Byline: Philip Hensher
Futurism Tate Modern, London Until September 6 ***
On February 20, 1909, Parisians woke to find, on the front page of Le Figaro, a call to arms. Under the name of the young Italian poet Filippo Marinetti, a group of artists calling themselves 'futurists' declared that they would devote themselves to the modern world: aeroplanes, trains, factories and the fury of the contemporary city.
Among other things, it soon became apparent that Marinetti also wanted to abolish pasta and fill in the canals of Venice to make an immense motorway. It would never catch on, but the manifesto caused an immense stir. The work of the group's painters - Russolo, Carra, Severini, Balla and Boccioni - soon became known all over Europe and beyond.
The futurists then went their different ways; some ended up supporting Mussolini's fascism, while Severini finished with, of all things, a series of mosaic Stations of the Cross in his birthplace, Cortona. Nowadays, the splash they made seems remote, and much of their art mannered and even rather silly. The phenomena of speed and modernity that so excited them are decidedly quaint, So what can Tate Modern's exhibition say for futurism? It limits itself to the first stage, finishing before the end of the First World War. Clearly, the five futurist painters were very different in talent and technique. I don't think there's much to be said for Carra's muddy confu-sionsand Russolo strikes me as someone with an idea of a painting rather than a proper painter: The Revolt is like the faithful rendering of the description of an avant-garde painting in a very bad novel. Balla was older than the others, and in the end melded pointillism with an idea of movement that could only have come from poring over film stills.
Severini is the one I love, without claiming him as the most important. His splintered scenes have a spirit of fun; a flat liveliness and an unmis-takablcharm that make them rise above the dated manners of futurism. An immense painting of a dance - a late reconstruction of a lost canvas from this period - finds the decorative quality in the movement which the others were too committed to admit. …