Back to the future

Art - Tom Rosenthal on the bombast and beauty of futurism

Once Picasso unveiled Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 20th-century art was never to be the same. As the explosion that was cubism reverberated, it created more names and isms - rayonism, orphism (named after Orpheus by Guillaume Apollinaire), futurism, vorticism. Viewed today, two aspects of this artistic rupture are astounding: the fertility and durability of what happened in the seven years between the Demoiselles and the somewhat more cataclysmic events of August 1914; and how the experiments of Braque and Picasso were so rapidly absorbed in Germany, Spain, England, Russia, Sweden, Czechoslovakia and, particularly, Italy. These powerful intellectual signals were picked up and transmitted across borders by artists, critics, publishers, dealers and collectors, and by the highly influential but almost wholly black and white illustrated art magazines of the period.

These other movements were, in one or more ways, derivative of cubism; all depended for their effects upon the fragmentation and the consequent reassembling of the original image. Not all functioned with the purposeful clarity of Picasso's cubist portrait of the art dealer Ambroise Vollard - which, on being seen by a small boy, elicited the remark: "Oh. Look. It's Uncle Ambroise."

Certainly, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the inventor, father figure and most passionate propagator of futurism, wanted more than mere clarity of image, and to go far beyond the realism of Picasso and Braque. He also knew that if he was to make futurism succeed, he would more or less have to launch it - in both senses - at "Headquarters". Consequently, while his Manifesto of Futurism was Italian ("It is from Italy that we launch through the world this violently upsetting, incendiary manifesto of ours"), it appeared first in the enemy's citadel, in Le Figaro in Paris in February 1909.

"We say that the world's magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty; the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath - a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot - is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace . . .

"We will glorify war - the world's only hygiene - militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman . . .

"We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice . . . "

If this makes Marinetti sound like the only fascist ever to have founded a major, genuine artistic movement (as opposed to Nazi art, which wasn't art at all), then that is because it is true. He was a fascist for a time, but later broke with Mussolini whom, 20 years later, he got bang to rights:

"Square crushing jaws. Scornful jutting lips that spit with defiance and swagger on everything slow, pedantic, and finicking. Massive rock-like head, but the ultradynamic eyes dart with the speed of automobiles racing on the Lombard Plains. To right and left flashes the gleaming cornea of a wolf."

Part of the trouble with Marinetti was that he never really got fascist ideas out of his head and out of his ideology. For those who have always found fascism a seriously sadistic aberration, a quick look at his favourite novel is certainly instructive. He published The Untamables in 1922, and its last lines are a perfect paradigm of Marinetti's thought:

"Thus, stronger than the crude dissonance of Sun and Blood, it is finally the superhuman, cool Distraction of Art that caused the metamorphosis of the Untamables."

Long before we get there, however, we have passages of mind-numbing brutality:

"Down his throat goes the fist. But teeth clamp down and the fist gets pulled back, spongy and red with blood. Two giant human pliers interlock. Pulling out the invisible nail of the soul. They grab. Screams. 'I have him! I have him tight!' A zigzag death rattle. A cube of terror on his chest. Faces of ancient yellow boredom, scratched by happy lights. The heavy tedium of a lip split by a laughing wound. The mercury of hate rises in the beaded thermometers of sweaty faces. They break against one another, those human thermometers, showering slivers of glass from their eyes. The mercury of hate pours down free, never to measure again."

Yet, rabble-rousing and antipathetic as most of Marinetti's expressed ideas were, his fundamental concepts of speed, the joys of the automobile and so on led to a genuinely original and surprisingly homogeneous art movement that quickly extended beyond Italy. Even in Russia, he was rewarded not only by the Russian futurists, but by that ultimate intellectual compliment, a genuine breakaway group. In this case, the painter David Burliuk coined the term cubo-futurism in 1913, and yet another splinter movement was born.

England's participation in futurism was brief, having begun promisingly with the publication in the Observer on 7 June 1914 of "Vital English Art: a futurist manifesto", signed by Marinetti and that unjustly underrated English painter C R W Nevinson. But the outbreak of war two months later and the quarrel between Nevinson and Wyndham Lewis ensured both the birth of vorticism and the death of futurism in this country. One of the ironies of the futurist movement is that arguably Nevinson's most important futurist picture, Tum-Tiddly-Um-Tum-Pom-Pom, was inspired by one of the greatest of the Italian paintings, Gino Severini's Danza del Pan Pan al Monico. Both are representations of the vigorous movements of large, happy crowds. Both were lost, one in England during the First World War, the other in Germany during the Second World War.

Severini, with Carra, Balla, Boccioni and Russolo, was the heart of visual futurism. This group expressed Marinetti's saner ideas, and produced a series of hymns to speed, fast cars, aeroplanes, excited crowds. Severini, in his surprisingly gentle, almost elegiac memoirs, which are totally at odds with Marinetti's explosive style, records how Apollinaire rather admired his lost masterpiece Pan Pan but, ever the proselyte of cubism, scorned most of futurism:

"The Futurists are rarely interested in plasticity. Nature does not interest them. They are principally concerned with subjects. They are trying to paint states of mind. That is the most dangerous sort of painting imaginable. It will lead the Futurist painters straight toward careers as mere illustrators."

Severini even-handedly described Apollinaire's attack as "malicious but correct observation"; and, all futurist passion spent, he actually accepted a commission in 1921-22 to paint for Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell a charming Harlequin fresco at Montegufoni, the Sitwells' Italian castle.

Currently showing at the Estorick Collection is an exhibition of "Futurism and Photography". Sadly, there is only one photograph on view taken by one of the big five, an ingenious multi-headed self-portrait by Boccioni called I-We , done between 1905 and 1907, thus predating the manifesto but a superb historical document none the less. There are several group portraits of the gang by specialist photographers such as Mario Nunes Vais, which are resolutely documentary rather than futuristic in tone.

The exhibition is an intriguing mix of the conventional and the dramatic, the latter illustrating Marinetti's ideas, the former of the kind that would win prizes and appear in Photography Year Book. Enrico Pedrotti's Skier is pure aesthetic photography, and was probably not appreciated by Marinetti. He would however certainly have admired Filippo Masoero's 1934 Dynamised View of the Roman Forum, which is about as close as black and white photography can get to the fragmented image and the sense of speed and intense force demanded of futurism's disciples. Aeroplanes and flight figure largely in both Marinetti's ideas and the work of the best photographers such as Tato, as in his haunted, and haunting, fantastical aeroportrait of Mino Somenzi.

There is a superb print of the best-known photograph of all, the glorious Cat + I by Wanda Wulz, in which a cat's head and an utterly seductive feline woman's face are provocatively and seamlessly merged. Above all, there are some wonderful photo-collages by Vinicio Palladini and Bruno Munari, like the semi-serious Olympic Games series and Nothing is absurd to those who fly, with its big disembodied foot complete with bunions and cruelly tight restraining ropes. Pure Monty Python. Indeed, Marinetti, who died in 1944, would surely have saluted Terry Gilliam as a true son and heir of the futurist philosophy and experience.

"Futurism and Photography" is at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art (020 7704 9522) until 22 April

12 issues for £12