It is difficult to reconstruct the zeal with which artists of the first half of the last century projected their exclusive versions of the future. In the meantime, this constellation of movements, each representing a particular set of utopian beliefs, has dissolved into a relativist free-for-all. Futurism, Constructivism, Suprematism, Vorticism: among this grand roll call, pluralism seems to co-opt its last letters somewhat apologetically. Coming in gangs, and dressing up statements in the form of didactic manifestos, there was an air of propaganda about their methods, and a tendency to develop a dialogue with the dominant political ideologies of the moment, either in the form of violent rejection or by dabbling, and sometimes merging, with their objectives. The politics dabbled in return, but only as far as expediency allowed and never for long.
The poet FT Marinetti, founder and main spokesperson of the Futurists--the most theatrically avant-garde of these movements (and the truest to the origins of the term in military vocabulary)--assiduously courted Mussolini, proposing his visions of technological prowess and 'hygienic' war as the ideal visual equivalent of the burgeoning Italian Fascist movement, only to be rejected finally in favour of an art more redolent of Ancient Rome. In Soviet Russia, by 1921, Lenin had already decided against the usefulness of the Constructivists.
These were artists who idealised a radical divorce from past aesthetics. Marinetti's first manifesto envisaged flooding the museums: 'Oh the joy of seeing the glorious old canvases bobbing adrift on those waters, discoloured and shredded'. If this required more fuel than they could muster, perhaps they could hitch a ride on the back of one of the versions of totalitarianism gathering momentum at the time, which were also forging a single-minded and iconoclastic way towards their own ends. Given that these were artistic philosophies which explicitly reject memory, it is ironic that the art they produced materialises so often as a catalyst for recent painting. Is this a manifestation of nostalgia for lost certainties, an attempt to ghost dogmatic narrative structures, which have long since expired, onto individualistic subjectivity? And what happens, in the process, to the political correlatives, often rebarbative, which cling to an art which is now being quoted with a postmodern irreverence? Although 'quoted' is perhaps too strong a term for an associative inhabiting of various utopian agendas, rather as an actor dons a part.
Last summer, Anselm Kiefer's exhibition at White Cube in London, 'Fur Chlebnikov', featured 30 large seascapes hung imposingly in grid-formation within a purpose-built pavilion in Hoxton Square. The dedication, 'Time, Measure of the World--Fate of the People. The New Doctrine of War: Naval Battles Recur Every 317 Years or in Multiples Thereof, for Velimir Chlebnikov' was scrawled onto the far wall. It was referring to the Russian Futurist poet Chlebnikov, whose esoteric theories on the precise historical regularity of battles at sea suggested the series. Kiefer's method is elliptical: generalised images of sea warfare only hint, through added inscriptions, at specific history (for example, the word 'Aurora', referring to the ship that fired at the Winter Palace in 1917, kick-starting the Bolshevik Revolution). What is the nature of Kiefer's affinity with a poet who called himself 'President of Planet Earth', who wished to purge all symbolism from Russian, and remake the language out of its root sounds? Manic hubris is reconfigured as weathered, rusted nostalgia, the grandeur of mythmaking. It ironises as much as it confirms the visionary triumphalism of Kiefer's own presentation.
The sheer horizon line and pseudo-deep perspective, which Kiefer has used repeatedly to describe barren, scarred earth, are here adapted to water. The simple two-zone abstraction of a Mark Rothko painting balances against the suggestion of deep traditional space, each undercutting the other's aspirations. …