The future is bright

31st July 2012

Humans have never been satisfied with the idea of living in the present, one distinct form of time seemingly not enough to contend with. And so, through memory and dreams, we dip into the past, conjuring up new histories, while the future we try best to make up, pulling at strings to bring it closer, impossible as that may seem.

The future has always fascinated humanity because we're all inclined to think of history as a linear path that results in the utopian dream. Since every step we take is seen as a leap forward, to progress from anarchic primitivism to polished civility, the future is seen as a place of untold beauty. It's no wonder that we're in a hurry to get there.

In the twentieth century, a social and artistic movement emerged in Italy known as Futurism, which revelled in ideas that were – and still are – most associated with an advanced world: speed, metropolises, youth, objects and technology.

Futurists might have dreamed a lot, but they were realists. There was also a blunt acknowledgement that the future would never be perfect and utopia couldn't be characterised by a purity of peacetime. Violence would endure in the future. They lived in a time of great turmoil, from abject poverty courtesy of the economic fallout now known as the Great Depression to the absolute desolation wrought by the Second World War.

In Astratto: Abstraction in Italy is a new exhibition at the Estorick Collection in north London that presents a timely look back at half a century of Italian Futurism, specifically the more abstract works that emerged under this movement between 1930 and 1980.

Leading this philosophical charge was Giacoma Balla, a revolutionary Italian artist who, under the influence of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the controversial founder of Futurism – he was a fascist sympathiser – scored socialist ideas in his flowing paintings.

His work was symptomatic of Futurism's commitment to a figurative enunciation of ideas, the suggestion being they knew that predicting the future was something that could only be captured in an unstructured form.

Without this solid constitution, the practitioners were able to explore a myriad of styles, from rational commitment to geometric arrangements to loyalty to the relationship between certain colours.

In addition to this, as is seen in Lucio Fontana's lacerated canvasses and Piero Manzoni’s blank conceptual pieces, Futurism began to branch out from the limits of painting and into other mediums like sculpture, which appeared to be seemingly intangible territory.

Art, Manzoni once explained, should be completely white, or something that is colourless, without "pictorial phenomena". The ambiguity of the language was in line with his sardonic disposition.

"A white which is in no sense a polar landscape, an evocative or even merely beautiful pictorial, a sensation or a symbol, or anything else of the kind," he added. "A white surface which is a white surface and nothing else … indeed, better still, a surface which is and nothing else: being."

Convoluted words like that might have rendered the works of art too detached to be engaged with, but the movement excelled in explosions of colour and shapes that resulted in inescapably alluring visuals. Though they were keen to show us a new world, ultimately the paintings remind us of those formative years as a toddler, grabbing at the world. The future is a consequence of what we do in the past.

In Astratto: Abstraction in Italy 1930-1980 is at the Estorick Collection until September 9th 2012.

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