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Back to the future

Marinetti's futurist manifesto, published 100 years ago next month, launched one of the most brillia

Almost 100 years ago, on 20 February 1909, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti's "The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism" was published. Thanks to family connections, he managed to get it on the cover of Le Figaro, France's most respectable and conservative daily. Here began one of the most brilliant and disturbing episodes in 20th-century art, an extreme from which, it could be argued, most subsequent art has been in panicked retreat.

It starts with a car crash, as well it might, described in vividly autoerotic terms. Marinetti and his friends get in their vehicles, or rather, "We went up to the three snorting beasts, to lay amorous hands on their torrid breasts . . . And so we raced, hurling watchdogs under doorsteps, curling them under our burning tyres like collars under a flatiron." Then, as his car lies upturned in a ditch, he revives his "beautiful shark" with "a caress . . . and there it was, alive again, running on its powerful fins". Purified, if muddy and wounded, Marinetti proclaims his 11-point programme, which centres on "eternal, omnipres ent speed", announcing: "We will glorify war - the world's only hygiene - militarism, patriotism . . . beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman."

There is little doubt who the opponents of futurism might be: "We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind." A century later, it is all too clear that the movement failed in this aim, and the museums will take their revenge this year. Tate Modern has a huge block- busting show planned for the summer, and while the love of spectacle, sensation and consumption over contemplation in Nicholas Serota's World of Adventures might seem to have some kinship with futurism's devotion to the bright, big and crass, there is little doubt that such a commemoration would have horrified these young men, who declared in their manifesto that: ". . . other younger and stronger men will probably throw us in the wastebasket like useless manuscripts - we want it to happen!"

So rather more faithful to the futurist ethos is the exhibition "Futurism 100!", newly opened at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art in north London. It juxtaposes a selection of works by perhaps the most brilliant of the fut urists, Umberto Boccioni, with an installation by the younger artist Luca Buvoli (at 45, Buvoli is rather older than were the original futurists, of whom the Founding Manifesto said, "The oldest of us is 30" - but nonetheless). This is at least an attempt to wrest futurism back from the museums and bring it into the present.

The pioneer futurists were true to their word about the glorification of war. Marinetti's 1913 sound poem "The Battle of Adrianopole", with its percussive effects and mimicking of shells and artillery exploding ("zang tumb tumb!"), was an incantation on the beauty of the Balkan wars. So when the First World War began, the futurists were ardent propagandists for Italian intervention. That war claimed the lives of their two greatest talents, the architect Antonio Sant'Elia and the sculptor/painter Boccioni, who had developed a style based on fragmentation, kinetic speed, garish colour and exultant violence. Yet the Estorick's Boccioni collection shows that theory preceded practice here, and that, contrary to the idea of pure artistic inspiration, only under the example of Marinetti's manifesto-making and plagiarism from the cubists could a convincing futurist art emerge.

For instance, Modern Idol, painted in 1911, is a faintly risible bit of post-impressionism, in which a bug-eyed woman in a flowery hat glares at the viewer, the dynamic intent expressed through shimmering brushstrokes rather than anything more extreme. Many early commen tators were far more impressed by the ideas than by the end result of futurism, perhaps because of such works. By 1913, however, and after assimilating and distorting Parisian cubism, Boccioni was able to create something far more jarringly futuristic. The 1914 sketch Plastic Dynamism: Horse and Houses is an arrangement of angular, striving forms, pointing inexorably forwards. His most famous work is the sculpture Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, in which a turning body is distended into a fixed blur. This statement of dynamic power was - perhaps appropriately, given the futurist mixture of internationalism and chauvinism - emblazoned on Italian euro coins by the Berlusconi government in 2002.

