A Slap in the Face!
Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, Canonbury Square N1
by Ramsay Cooper, whitehot magazine, London
On display at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian art in Highbury, this exhibition is a retrospective of the Russian Futurist movement, an offshoot from the early twentieth century Italian Futurist group, and was curated by John Milner.
After founding the Futurist movement in in 1909, F.T. Marinetti hoped to establish an international faction that would further develop his group’s aesthetic. Marinetti visited in 1914 to mixed reactions, some admiring his almost religious fervour and others disliking what they saw in him as cultural elitism. Whatever the attitudes towards the man, there is no doubt that he made a lasting impact on those he provoked reactions in, the results of which are displayed in this impressive exposition.
The name of the exhibition refers to ‘A slap in the face of public taste’, the name of the cloth-bound manifesto written in 1912 by the Russian Futurists while inaugurating their movement. The Russian Futurists not only focussed on themes of mechanization, war and the urban environment much in the same way that the original Italian group had done, but also drew strong inspiration from indigenous Russian sources such as folk-art and rural themes, and this ultimately led them to indisputable aesthetic differences with their Italian forebears (also displayed in the Estorick permanent collection).
The Russian movement developed their own thematic qualities, most notably ‘Rayism’, which was a development grounded in the belief that objects are seen simply by the rays of light they reflect, and ‘Cubo-Futurism’ which took example from the French Cubist movement but also incorporated traditional Russian iconography into the fray.
The scale of the works displayed is impressive considering the small stature of the gallery, and the exhibition demonstrates a multi-disciplinary approach in its array of mixed media. Oil paintings, ink drawings, collage, photography, architecture, photography and fashion all get the Futurist spotlight here, and the vastness of creative output is astonishing. The exhibition is split between a multitude of small galleries within the main building itself, each of the rooms focussing on a separate theme be it war or Futurist fashion, and there is strength in this variation yet this is also a weakness which lends the exhibition a disparate and isolated feel.
Artists displayed here include El Lissitzky Chagall, Larinov, Malevich, Popova and Goncharova, their works displaying good humour, playfulness and a disregard for the acceptance of the artistic institution which they delighted in shocking. The primary concern of the Russian artists was the illustration of speed, which in some cases is displayed with a violent, angular disfigurement of reality which is mutated onto canvas in a highly visceral and emotive style, while the use of bright colours and a naïve stylistic quality evoke notions of primitivism and outsider art.
‘A Slap in the Face!’ is a thoroughly enjoyable, artistically enlightening voyage through a shockingly underappreciated and seminal modernist art movement.
Exhibition runs until 10th June.
Ramsay Cooper is a freelance arts writer and musician living in South London. email@example.com
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