Spring 2001

Experiments in movement

Futurism & Photography

Estorick Collection, London
24 January - 22 April 2001
Catalogue by Professor Giovanni Lista
Merrell, £25

At the end of the nineteenth century, the onslaught of science, urban modernism and technological progress exploded the visual arts. The founding figures of Italian Futurism were determined to smash all preconceptions of movement, time and space in art. Anton Giulio Bragaglia’s publication on photodynamism (Fotodinamismo Futurista, 1913) revolutionised photographic history, yet Futurism’s legacy to photography has, until now, remained largely unknown.

Both the textual and visual aspects of Giovanni Lista’s superbly documented research convey the excitement of the era (1911-39). The sense of mischievously smashing apart all preconceptions is palpable. Photography challenged all other forms of visual representation, from the literary snapshots of French poet Blaise Cendrars, to the Macchiaioli School of Art’s use of processes akin to photomontage for their paintings.

The need to overcome the traditional vision of reality led the Futurists to depend on an understanding of the dynamic properties of a subject. A common thread is that Futurist photographs are true experiments in movement: images such as Dattilografa (Typist, 1913) depict the decomposition of the subject’s form. From the origins of scientific photography to an edifying investigation of 1920s photomontage and the mechanical art pieces of the 1930s, the exhibits pre-empt the aesthetic representation of humanity in all its forms. Yet even as photographic technique evolved, these photographs of mechanical art still depend upon Futurist precepts, such as “pure rhythms of light and forms”. This is shown in Enrico Pedrotti’s Skier (1927), where an interplay of tones and images relay both a sense of stillness and continuous movement.

The intriguing experiments of Anton and Arturo Bragaglia are set alongside the “photoperformance” works of Fortunato Depero and Giacomo Balla. The latter are particularly engaging because they show art as life, yet they also fulfil many other aspects of visual representation – the reinterpretation of the dynamic dimension of Futurist art and the artist as an ideological instrument, which established a precedent for figures such as Warhol and Klein. Many images are too stylised, yet Lista’s analysis unravels the contradictions inherent in photography that impinge on human vanity. His account of how early Futurism splintered owing to the protagonists’ vulnerability in front of the camera proves to be a parable of aestheticism itself.

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