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FUTURISM AT THE TATE

A review

 

This is an extended version of an article which originally appeared in the July 2009 edition of the Francis Boutle publishers email Newsletter.

 

TEN YEARS AFTER

The Francis Boutle publications series 'Painting and its Laws' is concerned almost exclusively with principles of pictorial construction - the interplay of verticals, horizontals, diagonals, curves. We do not suggest that this is the only thing in painting that is interesting and important or that everyone should make it their exclusive concern, only that it is interesting and important and that some people - especially among practising artists - should make it their exclusive concern. One of the three books published so far brings together the essay From Cubism to Classicism by the Futurist painter Gino Severini, and Painting and Its Laws by the Cubist painter, Albert Gleizes. It is in this light that we approach the exhibition devoted to the Futurists currently on show at the Tate Modern.

And a curious light it is. By 1921, when he wrote From Cubism to Classicism, Severini was arguing that the perspective system, which Cubism and Futurism had both challenged, was an objective, scientific truth which painters had to respect. Gleizes was also arguing for an objective, scientifically verifiable basis to painting but that, contrary to the perspective system, it had to respect the essential objective property of the picture plane - its flatness. Both Severini and Gleizes in their wildly different approaches argue that painting can engage not just in an organisation of space but also of time. Both, in discussing the 'time' aspect, use the term 'rhythm' and both evoke as a major theorist of such 'rhythm' the Sorbonne-based 'psycho-physicist' Charles Henry, better known for his influence on the late nineteenth century neo-Impressionists, Georges Seurat and Paul Signac. in this context it is interesting to note that the Director of the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, which hosted the Futurist invasion of Paris in February 1912, was Félix Fénéon, previously known as the great champion of Charles Henry, Neo-Impressionism and of a scientific - as opposed to Symbolist/'mystical' - approach to painting.

On the face of it the worlds of Severini's classicism in 1921, of Cubo-Futurism in 1912, of neo-Impressionism in the 1880s/90s would appear to be far removed from each other but what is really interesting and moving in all this is the continuity and seriousness of the intellectual work that was going on underneath all the excitement and noisy proclamations of the individual moments we encounter along the way. It may be churlish to complain but the Tate exhibition would have been much more interesting if it had covered a much wider time frame.

 

CUBISM v FUTURISM

The exhibition was originally shown in the Pompidou Centre in Paris under the title Futurism in Paris and though it also evokes the impact of Futurism in Russia and England the main emphasis is on the interaction between Futurism and Cubism. Many years later, in 1948, Gleizes summed up what he saw as having been important in the Futurist contribution as follows:

"After what has already been said, we should now be able to at least suspect the possibility that the painting-object, incarnate act of the painter, can be endowed with movement, since movement is a capacity of the eye ... Nearly forty years ago, there was a group of painters who attempted to realise this movement. They talked of pictorial dynamism, because they had the intuitive awareness of a capacity which, up to that point, had been thought of as being foreign to painting. These painters were the Italian Futurists. Let us salute them in passing, and above all among them, my friend, Boccioni, killed before his time, in 1914." (L'Homme devenu peintre, Paris, Somogy, 1998. My translation. The book was not published in Gleizes's lifetime)

Gleizes' reference to Boccioni as 'my friend' might surprise readers of the Futurism catalogue which sees nothing but antagonism between the two groups, with Gleizes the furthest removed from the Futurists, and indeed the friendship is not obvious from the literature published at the time. But in a Hommage to Gleizes published after his death Severini said that Gleizes had been more generous [expansif] and supportive' to the Futurists 'than anyone' (Jean Cassou et al: Hommage à Albert Gleizes,Lyon 1953, p.19).

 

