Futurisme à Paris. Une avant-garde explosive

Futurism in Paris Paris, Centre Pompidou, 15 October 2008 to 26 January 2009.

Until now The Art Tribune had not had the chance to comment on exhibitions at the Centre Georges Pompidou. Of course, 19th century works did occasionally appear in certain introductory sections of larger events ; this was the case for the memorable Apocalypse joyeuse by Jean Clair in 1987 and more recently with Traces du sacré (despite the fact that, although quite interesting due to the quality of the objects displayed, it in no way entered into the realm of art history). Our site’s recent extension of coverage to include the 1930’s now allows us fortunately to treat exhibitions from the early 20th century and on through the period between the two world wars. Hence, we would like to commend this show which is devoted to a movement which has been relatively overlooked in France and which benefits here from the excellent work carried out by Didier Ottinger. Just a word to evoke the scenography, well adapted to the works, despite some of the media coverage which seems to regret the fact that the presentation is too understated ; Futurist painters however did not recommend the movement for its own sake as part of an approximate attempt at aesthetics but as a new look on modern life, in which its “dynamism” did not exclude its harmony. On the other hand, whereas many exhibitions favour maze-like atmospheres or dark rooms, here large, well-lighted and visitor-friendly rooms, many with impressive views of the city, a major theme for these painters, make for a convincing show where the works breathe freely : in the mind of these artists, movement creates space and it is in fact the case here. Still, we regret the rather pathetic frames of some of the works, most of which are from private collections ; from the “bourgeois”, of a vague style, to the passé gallery frames, many totally stifle the life of the works they are supposed to enhance. This is true in a general way but seems particularly detrimental in the case of the Futurist canvases. The museum is in no way at fault as it only borrows the works.

The intent of the exhibition which is in fact entitled Le futurisme “à Paris” is not to present a generic vision of the movement but to underscore the relation between Futurism and Cubism, a juxtaposition which expressed itself naturally in France, then to illustrate its continuation and variations in Russia and England. There is no doubt, and this is our only reservation concerning the show, that these thematic boundaries might have been better specified or made more obvious in the title or else sub-title of the exhibition ; indeed, as the movement has not enjoyed a presentation in France for over thirty years treating a detailed aspect rather than a more panoramic vision (and which would have included at least a reference to the Italian but also French sources of this aesthetic) is a bit problematic, in any case runs the risk of creating a misunderstanding. Is the public aware of the choice made here ? This is far from being the case and the result is that it hampers the visitor from understanding the connection between Futurism and the movements which preceded it. This remark is not due to an obsession with the idea of being exhaustive but to the fact that the major opposition between Futurism and Cubism can be explained not only by the roots of the first in the past (despite the calls to “spit on the altar of art”) but also by grand principles of a totally new nature. The modernist “vitalism” of the Futurists, much like their defence of the subject and their rejection of art for form’s sake, does not arise from an innate or spontaneous inspiration but are rooted in French Symbolism, Bergson’s writings and Italian Divisionism. The exhibition catalogue does not exclude some of these questions but the choice of works and the documentation make absolutely no reference to it.

1. Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Dryad 1908
Oil on canvas - 185 x 108 cm
Saint-Petersburg, Hermitage Museum
Photo : Musée de l’Ermitage
© Succession Picasso

