The Arts: Ecstatic Visions of the Machine ; despite Their Love of Speed and Technology, the Futurists Were Slow to Realise the Possibilities of Photography. but When They Did, Says Kevin Jackson, the Results Were Astonishing
Jackson, Kevin, The Independent (London, England)
With their jokes about Pasolini, Peckinpah and summarising Proust, their song about drunken philosophers, their sketches about Jean-Paul Sartre and their asides about Henri Bergson, the overeducated clowns of the Monty Python troupe must have done more than a dozen Open Universities could to bring advanced cultural literacy to the telly-watching nation; and though some of their jokes were "silly" (technical word), others were deliciously acute.
One of the sharpest came from Terry Gilliam, in a post-Python outing aired a few years ago - a series about the early days of cinema, The Last Machine, in which he suggested that F T Marinetti, the founder and leading ideologue of Futurism, might best be thought of as a kind of Italian Toad of Toad Hall, noisily and passionately in love with his spanking new motor car.
A fine gag, not least because it took a bit of the wind out of the sails of a figure who has too often been paid the compliment of being found sinister - a spiritual brother of Mussolini and an influential fellow traveller of the Italian Fascists. That Futurism did get itself tangled up with Fascism is beyond dispute, though not all the Futurists signed up for Il Duce, and not many Fascists were keen on Futurism, which to them looked pretty damned bolshie and probably homosexual.
What most of the Futurists did buy into without much reservation was Marinetti's double-barrelled rhetoric about the modern world, which howled down all forms of "passeism" (let's burn down the libraries, flood the museums, take hatchets to the art galleries!) and whooped up machinery (hurrah for cars, aircraft, urban crowds, bombs and the electric light bulb!).
Like its English kid brother, Vorticism, and unlike most other avant- garde movements, Futurism tried to wage war on every cultural front. In addition to Futurist painting and poetry, there was Futurist poetry, Futurist theatre, Futurist clothing, Futurist typography, Futurist music and, most famously, Futurist cuisine, which boasted such treats as Simultaneous Ice-Cream (raw onion in frozen cream), Excited Pig (salami in coffee and eau de Cologne) and Diabolical Roses (rose heads fried in batter). And, as the absorbing new exhibition at the Estorick Collection demonstrates, there was also Futurist photography, a phenomenon largely overshadowed by other aspects of the movement until recently.
On the face of it, you would have expected the Futurists to go just as nuts for the camera as they did for other gadgets, and to some extent that was the case. Some of the most famous Futurist canvases, such as Giacomo Balla's Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash (1912) - which shows a sprightly little dachshund trotting along beside its mistress, legs, tail and ears all a busy blur - are obviously in debt to prolonged-exposure photography.
And yet what strikes you most about the earliest years of Futurist camerawork is how slow these techno-freaks and despisers of the picturesque were to pick up on and develop the possibilities of lens-based images. For instance, there's a dark and powerful multi- exposure image of a cellist sawing and fingering away at his instrument, taken by Alberto Montacchini. It's full of the excitement of fresh visual possibilities that you often find when an artistic technique is still a novelty, and you might easily guess that it dated from the early years of last century. Actually, it was shot in 1930; Montacchini's comrade-in-arms Balla had got there almost 20 years earlier with his oil painting Hand of the Violinist in 1912.
What makes this aesthetic tardiness all the more surprising is that Futurist snappers seem to have been keenly aware of recent developments in scientific photography - particularly the investigations in motion carried out by the French physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey - and that one or two of their number had capitalised on such techniques from the outset. …