MOVEMENT AND AGITATION

The emphasis on time and movement is indeed the salient characteristic of the Futurists. Among the Cubists in the Tate exhibition we can see that there is a great emphasis on the organisation of space and therefore a solidity, often emphasised by vertical and horizontal lines. Among the Futurists there is a deliberate effort to destroy any suggestion of solidity or monumentality. Or to quote the review by Peter Campbell in the London Review of Books, exaggerating somewhat with regard to the Cubists but not much with regard to the Futurists: 'The Cubists are brown with verticals and horizontals emphasised. The Futurists are gaudy and things whizz about.' But what is lacking in this Futurist incorporation of movement is any sense of organisation. The eye looking at a painting is launched into time and movement through the use of the diagonal, curve and arabesque which can be used to direct that movement in an organised fashion so that it interacts with and may even strengthen the sense of monumentality. Colour and the tendency of the eye to move from one colour to another can also be used. But the diagonals, curves, arabesques and bright colours that abound in the Futurist paintings are not used in this way. They give no direction to the eye. Boccioni talked about 'succession' as 'the one single form which produces continuity in space' ("Plastic Dynamism" Lacerba, 15 December 1913 in Umbro Apollonia, ed: Futurist Manifestos, Thames and Hudson, 1973, p.93) and his concept indeed remains spatial and therefore, ultimately, static.

The Futurist idea of movement was psychological and kinetic rather than plastic - that is to say it was based on the operation of memory (our perception is always necessarily based not on what is happening but on the memory of what has just happened together with all the feelings that are associated with it) and of the simultaneous presentation of the different stages of an object in motion ('a running horse has not four legs, but twenty, and their movements are triangular' - Futurist Painting: Technical Manifesto, Poesia, 11 April 1910 in Futurist Manifestos, p.26). It was an experiment that had to be tried but it was so alien to the requirements of the medium that it equally well had to be abandoned. The same could be said of the typically Cubist device of extracting different views of a subject (analysis) and recombining them (synthesis). Both methods pretended to intensify our experience of the subject but the main merit of both was to contribute towards breaking the subject down and opening the canvas up to elements more nearly corresponding to its own, two-dimensional nature (the evolution is described in Gleizes's lecture Art and Religion translated in Albert Gleizes: Art and Religion, Art and Science, Art and Production, Francis Boutle publishers, London, 1999).

Looked at strictly from this angle the least interesting of the Futurists is probably Boccioni himself despite the enormity of his ambition and intelligence. The most interesting at the precise moment of the arrival in Paris is to my eyes Carlo Carrà. Both Carrà and Severini have a much greater respect than Boccioni for the flatness of the picture plane but Carrà, in such works as The Jolts of a Cab, The (particularly lovely) Movement of Moonlight, The Woman in a Café, Milan Station and even The Funeral of the Anarchist Galli, seems to me more successful at blending his forms into a pictorial unity. The 1915 abstracts by Ballà, three dimensional though they may be, are also profoundly interesting, especially to those of us with a taste for the graffiti art of the past thirty years.

 

STEALING THE OTHER PARTY'S CLOTHES

The main article in the catalogue - Didier Ottinger's Cubism + Futurism = Cubo-Futurism - argues that the impact of the Futurists on Paris was huge, much greater than I would previously have thought. In overall outline he may be right but there is much in the detail of his account that can be questioned. For example he argues that the Futurists laid claim to the succession of the Divisionists, or Neo-Impressionists, and this would seem to be validated by the bright colours, the support of Fénéon and Severini's well-attested interest in Seurat, though there is little sign (except perhaps in Severini) of any attempt at a 'scientific' ordering of the colours. He goes on to suggest that the critique of Neo-Impressionism in On "Cubism", published by Gleizes and Metzinger in 1912, is in fact a critique of the Futurists. My own view is that it is indeed as it appears to be a critique of the Neo-Impressionists and especially of Paul Signac's theoretical statement From Eugene Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism. It is a respectful critique, arguing that Cubism is better equipped than Neo-Impressionism to realise their common ambition of a rational ordering of form and colour.

Similarly, Ottinger takes Gleizes's Tradition and Cubism (1913), with its assertion of a distinctively French tradition and its attack on the influence of the later Italian Renaissance, as a response to the Futurists. It is an obvious connection to make and I have made it myself but am now more inclined to see it as a response to the development of Gleizes's friend Jean Metzinger, who was turning towards the French eighteenth century, an art of wit and elegance, evoking Boucher, Fragonard, Lancret. Among the many important paintings shown in Paris but not at the Tate is Metzinger's Dancer in the Café which illustrates the point very well.

Ottinger's remarks about Neo-Impressionism and the definition of a specifically French tradition occur in the context of a larger argument to the effect that the Futurists cleverly upstaged the 'Cubists' by stealing their theoretical clothing. By 'Cubists', in inverted commas, of course, Ottinger means Gleizes and Metzinger as opposed to the real Cubists - Picasso and Braque. One feels that the French will probably be the last to abandon the old canard that Picasso and Braque represent an 'essential' or 'true' Cubism and that all the other people characterised as Cubists in the polemics of the time were merely a crowd of rather slow witted 'followers', unable to understand what their leaders were up to.

