Futurism and Photography, Estorick Collection
Inspired by a manifesto of 1909 that, among other things, glorified war and insulted women, the Italian futurists have been in danger of seeming faintly ridiculous to modern sensibilities. To fall prey to this tendency, however, would be a mistake, for behind the unfortunate moustaches sported by the futurists lie lessons that might be learned by contemporary artists, were contemporary art practice not so paralysed by the constraints of postmodern irony.
The most important lesson, perhaps, lies in the relationship between art practice and wider concepts. Whereas most contemporary conceptual art involves the exploration of obscure and solipsistic concerns, the futurists explored an idea that was profound and relevant to their era — that technology was changing the experience of life. This concept was then explored and articulated through their visual artwork, creating a unity between theory and practice that gives the work a lasting relevance.
The second lesson is that such a unity between concept and practice does not necessarily stifle creativity or innovation, as the 150 prints in this exhibition prove.
The relationship between futurists and photography was, at first, ambivalent. On the one hand, they hailed scientific photography as techno- logically advanced; on the other, they felt that the photograph captured time itself, stopping it dead, an anathema to those who aimed to capture the total sense experience of speed and movement.
The paradox was solved by the development of photodynamism by Anton Giulio Bragaglia. The technique used long exposures in combination with a repeating flash gun to capture ghostly images moving over a length of time.
Walking around the exhibition, one might agree with early critics of the futurists who saw a generous gap between the revolutionary words of the movement’s followers and the more prosaic works they created. Some images are true classics, such as the image of the photodynamic typewriter by the Bragaglia brothers, in which hands dance over the keys, or Wanda Wulz’s sophisticated photomontage Cat + I, in which cat and human morph into one. But even the many less impressive images are testament to a desire to tackle big ideas. True conceptual art.
Until 22 April. Estorick Collection, N1. Box office: 020 7704 9522