Sunday, 23 August 2009

Futurism and revolutionary art

When I was in London earlier this month I went to Tate Modern for the Futurism exhibition, plus a visit to the Russian revolutionary posters. These exhibitions have a few things in common - magnificent inventiveness, technical mastery and political engagement amongst them. But another common feature is that in both the Futurist art and the revolutionary posters you can see, through changes in the art, how history played itself out in Europe and Russia during the 1910s and 1920s.

Much, though far from all, of the Futurist art of this period is simply amongst my favourite art: I love the style, all jagged edges and distorted perspectives, strange combinations and dazzling use of colour. While there are plenty of mediocre and unoriginal pieces, a fair proportion was highly innovative at the time and still feels incredibly fresh. A lot of it is social and political, but very rarely in crude or propagandist ways.

Tate Modern has grouped the art so that it's easier to follow Futurism's development, and how that interlocked with historical, political changes. The simple version of the story of Futurism is roughly as follows: before 1917 it was artistically revolutionary but not that political, then after 1917 the Russian version became political and left-wing while the Itlaian Futurists went over to Mussolini and glorified war and nation.

While this is over-simplistic, it interested me how Futurism did very obviously develop in different directions. The weakest art, in my view, was the bland, vague wartime Italian work that celebrated Italian nationhood. Art shouldn't be judged on crassly political criteria, but curiously it was indeed the most ideologically conservative strand that proved least artistically interesting.

Some of the best and most inspiring works, conversely, were the most politcally charged, such as the outstanding 'Revolt' by Luigi Russolo above. With fairly non-naturalistic art, there's room for interpretation, but I viewed it as a depiction of mass collective action, creating and striving for new horizons, suffused with hope (and that was before glancing at the title). I enjoyed an exhibition specifically of Russian Futurism in Newcastle a year or two back - and it's the Russian variant that provides much of the best work at Tate Modern. And this exhibition also benefits from some superb art that isn't strictly Futurist, but overlaps in period and style (including some Picasso).

I used the term 'propagandist' above as an insult. This is perhaps lazy, as the revolutionary posters demonstrated how propaganda can rise to the heights of great creativity and artistry. They in fact challenge the very idea of a hierarchy, in which an exhibited artwork is automatically assumed to be superior to a political poster. Some of the posters from the early revolutionary period were stunning and visionary, undoubtedly fuelled by passion for building a better world.

The historical changes were reflected in various ways. For example, in an early poster a woman was depicted as very strong, assured, determined; some years later, in the era of Stalin, and there's a softer-toned, traditionally feminine, unthreatening portrait. The contrast speaks volumes about the counter-revolution against the progressive ideals of 1917. Generally, the iconography becomes blander, the style more naturalistic, and there's a growing focus on showing the individual rather than collective struggles and aspirations.

For those who are interested, the Futurism exhibition is on until 20 September.

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