Ottinger says:

'In laying claim to the legacy of Post-Impressionism and declaring themselves to be "Bergsonians" the Futurist painters stripped the "Cubist camp" - that occupied by the "Salon Cubists" (Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger, Fernand Léger and Robert Delaunay) and their spokesman, Roger Allard - of two major components of their plastic and theoretical inheritance. Bergson and his philosophy were regularly quoted in the first writings which Gleizes, Metzinger and Allard devoted to Cubism.'

Ottinger's notes mention the Cubism Reader recently published by Mark Antliff and Patricia Leighten, which gathers together nearly everything written on Cubism at the time and certainly everything by Gleizes, Metzinger and Allard. The first thing anyone looking at this book will notice is that, prior to the arrival of the Futurists in February 1912, these three had published very little - two short articles by Metzinger (two further contributions are included in the book - a poem and an article about the writer Alexandre Mercereau but these are not really about Cubism); two short articles by Gleizes; two short articles by Allard. That's it. Nothing by Delaunay or Léger. The second thing one might notice on glancing through the texts is that none of them mention the name of Henri Bergson. It is true, as Ottinger points out, that Metzinger uses the terms 'duration' and 'intuition', which are terms to be found in Bergson's writings. It is also true that both Gleizes and Allard quote Metzinger using the term 'duration' and Gleizes also uses the term 'dynamism', once in each of his two articles, talking about Metzinger and Léger. Ottinger also quotes Allard on Gleizes 'directly touching the viewer's memory'. Bergson did, it is true, write a book called Matter and Memory but the point Allard is making here is that Gleizes, in contrast to Le Fauconnier, is still too figurative and decorative for Allard's liking. The reference to 'memory' is to a too great reliance on the extra-pictorial associations of the painting. In his second article he congratulates him on having improved in this respect. The main thrust of both articles, as of most of the Cubist writings of the time, though the commentators insist on disregarding the fact, is on the need, whatever the subject, for a strong, purely pictorial, plastic construction.

That is as much as I can see of the 'peppering' of Bergsonian terms throughout these early Cubist texts. In their commentary on Allard's first article, however, Antliff and Leighten point to the Bergsonian character of his argument, used by all the group, that tradition (or 'classicism') and innovation were complementary, not contradictory, ideas. Indeed the main thrust of Antliff's highly influential book Inventing Bergson is that the painters were engaged in a wider controversy with political and cultural ramifications about the nature of French culture. But this emphasis on dynamism, the interdependence of innovation and tradition and its relevance to a specifically French cultural identity can hardly be said to have changed with the arrival of the Futurists. Ottinger has it that the 'Cubists' were forced back on French tradition in reaction to the Italian anti-traditional rhetoric but the emphasis on a specifically French tradition is well-established from the beginning and as Antliff has shown is entirely consonant with the controversies of the time surrounding Bergson. It could be suggested that after February 1912 the actual works of these painters become both more 'dynamic' in their subject-matter and more 'traditional' but this development is already prefigured in their writings and does not presuppose any change of the sort described by Ottinger.

Nor is it very clear what Ottinger is trying to say about 'Post-Impressionism'. He quotes the Futurist technical manifesto of April 1910 - well before Cubism became a public scandal in Paris - as saying 'painting cannot exist today without Divisionism.' But the Divisionist, or Neo-Impressionist technique - the painting built up out of the elementary unit or dot of primary colour - was precisely the dominant modernist tendency in the Paris Salon des Indépendants which the Cubists challenged. Indeed Allard's second article, written in June 1911, mocks the technical manifesto precisely for its insistence on a Neo-Impressionist technique. Ottinger quotes this apparently with a view to arguing that if the 'Cubists' painted with cubes and restrained colours it was because they were anxious not to look like Futurists. Well, it makes a change from having to read that they were just imitating the cubes and restrained colours of Picasso and Braque, but in fact - and Ottinger gives quite a good account of this - by the time the Futurists were planning their invasion, Divisionism was looking 'passé' and Severini, living in Paris, frantically called on his comrades in Italy, to come over for a crash course in the new, apparently anti-Divisionist technique of the Cubists.

