Futurism at the Tate Modern

I’ve decided to continue with this blog, on which I described my MA progress at Camberwell College of Art up to 2009. The main focus here will continue to be the artistic depiction of motion, covering my own and others work, both historical and contemporary. This blog will form one part of a personal website hosting all my projects. I’ve decided to continue blogging as I’ve built a small audience, and it serves to promote my work and enables me to contextualise my work. I’ll be re-organising the front end over the summer.

Futurism at the Tate Modern

This was a good show, but perhaps not so good for the Futurists as it over emphasised pre-war painting. Where the Futurists really shone (and fulfilled their name) was in alternative new media – manifestos, graphics, photography, theatre, poetry, performance, and sound art. They applied their dynamic philosophy to all aspects of their life releasing bizarre manifestos on food, clothes and artistic revolution. In this show, painting wise, the Futurists are outshone by other more focussed movements; the Cubists, the Rayonists, the Cubo-Futurists, and even the unfairly maligned Vorticists. However the cross pollination between all these groups gives a good impression of the artistic ferment of the early twentieth century. Many works overflow with fragments of urban life and the expressions of simulaneity and dynamism are ever present. These paintings excite in the same way the city excites.

I’m specifically interested in the attempt to capture motion (or conversely the space passed through) and I’d like to analyse the different approaches to painting motion, largely invented by the Futurists. Did they succeed?

Multiple Frames

The Futurists transferred chronophotographic techniques to painting – displaying several frames from a particular motion in the same pictoral space. This can clearly be seen in Gonchorova’s The Cyclist (1913). This can be easily read as an attempt at portraying movement – but can be criticised (and was) because the eye never actually sees this kind of multiple image. It is more like a crude diagram of movement. There’s a naivety about this method, multiple feet look humourous, and it is the kind of effect used a lot in comics.

Force lines

The more advanced version of the above blurs all the frames into a single swirl of motion. The multiples become abstracted into geometric patterns trailing the leading pose. Taken to graphical extremes this can make for some striking paintings, for example Russolo’s The Revolt (1911). The Futurists hoped these paintings would galvanise the audience into action, literally sweeping the viewer into revolutionary acts or at least into seeing the world in a new way. These sort of geometric paintings are often sited as good examples of expressing movement. The eye is supposed to vigourously flow around the painting – I wonder – the eye may move around the canvas, but is always contained by the frame, and the gallery, and the next picture along and so on. Movement is curtailed by the schematics of the design. Occasionally this can work, for example Nevinson’s Bursting Shell (1915) which he painted while on Ambulance duty in Britain in WW1. Here the motion is supplied as a kind of optical illusion.


Other Futurists used pattern to break apart an image and force the eye all over the canvas to express the vibrancy and motion of an event. Again the eye is moving and not the subject of the painting. There’s a puzzle like quality to the work Severini’s The Dance of the Pan-Pan at the “Monico” painting (1911). The eye flits from shape to shape.

Boccioni’s States of Mind

By limiting the formal experimentation to a square frame, perhaps potential ‘kinetic’ energy has been dissipated. This is one reason why Boccioni’s Double Triptych States of Mind seemed to me the most exciting work on display (apart from his other undoubted masterpiece Unique Forms of Continuity in Space which seemed oddly isolated in this show – his death aged 33 in WW1 was a huge loss for Modernism). By looking at a single event from three different perspectives – a train leaves Milan station (people exchange farewells, some go, some stay) – Boccioni opens up the space between the paintings setting up multiple contrasts. After visiting Paris Boccioni then reworked the triptych in a more Cubist inspired style which sets up another layer of comparisons across time, space and artistic stylisation. Individually several of the 6 paintings are beautiful compositions of fleeting parts of trains, buildings, trees and passengers – exactly the type of thing seen through moving windows of a train journey compressed over time. The double triptych multiplies this dynamism many times over.

These triptyches are exactly the type of starting point I need for a series of planned digital prints which take a London location as a focal point and compress a series of short video sequences into single images, by algorithmically recombining the frames (for example scratching them through each other). Working on several different perspectives should help give a structured framework to work against. Boccioni’s horizontals (leaving), verticals (staying), and swirls (farewells) may be a useful initial formalisation – I was thinking of allowing the broader movements of color blocks across the videos to determin the finer trajectories of the combinations. The resulting images are hard to explain in words, and Boccioni’s work is something like what I had in mind. As I make these works I’ll post the results and explain the programming in more depth.


One Response to “Futurism at the Tate Modern”

  1. Rockjimford Says:

    Great review Tim.. learned lots from you. I’m also involved in digital and will be interested to see how your ideas play out. Best wishes RockJimford.

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