'Zang Tumb Tumb' is the title of a small but important exhibition of Italian Futurist graphics in the ground floor of the handsomely converted Canonbury villa that houses the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art. The exhibition has been managed on a shoestring budget: book, newspaper and manifesto pages in basic but appropiately coloured frames from Ikea, and simple display cabinets. It is enlivened by paintings and, in the first room, the voice and discordant piano of Marinetti himself coming from a white box in the corner. The paintings are by Maria Stella Granara and are poster-size versions of Marinetti, Cangiullo and Depero's radical typography.
In the increasingly hyped art world of ever-larger exhibitions, the smaller scale is welcome, allowing space for contemplation. The irony is that Marinetti and the Futurists, who despised such genteel architecture, were the first to take hype to the edge of hysteria; Frank Whitford in the Sunday Times going so far as to call Marinetti the 'world's first cultural spin doctor'. Certainly such a modest display cannot hope to convey the explosive impact of Futurist events, violent and provocative precursors of 1960s 'Happenings'.
Marinetti's book based on the Balkan war of 1912, with its yellow and black cover, striking and innovative typography - a mixture of onomatopoeia and 'lines of force' literally exploding conventional setting - gives the title of the exhibition. The oblique angles, free forms and collage techniques fully exploited the new medium of photogravure, establishing a style that influenced the German Dadaists. This concept of 'words in freedom', while reflecting the anarchistic and utopian political programme of the Futurists, brought the criticism that expressive force had taken precedence over meaning. The medium was the message.
The animated figures of Cangiullo and the Futurist Synthesis of War - a typographic precursor to El Lissitzky's Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge - point to the other great influence: namely, on the Russian Futurists, initially parallel, but ultimately divergent, cultural revolutionaries. Both Lunacharsky (in the newly formed People's Commissariat of Enlightenment in Russia) and Antonio Gramsci (co-founder of the Italian Communist party) recognised Marinetti's importance at the time; but Marinetti's pragmatic embrace of nationalism took him into Mussolini's orbit. Lissitzky may have envisioned an 'Architecture for World Revolution'; Marinetti settled for conquest.
If Marinetti provoked, Depero cajoled: 'Although I paint freely inspired pictures everyday, I enhance industrial products with my imagination, and with an equal harmony of style and the same love and no less enthusiasm and attention.' His book, Depero Futurista, seen here together with some framed pages, was published in 1927 by aviator-artist Fedele Azari. With its original tin-plate cover and chunky nut-and-bolt fastening, it was the first High-Tech book. His concept of typographic architecture, both on the page and in the pavilion for the publisher Treves at Monza, built that year out of solid letters, links him with the Dutch 'Typotekt' Piet Zwart.
'The art of the future will inevitably be advertising art', Depero claimed on his return to Milan from New York in Futurism and the Art of Advertising (1931). The tendency to monumentalism, in contrast to Marinetti's non- hierachical, anarchic approach, came to dominate his work and aid promotion of Mussolini's Fascist Italy, in what came to be known as 'Second Futurism'. This return to order was glamorised by an emphasis on speed, aviation, film and radio, and is represented here by such books as High Speed High Voltage, Speedy Italy and, ominously, Speedy Spain and the Futurist Bull.
Marinetti remains the first prophet of Futurism: his unquestioning celebration of the modern world in all its restless flux was financed from his inherited fortune. It was not all good news. For his 1914 collage of Italy and the Balkans, Irredentism, and his concept of war as 'the world's only hygiene', read ethnic cleansing and surgical strike. Despite his uniquely modern vision, the trajectory of Marinetti's career, from the time of his Faustian pact at the birth of Fascism to its sordid demise in the Republic of Salo, has the structure of Classical tragedy: from hubris to nemesis. In the end, this exhibition seems strangely sanitised: there is the chance to see some of the original work but a feeling for the context and spirit of the time is absent.
David Wild is an architect in London and author of Fragments of Utopia