a subject (analysis) and recombining them (synthesis). Both methods pretended to intensify our experience of the subject but the main merit of both was to contribute towards breaking the subject down and opening the canvas up to elements more nearly corresponding to its own, two-dimensional nature (the evolution is described in Gleizes lecture Art and Religion translated in Albert Gleizes: Art and Religion, Art and Science, Art and Production, Francis Boutle publishers, London, 1999).

Looked at strictly from this angle the least interesting of the Futurists is probably Boccioni himself despite the extent of his ambition and intelligence. The most interesting at the precise moment of the arrival in Paris is to my eyes Carlo Carrà. Both Carrà and Severini have a much greater respect than Boccioni for the flatness of the picture plane but Carrà, in  such works as The Jolts of a Cab, The (particularly lovely) Movement of Moonlight, The Woman in a Café, Milan Station and even The Funeral of the Anarchist Galli, seems to me more successful at blending his forms into a pictorial unity. The 1915 abstracts by Ballà, three dimensional though they may be, are also profoundly interesting, especially to those of us with a taste for the graffiti art of the past thirty years.

Cubism + Futurism = Cubism on a larger scale

The main article in the catalogue – Didier Oettinger’s Cubism + Futurism = Cubo-Futurism – argues that the impact of the Futurists on Paris was huge, much greater than I would previously have thought. In overall outline he may be right but there is much in the detail of his account that can be questioned. For example he argues that the Futurists laid claim to the succession of the Divisionists, or Neo-Impressionists, and this would seem to be validated by the bright colours, the support of Fénéon and Severini’s well-attested interest in Seurat, though there is little sign (except perhaps in Severini) of any attempt at a ‘scientific’ ordering of the colours. He goes on to suggest that the critique of Neo-Impressionism in On "Cubism", published by Gleizes and Metzinger in 1912, is in fact a critique of the Futurists. My own view is that it is indeed as it appears to be, a critique of the Neo-Impressionists and especially of Paul Signac’s theoretical statement From Eugene Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism. It is a respectful critique, arguing that Cubism is better equipped than Neo-Impressionism to realise their common ambition of a rational ordering of form and colour.

Similarly, Oettinger takes Gleizes's Tradition and Cubism (1913), with its assertion of a distinctively French tradition and its attack on the influence of the later Italian Renaissance, as a response to the Futurists. It is an obvious connection to make and I have made it myself but am now more inclined to see it as a response to the development of Gleizes’s friend Jean Metzinger, who was turning towards the French eighteenth century, an art of wit and elegance, evoking Boucher, Fragonard, Lancret. Among the many important paintings shown in Paris but not at the Tate is Metzinger’s Dancer in the Café which illustrates the point very well.

The appearance of the Futurists in 1912 did coincide with and may well have helped to inspire, the advance of the public Cubists (Gleizes, Metzinger, Delaunay, Le Fauconnier, Léger) towards a much larger, more ambitious subject matter. In this respect it is surely worth mentioning that the ‘Gallery Cubists’ (as they have been christened by David Cottington and by Mark Antliff) – Picasso and Braque – were withdrawing into the ever more private world of the ‘papiers collés’. Gleizes may also have had this development in mind when writing Cubism and Tradition. Patricia Leighten has shown that this art is full of references to great contemporary political events but since it took some fifty years for anyone to notice them they can hardly be regarded as public statements. David Cottington, following a suggestion of the Gallery Cubists’ impresario, D-H. Kahnweiler, evokes Mallarmé. In the late 1880s Mallarmé told his protégé, the poet and theorist of Symbolism, René Ghil, ‘Eden exists. We must believe in Eden.’ Ghil replied ‘No, master. Eden does not exist’ and walked out on him. Ghil went on to write a hugely ambitious, dense, almost unreadable, epic poem The Work, more or less describing the evolution of the Universe. The poets with whom Gleizes had been associated in the pre-Cubist ‘Abbaye de Créteil’ – René Arcos, Georges Duhamel, Henri-Martin Barzun – all saw themselves as followers of Ghil, advocating a poetry of great public statements in opposition to the private, esoteric world of Mallarmé with its emphasis on individual, largely sensual, emotions. Marinetti, the founder-theorist of Futurism, knew the Abbaye poets and could be said to have belonged to the same tendency, issuing out of Symbolism but reacting against its preciousness and hermetic quality. That suggests that a somewhat different fault line could be drawn, with the ‘Salon Cubists’ and Futurists together on one side, and Picasso and Braque on the other, symbiotically linked, despite the obvious differences, to the non-realist, imaginary earthly paradise (‘Eden’) of, among others, Matisse.

From Cubism to Classicism v Painting and its Laws

What happens subsequently is discussed at greater length in my introduction to the translations of Severini and Gleizes. The big-subject ‘realist’ Cubists – Léger, Delaunay, Gleizes – are dispersed by the war while the painters who are more open to the influence of Picasso – Metzinger, Severini, Juan Gris – continue working in Paris where, using the typical Gallery Cubist subject matter of the still life, they develop what Christopher Green has called ‘Crystal Cubism’ – a rational organisation of the plane surface whose greatness – outside the individual case of Juan Gris – has still not been recognised by the historians. That in turn sets the scene for the choice posed in the essays by Severini and Gleizes.

Gleizes believed that the ‘Crystal Cubists’ (he specifically evoked Metzinger and Gris) had found the principles on which an essentially non-representational art could be built – he felt that the earlier non-representational art of, for example, Frantisek Kupka and the first, much neglected, French theorist of abstraction, Henri Valensi, had no solid foundation. Severini believed Futurism and Cubism had exhausted what they had to say and that a return to the basic principles of painting, meaning single point perspective as formulated in the early Renaissance, was inescapable. Although other painters would not have followed either Severini or Gleizes in the detail of their thinking, many found themselves facing the same general dilemma – a return to single point perspective or a non-representational painting respectful of the two-dimensional nature of the picture plane. The most distinctive innovations of pre-war Cubism (the object seen from different angles) and Futurism (the attempt to reconstruct a subjective experience of the passage of time) were gone and, despite the generally chaotic nature of the subsequent history of painting, no one ever seems to have had the notion of reviving them.

Peter Brooke is the author of Albert Gleizes: For and Against the Twentieth Century and is editor of From Cubism to Classicism by Gino Severini / Painting and its laws by Albert Gleizes; Art and Religion, art and science, art and production by Albert Gleizes; and The Aesthetics of Beuron by Desiderius Lenz.

Click here for more information about From Cubism to Classicism by Gino Severine / Painting and its laws by Albert Gleizes

Click here for more information about Art and religion, art and science, art and production by Albert Gleizes

Click here for more information about The Aesthetics of Beuron by Desiderius Lenz

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