Tate Modern manages to make futurism dull

    Futurism is not an easy art movement to like, or, indeed, to take seriously. With its weird mix of white-knuckle Italian progressiveness, flavoured with gloomy dollops of Milanese nostalgia, it seems constantly to be contradicting what it has just been insisting on. And in the figure of its founder, the unpleasant Filippo Marinetti, a loathsome Italian popinjay riddled with homophobic and sexist paranoias who went on to worship Mussolini, it had at its helm the most regrettable leader of any of the great rebellions of modern art. Its tone was obnoxious. Its methods were sinister and shameful. Its art achieved nothing much. Yet it can undoubtedly claim to have created the template for the modern ism, and all the isms that followed adopted its methods. Thus, its importance is as inviolate as its achievements are dubious.

    The official start date for futurism was February 20, 1909, when Marinetti managed to get a manifesto published on the front page of Le Figaro in Paris. “We want to deliver Italy from its gangrene of professors, archeologists, tourist guides and antiquaries,” spat Le Figaro entertainingly. “We declare that the splendour of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed.” It all sounded superbly revolutionary, right? In truth, Marinetti’s manifesto appeared on the cover of France’s leading daily only because the editor of Le Figaro was an old business acquain tance of his father, and the dad called in a favour. Old-fashioned Italian corruption did the job.

    There was much that was inglorious about the futurists. They were against museums, academies, conventions, politeness, reserve, modesty and women. They were for war, destruction, machines, aggression, youth, novelty and men. They were befuddled, but excitingly so, and the first ambition of any decent anniversary show ought surely to have been to convey a tangible sense of the frenzied futurist moment. Alas, Tate Modern’s inexplicably dull effort doesn’t do that.

    The chief problem is, I suggest, that futurist art was never a match for futurist rhetoric. Marinetti’s manifestos talked up a storm and promised revolution, destruction, earthquakes, but the actual paintings of Carra, Russolo and even Boccioni, the deepest talent in the futurist ranks, are such tame and muddy affairs. Having created their movement out of thin air, through the sheer force of their revolutionary proclamations, Marinetti and co were never able to give it a convincing artistic shape. This uncertainty has been inherited by Tate Modern, whose serpentine celebration sets out to praise the movement, but ends up damning it. The opening room feels backward rather than progressive. It’s 1910, and elsewhere in the empire of modern art, the cubists have already fractured reality like a shattered car windscreen. Yet here are the futurists, still working with sluggish impressionist brushstrokes, as if clusters of iron filings were having a magnet passed under them.

    On the cover of Le Figaro, Marinetti had screamed impressively that “a roaring motor car which seems to run on machinegun fire is more beautiful than the Victory of Samo­thrace”. But at this event, instead of cars, rockets, spaceships and time machines, we get Carlo Carra painting blurry women swimmers swishing gently through the water, with a lurch here and a dive there to indicate their progress.

    Not only were the futurists stiff and clumsy draughtsmen, but, for reasons that are never explained adequately, they seemed also to believe that having a bleak outlook on life was as much a sign of progress as the glow of electric lighting. Leaving the Theatre, from 1910, also by Carra, is a hideously gloomy view of a ghostly hansom cab passing behind some doomy veiled figures huddled against the night, like a coven of witches on a Shakespearian moor. Instead of trains and skyscrapers, we have wet horses and Lady Macbeth. When it comes to capturing the movement, lights, glare and drama of modern theatregoing, Toulouse-Lautrec was doing it more excitingly 20 years earlier.

    Part of the problem, I suspect, is that Italy itself was not yet a modern location. Chicago had its skyscrapers, Paris had the Eiffel Tower, but Milan, where futurism had its epicentre, was still a doomy, three-storey slab of ruined Renaissance history, ringed with shadowy arcades. The most progressive things in it were those newly installed street lamps, which successfully turned the city into an eerie ghost town.

    Boccioni’s famous triptych, States of Mind, painted in 1911, is the most celebrated example of this weird fusion of bleak thoughts and modern rhythms. The action is set, Monet style, in a smoky railway station, where it is difficult to make out the shapes. Panel one shows a busy crowd heading for the train. Panel two shows the train itself puffing out of the station. And the almost monochrome panel three shows the people who are left on the platform, trooping off morosely into the smoke. The message is melodramatic and clunky: getting on the train is good, staying behind is bad.

    I have seen Boccioni’s triptych many times at MoMA in New York, and admired it more there than I do here. As with so many of these first futurist efforts, the atmosphere appears dank and fin de siècle, as if imported from the end of the old century rather than the beginning of a new one. Techni-cally, it’s a fudgy, blurry eton mess of styles and approaches, with each panel attempting a different mood by adopting a different colour scheme.

    Riven by all these paradoxes, futurism needs a particularly intelligent exhi bition to make true sense of it, and this isn’t it. One of the few things Marinetti got absolutely right was the name. If you wish to create an art movement that fiercely proclaims the dawning of a new artistic age, I do not imagine you can improve much on futurism, which quickly became a catch-all term for the various progressive tendencies in international art. This show duly has difficulty telling apart the other futuristic isms, and the decision to include them all in this mix – dump them in it would be a more accurate description – is thoroughly confusing.

    For no obvious reason, we suddenly encounter a roomful of Parisian cubism dating from the years before futurism was in ven ted. Yet here it is, halfway along the journey: a Picasso portrait of Fernande; a Georges Braque nude. Not only do they cause instant chronological chaos, they show up the futurists something awful. In terms of skill, touch, modernist adventure and, above all, pictorial invention, the cubists make the futurists look like illustrators with Parkinson’s.

    Russian cubo-futurism, French orphism, Czech angularism – all of them embarrass futurism and muddy its story line. The sole exception is Boccioni’s sculpture, which, though it is clearly derived from Picasso’s example, is genuinely inventive and brave. How glorious, too, to see English vorticism holding its own in this lofty inter national company. Wyndham Lewis’s The Crowd and David Bomberg’s The Mud Bath are utterly convincing attempts to find a spiky artistic language with which to capture the fast edit and vertiginous thrust of modern living. This is, undoubtedly, great futurist art. What a shame the futurists did not produce it.