Saturday, 11 July 2009

Futurism and more

Everyone had a day-off yesterday so we did what is now firmly established as a favourite London jaunt: the number 56 bus from Essex Road to St Paul's Tube Station, then a short walk through the new Paternoster Square, down to the river past St Paul's where, crossing over the wobbly bridge, you arrive at Tate Modern. One of the best short walks in London.

Just a couple of observations on yesterday's walk. Now it's been cleaned, the Portland stone of St Paul's is the precise colour of latte foam, with the same tones and gradations; it makes the stately exuberance of its baroque architecture even more enjoyable. Second, on a sunny day, the tower of the former Bankside power station can look laughably absurd rather than sinister. It shares with the tower of the University Library in Cambridge, also by Giles Gilbert Scott, what Orwell described (with reference to top hats) as an 'Assyrian absurdity'.

This time, our mission was to see the Futurism exhibition at Tate Modern. It was magnificent, the best exhibition I've attended there. I was under the impression that it just featured the Italian Futurists. It actually offered a cross-section of the works of future-looking artists from four countries - France, Britain and Russia, as well as Italy - but all from the period 1909-1915.

It was interesting to see contemporaneous works by artists inhabiting more or less distinct national styles but who were all innovating, trying to capture the qualities of the future. The real treat, though, lay in witnessing and appreciating, side-by-side, the very individual exuberance of artists such as Delaunay, Braque, Gontcharova, Wyndham Lewis, Boccioni and Severini. What's more, many of the works retained a freshness and crispness that still made them feel redolent of new beginnings.

I added the last artist - Severini - to the list above entirely as a result of the visit today, having not been familiar with his work before. Previously, I'd associated the Italian Futurists solely with images of mechanistic motion ('that looks speedy-fast', as our eldest said in the first room, which featured classic Futurist images of movement). But Severini's paintings are often light and playful: colourful streetscapes and large, busy interiors done in a style that whilst incorporating the dynamic perspectives of Futurism also exhibits a bravery in colour reminiscent of Fauvism. They're executed in lively (sometimes even pastel) colours in a hand that clearly loves paint. A melding of styles I found both unusual and beautiful.

I strongly recommend you visit. There's still plenty of time as it finishes on 20th September. I will certainly be back at least one more time.

Just a final note. On the way back, a journey of no more than half a mile, we enjoyed: some gypsy buskers playing Gypsy Kings covers on the south bank; a jazz ensemble playing songs from The Jungle Book on a street-piano and their own brass on the north bank; a contemporary dance group with sound system performing on the steps of St Paul's; another street-piano, this time playing boogie-woogie, randomly accompanying the activities of a tight-rope walker in Paternoster Square. We got on our bus happily overwhelmed by a surfeit of culture. What a city!


Gadjo Dilo said...

Ah, man, you've just made my day! Futurism is one of my favourite art movements (though not for its politics), particularly as it appeals to the dancer in me. When I was last passing through Italy I made for Milan with the sole purpose of visiting the gallery of Futurist paintings there - but it was closed for renovation :-( The next time I visit UK is on Sept. 18th, so it looks like I can just get to see this exhibition before it closes :-)

worm said...

I saw the last big Severini exhibition in London at the Hayward gallery in '99, it was excellent

What I find interesting about futurism is what GD alluded to in his post - to what extent is it viable for critics to discount the movement due to it's links with politics? Should art with a dodgy association be considered as 'lesser art'?

personally I love futurism, as do most people I know, and I couldn't care less if bad people used it as eye catching graphics on propaganda posters

I'll try to get down to the sharon tate to see this show - I have yet to see a single show I really liked there, so fingers crossed that this one might be it!

Bunny Smedley said...

Hmm, the more I read, the more I really want to see this exhibition ...

As for the politics of Futurism, isn't there a danger of projecting Marinetti's increasingly unfortunate views onto everyone and everything that fits under the 'Futurist' big tent? Whereas, the Futurists were, surely, quite a disparate bunch - our own homegrown Vorticists certainly were, anyway - and all of them a lot less distressing than, say, Rodchenko and Popova, much of whose art was created explicitly in the service of one of the most unpleasant regimes the modern world has ever known.

Finally, I think you do a wonderful job of evoking Severini, at least on the basis of what I've seen at the Estorick Collection - although it clearly runs in the family as 'speedy-fast' is an impressively hard-hitting critical term.

Kevin Musgrove said...

I bumped into my first Severini work by accident in the states. Very nice.

And Futurism gave rise to some incredibly striking magazine covers and poster art.

Gaw said...

Gadjo: Good timing, just!

Gadjo, Worm, Bunny: The views of the artists on show were anything but monolithic. A few bad apples certainly. But in any event, I think it rarely pays to take artists' views on politics seriously. Not only do they rarely know what they're on about, I suspect a highly disproportionate number hold fairly extreme opinions. After all, to have the drive and ego to become a successful artist, you probably have to have a tendency to messianic authoritarianism.

Bunny: To my shame, given it's up the road, I haven't been to Estorick. I am now motivated to make a trip.

Kevin: I'd like to see some of the popular manifestations of Futurism. Weren't there quite a few Futurism-inspired album covers in the '70s and '80s?

Bunny Smedley said...

Do, everyone, go to the Estorick! Aside from anything else - the manageable size, the rather elegant environment, the amazing special exhbitions such as one one about the Vorticists a few years ago - the cafe and bookshop are both delightful too.

Brit said...

Nice piece (and, as ever, two and a half cheers for Londinium) but I can't really get on with futurism. Interesting and intellectually-pleasing but it doesn't speak to me, and possibly I associate it too much with the worst, anti-human bits of the 20th century.

Gaw said...

Brit: I didn't rush to the exhibition because what I'd seen and knew of the Futurists didn't really inspire me, for the same reason as you. But because it covered some Futurist artists I didn't know, as well as the French, Russian and British contemporaneous art, it exceeded my expectations hugely.

It was easy to disentangle the vast majority of the art from the proto-fascism and love of violence of Marinetti. It ended up being surprisingly optimistic, even quite exciting. Futurism without the capital F? In any event, if you love lots of colour and movement in your paintings, I don't think you could fail to enjoy it.

However, if you decide to visit I wouldn't bother with the final room which is concerned with war. This on its own would confirm all your misgivings. But it's a very small room and only one of about eight.

Hey Skipper said...

My family and I visited the Tate about a month ago.

(Full disclosure: when it comes to art, my ignorance is a good first approximation of infinite.)

I thought Futurism exhibition was the most interesting in the whole building, but I am with Brit: guilt by association.

I think London is my favorite big city -- the two and a half days we had there were shy of enough by about a month.

Gaw said...

Skipper: The more contemporary bits of the permanent collection at the Tate is in large part pretty hopeless. I don't really like the galleries either.

Next time you're in London, do give me a shout and I'll buy you a pint.

Hey Skipper said...

Will do.