It happens that I think Cubism was indeed a development of divisionism - division into elemental dots of primary colour becoming division into elemental geometrical forms. Severini argued this case very well in a couple of extraordinarily interesting articles written during the war. But I see no grounds for Ottinger's argument that the Cubists were claiming the mantle of Neo-Impressionism in 1911 but were forced to abandon it to the Futurists - all the more so since Ottinger says the Cubist inhibitions only lasted until Apollinaire announced the birth of 'Orphism'. This occurred at the opening of the Salon de la Section d'Or in October 1912, that is to say, only a few months after the Futurist exhibition in February. I am assuming incidentally that when Ottinger says 'Post Impressionism', he is thinking of what is more usually known as 'Neo-Impressionism'.

 

CUBISM + FUTURISM = CUBISM ON A LARGER SCALE

The appearance of the Futurists in 1912 did coincide with and may well have helped to inspire, the advance of the public Cubists (Gleizes, Metzinger, Delaunay, Le Fauconnier, Léger) towards a much larger, more ambitious subject matter. In this respect it is surely worth mentioning that the 'Gallery Cubists' (as they have been christened by David Cottington and by Mark Antliff) - Picasso and Braque - were withdrawing into the ever more private world of the 'papiers collés'. Gleizes may also have had the 'papiers collés' in mind when writing Tradition and Cubism. Patricia Leighten has shown that this art is full of references to great contemporary political events but since it took some fifty years for anyone to notice them they can hardly be regarded as public statements.

Allard draws a connection between the Gallery Cubists and the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé though Ottinger misinterprets the passage as referring to the Futurists. The association between Mallarmé and Gallery Cubism was also made, much later, by the Gallery Cubists' impresario, D-H. Kahnweiler and more recently was developed by David Cottington in his Cubism in the Shadow of War. In the late 1880's Mallarmé told his protégé, the poet and theorist of Symbolism, René Ghil, 'Eden exists. We must believe in Eden.' Ghil replied 'No, master. Eden does not exist' and walked out on him. Ghil went on to write a hugely ambitious, dense, almost unreadable, epic poem The Work, more or less describing the evolution of the Universe. The poets with whom Gleizes had been associated in the pre-Cubist 'Abbaye de Créteil' - René Arcos, Georges Duhamel, Henri-Martin Barzun - all saw themselves as followers of Ghil, advocating a poetry of great public statements in opposition to the private, esoteric world of Mallarmé with its emphasis on individual, largely sensual, emotions. Marinetti, the founder-theorist of Futurism, knew the Abbaye poets and could be said to have belonged to the same tendency, issuing out of Symbolism but reacting against its preciousness and hermetic quality. Ottinger evokes the sympathy with which the Futurists were received by the poet Gustav Kahn. Kahn also belongs to this tendency and Gleizes always refers to him favourably. Which suggests that a somewhat different fault line could be drawn, with the 'Salon Cubists' and Futurists together on one side, and Picasso and Braque on the other, symbiotically linked, despite the obvious differences, to the non-realist, imaginary earthly paradise ('Eden') of, among others, Matisse. The relevance of this distinction would be confirmed by the tension there was between the Futurists round Marinetti and their friend, the gallery Cubists' most ardent champion in Italy, Ardengo Soffici.

 

FROM CUBISM TO CLASSICISM v PAINTING AND ITS LAWS

What happens subsequently is discussed at greater length in my introduction to the translations of Severini and Gleizes. The big-subject 'realist' Cubists - Léger, Delaunay, Gleizes - are dispersed by the war while the painters who are more open to the influence of Picasso - Metzinger, Severini, Juan Gris - continue working in Paris where, using the typical Gallery Cubist subject matter of the still life, they develop what Christopher Green has called 'Crystal Cubism' - a rational organisation of the plane surface whose greatness - outside the individual case of Juan Gris - has still not been recognised by the historians. That in turn sets the scene for the choice posed in the essays by Severini and Gleizes.

