By continuing to use the site you agree to our Privacy & Cookies policy

Your browser seems to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser.


Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.



A Slap in the Face! Futurists in Russia At the Estorick Collection, 39a Canonbury Square, London N1, until 10 June

In 1909 the Italian poet and proto-Fascist spin doctor F T Marinetti had his Futurist manifesto published on page one of Le Figaro. His subsequent trip to Moscow on the eve of the First World War is the starting-point for this exhibition at the Estorick Collection, which gives an opportunity to compare the work of the selfstyled Futurists in two very different cultures, while putting some of the Estorick's holdings in a fresh context.

It's a strange sensation to look back so far at the work of these artists, and not without pathos given how fast their future was used up; 'The Last Futurist Exhibition: 0, 10', where Malevich's Black Square first appeared, closed in 1916.

Aggressively radical, Marinetti's manifesto called for the dynamism of the first machine age to be represented in the arts, while at the same time promoting some of the worst aspects of the 20th century: speed for its own sake; the glorification of war as 'hygiene'; contempt for women; and liberation from the 'fetid cancer' of professors, guides, archaeologists and antiquarians.

So today we sip wine at the private view as curator John Milner holds forth in front of Mikhail Larionov's Quarrel in a Tavern. Apart from this example of Marinetti's demand for aggressive art, it's easier to warm to the Russian Futurists: buffoonery and face-painting rather than bombast and fisticuffs, as poetry is read in the streets.

Italian Futurism, coming from a technologically advanced urban culture, ended by embracing Fascism (fitting Trotsky's description as 'the petit-bourgeois run amok'), while the Russian version was rooted in peasant culture, at once both primitive and metaphysical. Natalia Goncharova's Angels and Aeroplanes from Mystical Images of War (1914) is a perfect example, deriving as it does from peasant woodcut and icon traditions; or, instead of Marinetti's 'screaming automobile', an oil painting of 1913, The Cyclist.

For a brief period after the 1917 revolution, such works enjoyed state support as Russia became the first country to exhibit abstract work on a nationwide scale. This was cut short in 1921 with the introduction of the New Economic Policy, and by the 1930s Socialist Realism became the art of the state.

The term Futurist has been stretched here to include both traditional as well as Futurist costume design, Cubism, Rayonism, Constructivism and even the curator's own model of Melnikov's 1925 Paris pavilion.

El Lissitzky's Black Sphere collage, with its precariously suspended figure, uncannily presages a future which saw such works vanish from public view during the following decades - and then miraculously emerge from the Moscow apartment of George Costakis half a century later, looking as good as new. The bourgeoisie they set out to provoke vanished into that collage's black hole.

David Wild is an architect in London

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment.

The searchable digital buildings archive with drawings from more than 1,500 projects

AJ newsletters