26 MAY 2007, Page 50

Destroying the past

Andrew Lambirth

A Slap in the Face! Futurists in Russia Estorick Collection, 39a Canonbury Square, London N1, until 10 June Futurism was originally an Italian manifestation in art and literature, a cult of speed and movement, triumphantly urban and dynamic, a sort of souped-up Cubism, which lasted from 1909 until its deathblow in the first world war and final dissolution in the 1920s. It was pretty much invented by the poet Filippo Tomasso Marinetti (1876–1944), who liked to call himself ‘the caffeine of Europe’, and was actor-manager and travelling salesman for the group. The first international agent provocateur of modern art, expert promoter and publicist, he was for ever on the road organising confrontational meetings masquerading as art and guaranteed to grab the headlines. He can be blamed for much of the ‘performance art’ which bedevils us today, though he was far better value and more entertaining.

At the beginning of 1914, Marinetti took the train from Milan to Moscow, where rather to his surprise, after all the talk of pelting him with rotten eggs and sour milk — he was warmly welcomed. Some of the more avant-garde Russian artists were already predisposed towards the doctrine of Futurism and had begun to develop their own version of it. However, the more independent, like Mikhail Larionov, opposed Marinetti and resented his tireless cultural colonialism. Although some were influenced by the Italian example, others merely adopted what was relevant and ignored the rest. For the urban template of Italian Futurism did not take into account the important rural aspect of Russian art, with its emphasis on folk art and search for Russian identity. Rather as the English adapted Futurism to their own ends to produce Vorticism, so the Russians developed their own versions, which led to Rayism (or Rayonism) and ultimately to Suprematism and Constructivism. This exhibition is a survey of that Italian– Russian interaction.

The Estorick organises a programme of exhibitions which serves to locate its permanent collection of 20th-century Italian art within a wider international context. Among the treasures of the collection are Balla’s ‘The Hand of the Violinist’, all mul tiple stopping, and several Severinis, including a bright simultanist mosaic-like painting ‘The Boulevard’, a Cubist still-life of Quaker Oats and a study in movement of ballerina and sea. These are now to be seen within a framework of loaned Russian works. Do not be put off by the slightly dour way in which the show starts. The subject of the first major picture in gallery 1 is promising enough — ‘Quarrel in a Tavern’ by Larionov — but it’s treated in such a stagey way as to resemble an inauthentic Morris dance for bored tourists. His woodcut Rayist portrait of Goncharova is better structured, a tough piece of design though not much of a likeness. Boccioni’s ink drawing ‘Plastic Dynamism: Horse + Houses’ (1914) has real oomph, a forceful contrast to Aredengo Soffici’s lovingly textured stilllife-cum-landscape ‘Deconstruction of the Panes of a Lamp’. But the best picture here is ‘The Forest’ (c.1913) by Goncharova herself, loaned by the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art. Gutsy but subtle, solid but also delicate, this is a powerful evocation of woodland somewhat in the manner of Franz Marc. Not particularly Futurist, but a lovely painting.

In gallery 2, a DVD of the 1981 production of the opera Victory over the Sun (prologue by Khlebnikov, libretto by Kruchenykh, music by Matiushin, design by Malevich) is rather intrusive. This room brings home the distinctly limited attractions of idealistic and self-conscious avant-gardism, though as a counterweight there’s a good Goncharova painting ‘Abstract Still-life/Rayist Stilllife’ of 1915–17, and a tremendous series of collages by Olga Rozanova. These 11 cut-paper and fabric abstract compositions are one of the reasons to visit this show: pithy, witty and inventive, they’re a lesson in expressiveness achieved through deliberately reduced means. Superb.

Upstairs, gallery 3 contains classic Italian Futurist pictures, with a strange and haunting de Chirico of 1916, ‘The Revolt of the Sage’. Gallery 4 features two models, reconstructions of Rodchenko’s ‘Oval Hanging Construction No 12’ and the Soviet Pavilion at the Paris International Exhibition of Decorative Arts. Academic interest is perhaps stronger than popular appeal in this room, though the Proun paintings by El Lissitzsky, and particularly the gouache variant, have a cogency and precision that are compelling. A couple of Lissitzsky’s collages, ‘Black Sphere’ and ‘Tatlin working on the Monument to the Third International’, evince a measured persistence that beguiles infinitely more than the series of his lithographs hung nearby. Up another flight for gallery 5, a room of Italian Futurist works on paper nice things by Sironi, Balla’s speeding automobile in coloured crayons and Carra’s ‘Atmospheric Swirls: A Bursting Shell’ — and gallery 6, the Russian Theatre Room. Here are jolly costume designs by Goncharova for Le Coq d’Or, and three actual costumes borrowed from the V&A Theatre Museum. The best and most dramatic of these is undoubtedly Larionov’s brilliant and inspired 1921 ‘Costume for a Buffoon in Chout’. Three drawings in enamel also by Larionov — a head of a man smoking a pipe, a bust of a woman and a sketch of a tree — are vivid and refreshing, apparently rudimentary but in actual fact sophisticated and eloquent. Typical, in fact, of the Russian Futurists’ assertive crudeness.

By its very name Futurism disowned the past, which it wished to destroy, and looked unremittingly to the possibilities of tomorrow’s world, until the devastation of war revealed that wholesale destruction was perhaps not so positive and glorious after all. (These are the boys who droned on about war being ‘the world’s only hygiene’.) To the Russians, windbag Marinetti proclaimed, ‘It is certain that Futurism — this poetry of the future, hastening to create new forms, will have a great success in your country.’ He was wrong about that, as about so much else, but the moment of Russian Futurism is an interesting one, and worth considering. It’s as well to be aware that the Estorick is open only from Wednesday to Saturday 11 to 6, Sunday 12 to 5, and that admission is £3.50 (concessions £2.50). Otherwise, the show can be seen at the Hatton Gallery, Newcastle University, from 23 June to 18 August.