A good thing to do before visiting Unique Forms: The Drawings and Sculpture of Umberto Boccioni, at the Estorick Collection, is to pop into St Pancras station and have a good laugh at the spectacularly banal sculpture that was unveiled here in 2007, at the culmination of the station’s redevelopment – The Meeting Place, by Paul Day. In any other society, this enfeebling image of a bank clerk and an Essex girl hugging slimily under the station clock would have contented itself with sitting on the cover of a Mills & Boon soapie. But in our valueless, station-spoiling society, someone paid £1m to have it enlarged into a nine-metre-high bronze, positioned portentously at the summit of the concourse, where the nation cannot miss it.
This is a family newspaper and would never usually encourage anyone to embark upon a campaign of civil disobedience, but in the case of Day’s grotesquely lowbrow sculpture, I feel we should make an exception. Why not throw a scrunched-up copy of Metro at it? Or collar a few passers-by and say to them: “What a waste of money, eh? Do you know that thing cost £1m?” If you’re up for a night in gaol, you might even consider dropping your pants and mooning at the damn thing. After all, any tiny misdemeanour you or I might commit is as nothing compared with the huge aesthetic crime against civilisation that was perpetrated when this Shrek-sized magazine illustration was erected at such a prominent national arrival point.
After a spurt of invigorating social disobedience, not only will you have performed a national duty for which you may one day be knighted, but you will also have primed yourself properly for the Boccioni show. It’s quite a thin event. A couple of sculptures. A wall of drawings. Without a larger understanding of what Boccioni was attacking, and a corpuscle or two of futurist anger coursing through your veins, there is a real chance you will find this modest Estorick offering disappointing. If Day’s ridiculous sculpture gets you into the right frame of mind for Boccioni, it will have performed a genuine public service, for once.
Futurism was the most aggressive and mouthiest ism to emerge in the early, heroic days of modernism: the days that count. The Boccioni show is part of a larger futurist celebration heading for our galleries in the months ahead, because the movement was founded exactly 100 years ago, on February 20, 1909, when futurism’s demented leader, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, managed to get Le Figaro in Paris to publish the Futurist Manifesto he had just written – on its front cover. The futurists were Italian. Not in a graceful, Florentine way, but hotly, passionately, unreasonably. Even today, their absurd manifesto makes for uncomfortable, if exciting, reading. “We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind,” howled Marinetti, “because we want to free this land from its smelly gangrene of professors, archeologists, ciceroni and antiquarians.”
Basically, they were against the past and dreamt of a futuristic world, in which the old ways of doing things were replaced by a lofty set of progressive new ambitions. God knows what they would have done to Day’s canoodling Asda shoppers had they encountered them at a station. But they would have loved the new bullet trains themselves, scorching across the Channel into London, and the sensation of speed you get on them; the miracle of the Channel Tunnel; the tang of progress. The unreasonableness of the futurists suddenly appears very reasonable indeed when it encourages us to ask why it is that a society that appears thoroughly progressive in the design of its trains should regress to such chronic backwardness in the choice of art for the resulting station.
Back at the Boccioni, a great futurist painter is turning his attention to sculpture and asking himself what it should look like. He doesn’t want to make sculpture in the way the past made it. He wants a sculpture that reflects the rhythms of the modern age: the speed, the pulse, the violence. His first envisionings are preserved in a pair of gorgeous drawings, from 1912, of his mother’s head, in which a son turns his mum into an unstable ball of light, her features streaming out of the drawing in all directions, as if Spock on the Enterprise has hit the transporter button to beam her home.