Thus one of the first rooms is entirely devoted to Cubism, a movement opposed by Futurists. There are indeed at least fifteen outstanding paintings, for example the large Dryad by Picasso (ill. 1) which travelled from the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, the superb Chartres Cathedral by Albert Gleize and also Nudes in the Forest by Fernand Léger (Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo) as well as five beautiful works by Georges Braque, some by Metzinger and more Picassos. Nevertheless, and although this is once again not the intent of the exhibition, to sum up the Parisian art scene in 1912 with just Cubism is a bit shallow ; but the plastic connections “rejection/adherence/hybridism” of pictorial Futurism with this aesthetic are easy to understand and, of course, a selection of Cubist masterpieces is sure to attract a steady stream of visitors… However, if one remembers that the Manifesto of Futurism 1, studied in a second room with documentary items, and which dates from 1909, is above all a literary manifesto rooted in a tradition with strong ties to the French poetic movement and that its author, Marinetti, collaborated on Symbolist journals (La Vague, La Plume, La Revue Blanche, and we might also list, though less well-known, La Coopération des idées by Georges Deherme) it is obvious that for this theoretician, like the painters who joined him, the artistic universe was not limited to Braque and Picasso : to illustrate what they were rejecting (a purely formalist art symbolized by the nudes banned in Cubism) is one thing, but showing what they adhered to or the roots they inherited would have been even better in order to fully grasp this opposition. The Bergsonian character of Futurist art, for example, does not adapt itself easily in fact to this ex nihilo birth as evoked in the exhibition’s organization. Besides French literary Symbolism, essential in comprehending the artistic implications of Bergson, Italian Divisionism (Segantini, Pelliza Da Volpedo, etc.), mentioned explicitly by the second manifesto as being fundamental, could have been represented as well as a reference to the Impressionists, “claimed as a filiation”, as mentioned in the catalogue. We would have enjoyed seeing references to this heritage in the exhibition to better understand Marinetti’s and the Futurists’ stand, but the notion of tabula rasa, more radical, and more in keeping with the idea of the avant-garde won out ; however a close reading of the texts shows that this was not what they claimed (or in any case, when they did, in the form of revolutionary and violent images, it contradicted other aesthetic statements). Moreover, at the outset Marinetti and his friends had only a very limited knowledge of Cubism… Alongside the often provocative professions of faith, the relationship of these artists to the art of the past was quite obviously much stronger than generally held. It is true that the first painting on display, by itself, in the exhibition is Luna Park in Paris by G. Balla in 1900. A night scene of an amusement park with its rides, the newly discovered electricity, the festive atmosphere of the Exposition universelle, high point of the “Belle Epoque”, we welcome this canvas here and understand its symbolic sense, communicating movement and urban modernity ; but, wasn’t there anything else, between Impressionism and Cubism, which could also have played this role ? The artistic world facing Marinetti, poetic and pictorial, was not born in the Braque canvases with which he was not really familiar, as we mentioned earlier, and one could find in Symbolism’s last throes as in other works from this period which was very open on an aesthetic level, many examples of the beginning of Futurist art just as well as that of a more academic art rejected by these artists, without it being Cubism. The artistic landscape presented in the exhibition (unlike the catalogue which fortunately deals with these questions) is thus a limited one. There is no doubt in our minds that the curator of the exhibition possesses full knowledge of the subject and thus it would seem that this is a deliberate choice but the result is that it recenters the history of the avant-garde movements indefinitely on itself : when not chasing each other in a kind of matricidal parthenogenesis, they are born of spontaneous generation, the convenient stuff of subsequent myths. The average visitor who does not bother to read the catalogue may thus leave the exhibition never having learned anything about the ties of Futurism with Italian Symbolist Divisionism or the French poetic movement.

2. Luigi Russolo (1885-1947)
The Revolt, 1911
Oil on canvas - 150.8 x 230.7 cm
Den Haag, Gemeentemuseum
Photo : Gemeentemuseum

This underlying problem is confirmed in the following room, otherwise a success. The central portion of the exhibition in fact brings together, give or take four works (out of thirty-six), the paintings which made up the historical Futurist exhibition in Paris in 1912 at the Bernheim Jeune Gallery. It goes without saying that this technical feat alone deserves a visit to the Centre Pompidou. Historical chronicling tends to repeat itself and rarely bothers to visualize what a particular past exhibition really looked like. Simplifications and reconstructed souvenirs do quick work of establishing a uniform myth concerning facts which are much more complex. Because, here again we find the problem mentioned above in the demonstration of the multiple tendencies represented in the exhibition, besides just the manifesto. Each artist’s individuality is strongly expressed. What is there really in common between the magnificent chromaticism of Woman in a Café by Carlo Carrà, the schematicism of The Revolt by Luigi Rossolo (ill. 2) in which the construction chosen by the artist prefigures propaganda posters from the thirties and the rather dry Divisionism of Gino Severini ? In another example, the second version of the famous triptych by Boccioni, States of Mind, a superb work, evokes on both a plastic and thematic level, a post-Symbolist inspiration which should be made more explicit in order to understand the antagonism Futurism/Cubism (ill. 3). To the point that Apollinaire’s criticism of it is very close to ones made of Symbolist works (“They want to paint moods”). One of Futurism’s undeniable characteristics is the fondness for a modernist and vitalist content, an apology for speed and contemporary life, to the detriment of a practice which is only formalist. These artists, to the Cubists’ regret, defend the subject in their manifesto texts, thus contradicting their claim to iconoclasm. If there is one lesson to be drawn here, it is that there is a huge gap between these painters’ “revolutionary” discourse and the inevitable rooting of their production in a visual and thematic repertory which obviously does not spring from nothingness. This observation now having been made, and the exhibition’s choices understood, the visitor can then admire the extensive number and quality of the paintings assembled here, as well as the clarity of the intention. There is no doubt that Boccioni is in a superior sphere to that of the other painters presented in the show : his nine canvases in this room literally explode and an oil such as A Road’s Powers (1911) suggests, by its construction as well as its chromaticism, a life truly in opposition to the fixed state of Braque’s still-lifes.

3. Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916)
States of Mind, 1911
Oil on canvas - 70.8 x 95.9 cm
New York, The Museum of Modern Art
Photo : The Museum of Modern Art / Scala Florence

Some of the walls in the exhibition are devoted to Felix Del Marle, the author of a Manifesto of Futurism in Montmartre in 1913. In the half-dozen pieces shown here (oils and works on paper including the famous Port, exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants in 1914), one revisits with pleasure the art of this French Futurist who is not often shown but in whose works we find a blend of movement and rigour which reflects a sort of synthesis of Futurism with Cubism, a convergence fully illustrated in the following room. This section is entitled “Hybridations”, and the first part evokes the contamination of Cubism by the Futurist movement, the second, Futurism’s assimilation of structures close to those of Cubism. The demonstration is very convincing, and consists in carefully selecting works over a period of four or five years (1911-1915) which might illustrate these points. Of course, if one were to change the selection even slightly, the experiment would fall flat on its face. Still, taken as is this room achieves its purpose. Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Metzinger, Juan Gris and Fernand Léger supply examples of Cubist works won over by the temptation of movement. Works by Boccioni, Soffici and Severini answer back with geometrical designs. Metzinger’s Cyclist and The Cardiff Team by Robert Delaunay on the one hand, Horizontal Construction by Boccioni and the Portrait of Paul Fort by Severini on the other, are good examples of these “hybridations” which downplay the aesthetic conflicts of the period and are proof of the permeability of pictorial practices.

4. Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968)
Nude Descending a Staircase n°2,
Oil on canvas - 146 x 89 cm
Philadelphia, Museum of Art
Photo : Philadelphia Museum of Art
© ADAGP, Paris

The following room, as if still pursuing this encounter of Futurism and Cubism, presents about fifteen works exhibited at the Salon de la section d’or. A product of the circle in Puteaux which brought together Jacques Villon, Kupka, Fernand Léger, Delaunay, Metzinger and even Marcel Duchamp, but also Maurice Princet, a mathematician and the philosopher Tancrède de Visan (the author of Paysages introspectifs, his essay on Symbolism), the Section d’or is a synthesis of scientific and philosophical research on aesthetic problems. This first Cubofuturist exhibition is represented here by some masterpieces, including the Duchamp icon, Nude Descending a Staircase n°2 (ill. 4) and the splendid series by Kupka, Women Picking Flowers.

The next two rooms reveal Russian Cubofuturism and then English Futurism, baptized Vorticism there. Besides providing the history of these movements and some rather byzantine debates on their relationship to the original Futurism (which the catalogue describes in all its complexity with appropriate sources), the works displayed do indeed reflect the traces of theoretical, sometimes plastic, flux, but above all underscore the singularity of national expressions. Although the basic vitalist lines of the movement are permanent, the Russians claim their own identity with, notably, primitivist sources, an interest in naïf art and children’s drawings. The very close ties between Moscow and Paris however tone down this spontaneity. While works by Natalia Gontcharova are totally convincing, other artists are less so, including (and forgive the sacrilege) certain canvases by Malévitch whose cold and iconographic construction often confines it to an exercice in style (The Aviator, from 1914, for example). As for the English, chronological issues and theoretical debates are even harder to unravel, but the works, particularly those of Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson, seem to maneuver in “slalom”, to use the catalogue expression, between Cubism and Futurism, without clearly producing a strong aesthetic expression. We should point out the astonishing statements made by this last artist who identified the First World War, its horrors and violence with modern art itself, and the adherence after the end of the conflict to a more traditional art as a return to humanism, in his opinion.

5. Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979)
Electrical Prisms, 1914
Oil on canvas - 250 x 250 cm
Paris, Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne
Photo : Centre Pompidou

The last room in the exhibition, devoted to Orphism, presents canvases by Robert and Sonia Delaunay (ill. 5) but also by Kupka, Fernand Léger and Synchromists such as Morgan Russell and Stanton Macdonald-Wright. Colour usually takes precedence over line and curves over right angles in a synthesis which attempts to surpass both Cubism and Futurism to attain a kind of luminous abstraction. This is one of the most beautiful rooms in the exhibition. Nevertheless, it is obvious that when looking at these time limits imposed by art historians, the very fragile taxonomic nature of this fruitful period becomes obvious both in the discourse as well as in the pictorial creations, not easily reduced to categories, no matter how necessary that might be.

The exhibition also includes a contemporary section, due to the famous Detroit DJ Jeff Mills, a pioneer of techno music. This visual and sound creation is quite noteworthy on its own and does not really add anything to the visit itself.

Finally, the catalogue assembles insightful essays on the different aspects of Futurism and on the sections which make up the exhibition ; the article by Giovanni Lista on the “Italian sources of Futurism” is particularly interesting as is of course the long and eloquent introduction by Didier Ottinger. The works are accompanied by real analytical entries, obviously a good thing, but these are strangely lacking the usual exhibition-bibliographical apparatus. The chronology is richly documented and this publication, which contains an invaluable index, is an indispensable addition to French bibliography on the subject.

Curator : Didier Ottinger, assisted by Mai Lise Bénédic and Nicole Ouvrard.

Didier Ottinger (ed.), Le futurisme à Paris. Une avant-garde explosive, Editions du Centre Georges Pompidou Catalogue et Cinq Continents (Milan), Paris, 2008, 355 p., 39,90 €. ISBN : 978-2-84426-359-9.

Buy this catalogue

Visitor information : Centre Pompidou, Place Georges Pompidou, 75004 Paris. Phone : +33 (0)1 44 78 12 33. Open daily except Monday from 11.00 through 22.00. Thursday through 23.00. Admission : 12 and 9€.

Site Internet du Centre Pompidou

Jean-David Jumeau-Lafond, lundi 17 novembre 2008

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