Gleizes believed that the 'Crystal Cubists' (he specifically evoked Metzinger and Gris) had found the principles on which an essentially non-representational art could be built - he felt that the earlier non-representational art of, for example, Frantisek Kupka and the first, much neglected, French theorist of abstraction, Henri Valensi, had no solid foundation. Severini believed Futurism and Cubism had exhausted what they had to say and that a return to the basic principles of painting, meaning single point perspective as formulated in the early Renaissance, was inescapable. Although other painters would not have followed either Severini or Gleizes in the detail of their thinking, many found themselves facing the same general dilemma - a return to single point perspective or a non-representational painting respectful of the two-dimensional nature of the picture plane. The most distinctive innovations of pre-war Cubism (the object seen from different angles) and Futurism (the attempt to reconstruct a subjective experience of the passage of time) were gone and, despite the generally chaotic nature of the subsequent history of painting, no-one ever seems to have had the notion of reviving them.

 

MENTAL STATES

Ottinger's article, however, points us in another direction. For him, the real climax to the encounter between Cubism and Futurism came with a fusion between them, which he calls 'Cubo-Futurism', (distinguishing it from the Russian movement of that name) and which he identifies loosely with Apollinaire's 'Orphism'. The salient characteristic of Orphism was the use of bright colour and Apollinaire - who, it seems to me, was never that keen on Cubism in its more austere mode - saw Delaunay as its chief representative. The exhibition includes Delaunay's Circular Forms, Sun No 2, 1912-13, which I regard as among the most important of all the pictures shown, using colour in a precise, ordered manner that is many miles removed from the melodramatic way in which it is typically used by the Futurists.

But Ottinger does not waste much time on Delaunay. For him the most important Orphist/Cubo-Futurists are the Duchamp brothers (Jacques Villon, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Marcel Duchamp) and Francis Picabia. Their importance is stressed in the organisation of the exhibition. I do not know if this is a Tate or Centre Pompidou initiative but they have a room all to themselves; and in the texts on the wall - though not, so far as I can see - in the catalogue, Jacques Villon is presented as the most important theorist of the Section d'Or. Since Villon wrote very little and since the publication of On "Cubism" coincided with the opening of the exhibition, this seems a strange assessment. The reconstruction of the Section d'Or exhibition by Cécile Debray et Françoise Lucbert has shown us that it was in fact a very eclectic show and On "Cubism" reflects that eclecticism. It contains very little that is specific to Cubism (the oft quoted passages on walking round the subject and on non-Euclidean geometry are passing remarks, not central to the argument).

The Duchamp/Villon/Picabia room does include Raymond Duchamp-Villon's Great Horse, a wonderful piece of work that leaves us wanting to weep for his death in the First World War; and Jacques Villon was indeed an exceptionally interesting artist though in my view more for his work as an engraver from the 1920s onward than for his painting. But Ottinger's attention is focussed on what he sees as the fusion between what is typical of Cubism (the subject seen from different angles) and what is typical of Futurism (time presented as the image of a mental state) - the two characteristics which, we have seen, proved to have no future in them, unless we see the 'states of mind' approach continuing in Surrealism. The artists who interest him most in this respect are Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia. Ottinger acknowledges that Duchamp's interest in time and states of mind was well-established before he became aware of the Futurists, and that he never showed much interest in them, but this doesn't inhibit the flow of his general argument that this was the true climax of the story of the Futurist influence in Paris. We may note in parenthesis that although he is arguing that the Futurists in a manner of speaking 'won' and that the French art of the period was largely a reaction to them, it is only really the specificities of the French art, not the Italian art, the supposed subject of the exhibition, that interest him.

In the case of Picabia, and of Duchamp who was very young at the time and fell under Picabia's influence, the interest in states of mind turned into an interest in drugs and alcohol. The attempt to seize a mental state continually being dissolved in time inevitably led to the destruction of the subject and the emergence - especially in Picabia - of an apparently non-representational art. But it is not an art based on any strong non-representational structural principles. Like the Futurists Picabia undoubtedly felt that that would imply a static, monumental quality, at odds with his desire to capture the fleeting nature of the world. It remains, then, an art orientated towards the subject - the thing or idea that is being represented - and both painters, unable to break free of the subject, become more and more exasperated at the impossibility of what they were trying to do. The art becomes conceptual rather than plastic; the interest shifts from the work itself to what can be said about it, hence the interest it excites among professional art commentators. Since much of the mainstream art of the present day is still trapped in the same dilemma, though apparently without the same degree of anguish, Ottinger is undoubtedly right to stress its importance. Happily, though, it is not the only enduring legacy left to us by the Cubist/Futurist adventure.