Boccioni indulged in some major manifesto writing himself, declaring in 1914's "Futurist Painting and Sculpture" that, as against the hint of classical serenity in cubism, "there is a barbaric element in modern society in which we find inspiration" (Boccioni's italics). This new barbarism was proclaimed before the war in such documents as Valentine de Saint-Point's 1913 "Futurist Manifesto of Lust" a bizarre tract by one of the very few female futurists. In it she declares: "A strong man must realise his full carnal and spiritual potentiality. The satisfaction of their lust is the conqueror's due. After a battle in which men have died, IT IS NORMAL FOR THE VICTORS, PROVEN IN WAR, TO TURN TO RAPE IN THE CONQUERED LAND, SO THAT LIFE MAY BE RE- CREATED" (her capitals). A technologised savagery is palpable in most of futurism's artworks and proclamations. Technology is not so much used as worshipped or made anthropomorphic, as a kind of new deity.

After the First World War Marinetti formed a futurist political party that was quickly absorbed into the nascent Fascist movement. He remained an active Fascist for the lifespan of the movement, following Mussolini to his Nazi puppet state, the Republic of Salò. His attempts to make futurism into a state art never quite worked, however. As much as one can find praise of order, discipline and war in the many futurist proclamations, there is also a far-from-Fascist disdain for Catholicism and classicism, and a joy in workers' strikes and uprisings. Sant' Elia's "Manifesto of Futurist Architecture" privileged movement, dynamism and impermanence: "Our houses will endure less than us . . . Each generation will have to make its own city." When one of his futurist designs was finally built in the 1930s, adapted by the architect Giuseppe Terragni into a war memorial, it was fixed in cold, eternal stone.

Futurism's most important innovation, which it shared with its ideological antipode, the Arts and Crafts Movement, was that it was an artistic protest against autonomous art, and for the immersion of art in everyday life. Besides Sant'Elia's architectural tract, there was Giacomo Balla's "Futurist Manifesto of Men's Clothing", which advocated "hap-hap-hap happy clothes, daring clothes with brilliant colours and dynamic lines"; Marinetti's Futurist Cookbook (meatballs on aeroplanes made of breadcrumbs, meat broth with champagne and rose petals); and, of course, Balla and Fortunato Depero's manifesto for a "Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe". In the end, the nearest Depero got to reconstructing the universe was working as an advertising designer and making covers for Vogue.

Peter Saville borrowed a Depero design for the cover for New Order's debut album, Movement, and in many respects futurism's legacy has been more visible in pop music than in fine art. The 1980s group the Art of Noise took their name from Luigi Russolo's 1913 manifesto of futurist noise-music, "The Art of Noises", which proposed the harnessing of industrial and electronic sounds, and their percussive mesh of samples and stabs in turn had a huge effect on 1980s hip- hop acts such as Public Enemy.

In a sense, futurism is the artistically acceptable equivalent of a particularly unpleasant ragga or rap record - violently chauvinistic, obsessed with duelling and aggression, verbally self-aggrandising, but technically and technologically brilliant: perhaps a dubious thrill, but clearly describing capitalism's "war of all against all" more insightfully than the average conceptual artwork. Futurist events in 1910s Italy regularly used to end in brawls, in which young factory workers intervened on the side of artists - a sign, according to Antonio Gramsci, that futurism was too important to be left to the Fascists. And certainly, in the Soviet Union of the 1920s, futurism developed into something more humanistic and sophisticated than its macho progenitor.

At the Estorick exhibition, Luca Buvoli's Velocity Zero is not, as an installation in an art gallery, going to live up to the futurist aspiration to transform the everyday environment. Nevertheless, it promises a serious reinvestigation of futurism's legacy through films, slogans and three-dimensional pavilions. Buvoli writes, "I am revisiting Italian futurism and its co- option by Fascism not out of historical interest, but because of the parallels with demagogic strategies used today by media societies," and he eventually tries to offer "an alternative to our society's celebration of violence".

It is this celebration which pervades the media landscape. One of the last futurist ideas was Aeropittura, aeroplane painting. In works such as Tullio Crali's "Nose-diving on the City", we share a bomber's-eye view, a celebration of the perspective of those who rained explosives upon Abyssinia and Guernica. On New Year's Eve the Haaretz website featured a "missile's view" of the bombardment of Gaza. Despite the futurists' other promises, it is clear that this kind of exultation in mechanised slaughter is their movement's most obvious legacy today.

"Futurism 100!" is at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, London N1, until 19 April. Details:

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: What the world expects...