Futurismo: I Grandi Temi 1909-1944 At the Fondazione Antonio Mazzotta, 50 Foro Buonaparte, Milan until 28 June (Closed Mondays)
'Futurism: The Great Themes 1909-1944' opens with a section on the metropolis, Sant'Elia's visionary 'Citta Nuova' facing the Northern Italian city in which he lived, as seen by contemporary painters and epitomised by Boccioni's Riot in the Galleria.
Today it is hard to recapture the impression which the Galleria, just a couple of stops away on the metro, made at the turn of the century, when Milan seemed to embody the City of the Future: its urban fabric was structured by new, wide thoroughfares purpose-built for tramways (such as Foro Buonoparte on which the Mazzotta stands); it served as a major hub of the continental railway network. This previously pedestrian city had been reconfigured as a high-speed one, rushing the masses along its arteries in trams, the elite in motor cars.
Another section of the exhibition is devoted to speed itself (velocita), exemplified by Balla's Dynamic of a Motorbike. Movement, as the essence of the modern city, was exemplified by machines, or better still by man's physical entanglement with them, whether through the human figure fused with a bicycle, or the Man who gets down from a tram in Achille Funi's painting.
This city pulsated with throbbing crowds who saw their surroundings in flashes or bursts, due both to the speed at which they were carried through it and the nature of early electric street lighting. That such energy and speed infused the physical creation of these paintings is unmistakable. The traditional, unified view breaks down into a series of rapid glimpses, the simultaneous presentation of opposites - true 'complexity and contradiction' - accentuated by contrasts of strong colour. These works express vividly how life in such a city seemed exhilarating yet precarious. The focus moved from static monuments to the dynamic of the crowd, symbolising incipient social unrest; for Boccioni The City Rises through a mass of heaving humanity.
Individual artists internalised such disturbance, dislocation and disequilibrium. The series of portraits included in the exhibition offers a lesser-known, and revealing, insight here, as does a section on 'The State of the Human Spirit' (dominated for me by Boccioni's Decomposition of a Woman's Head). Little wonder such artists fragmented their images, using techniques echoing pointillism or Cubism, and broke out through the standard picture frame.
The degree of social and technological transformation impelled avant- garde artists to create entirely new ways of depicting the city. Aeropittura, a specifically Italian genre of aerial views, looks down on the city's intrinsic dynamism from unaccustomed angles (or rather a continuously changing series of angles). No wonder the Italian vanguard - in painting and architecture alike - would turn to the Soviet Constructivists, rather than the German Functionalists, for inspiration.
A strength of this exhibition is its taking the Futurist movement right up to the Second World War, beyond that initial vitality born of aggression. Walking around Milan, it is evident that the destruction of the first war encouraged both the leading architectural movements of the inter-war period - modernist Rationalism and conservative novecento - to devise a calmer, almost sterile, backdrop for urban living. Inside the exhibition it becomes apparent that contemporary Futurist painters reacted similarly, obsessed with representing the city as a place of silent order and rationality, Sironi and De Chirico prefiguring Aldo Rossi half a century later. Of course - greatest irony of all - the Futurists ended up designing the mosaics to decorate Fascism's prime monumental buildings, such as those for E42, the World Fair to have been held in Rome.
Another strength of this exhibition is its inclusion of a wide range of artistic genres, notably theatre and film. Although the almost 'performance art' origins of the Futurist movement are well known, its influence on more mainstream theatre - such as Balla's set designs for Diaghilev - is less so. Yet it should be expected that a movement obsessed by the dynamic rather than the static, and moreover one which perceived the city around as a series of brightly lit stage sets, might be fascinated by the seemingly equally unreal world created within the theatre, and would be attracted to working there.
The Milanese bourgeoisie does not lack passion - directed today towards football as well as opera - but, as Stendhal had noticed almost a century earlier, likes to conceal it behind sober facades. Thanks to increasing land values and the advent of the safety-lift, early twentieth-century Milan loomed high-rise, the homogeneous facades of new city blocks concealing commercial accommodation alongside residential. Today this cityscape can mislead us into assuming that those commissioning such real estate were as staid as their Austrian overlords had been; this exhibition, housed in such a palazzo, reminds us that such clients spawned the Futurists.
Judi Loach teaches at the Welsh School of Architecture