Exclusive: Bucking the Taboo of Futurism in North London

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The Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art in North London is ‘one of the finest collections of early 20th century Italian art anywhere in the world’ according to Tate Director, Sir Nicholas Serota. And he’d know. Best known for its iconic Futurist works, many people are unaware of the museum’s broad collection of modern Italian art and artists from other schools. In celebration of the centennial anniversary of the Futurist manifesto, they’re currently exhibiting Umberto Boccioni, one of the most significant characters of the first wave of Futurism alongside contemporary artist Luca Buvoli, who is perhaps one of the only living artists who draws inspiration from Futurist ideologies to create works that parallel today’s society and events.

Flavorwire spoke to Chris Adams and Harry Hare, curators of the Futurism 100! exhibition (which runs through April 19), to find out more about this unique pairing of artists.

Flavorwire: Other than Buvoli, do you see other contemporary artists revisiting the themes of Futurism?

Chris Adams: I don’t know many artists that actually are. I think Luca Buvoli is in the minority and I don’t really know why that is. There seems to be a trend in contemporary art, and this is a very personal view, to be quite inward looking, for artists to sort of analyze their own psyches or their own internal turmoil. This has always been the case, but it just seems more pronounced now. What is very interesting about the Futurists is the way that they looked out, to the outside world. They wanted to engage with society. They were looking at how art and science can be married closely together and that doesn’t seem to be happening so much anymore, which I think is a shame. Artists like Buvoli who will admit to be inspired by Futurism are few and far between. I think a lot of artists feel that Futurism is quite a taboo movement to acknowledge debts to.

FW: On that note, Futurism glorified war and the machine age, and favored the growth of Fascism. But according to Buvoli, he’s exploring the parallels with demagogic strategies used today by meditative societies with an aim to propose an alternative to our society’s celebration of violence. Sort of Futurism with a twist.

CA: Yes, absolutely. I think when the Futurists celebrated war, that was one aspect of their ideology. I think the difficult thing about Futurism is that many things that they said metaphorically also had an element of practical application. When they spoke about war, they were speaking to a certain extent about war as something like what Nietzsche speaking about — that you have to destroy in order to create. There was that metaphorical aspect that I think a lot of people find it difficult to get their heads around. I think it’s quite interesting that Buvoli adopts those kind of techniques because Marinetti and the Futurists were some of the first people to realize the full extent for potential of promotion of communication in the modern world.

FW: You mean, propaganda?

CA: Yes.

FW: Can Futurism be reinterpreted into today’s society? Do you think Buvoli’s work achieves this?

CA: I’m no expert on Buvoli’s work, you may want to have a word with Harry about that. I think Futurism can be reinterpreted. I think a lot of the more regrettable aspects of the Futurist ideology have no place, but certainly as I said, this very outward looking attitude that the Futurists had and their Utopian belief that art can be a force for good in society and can change it — those things do. It can be a part of everyday life. It’s something that I think should be celebrated and I think it’s something that all artists should aspire to. Whether Buvoli’s work does that, I’m not sure. He is dealing with Futurism as an historical movement. He’s not creating Futurist art as such; he is interpreting it through his own work. I don’t think he would call himself a Futurist. I think he would call himself an artist who is interested in analyzing Futurism with a critical point of view. There were Futurists still working in the ’80s, the old generation that thought Futurism still had something to contribute to society.

Harry Hare: What Buvoli tries to do is look at Futurism. I’m not sure it’s exactly reinterpretation. He looks at the theory of Futurism and the practice of what happened — how Futurists didn’t have the impact that was hoped — and tries to use that to look at the difference between human aspiration and practice. I don’t think he is trying to start a new Futurism, but perhaps to learn from what he sees as mistakes that were made in the Futurist doctrine. For example, to look at violence and glorification as things that are not appropriate. There is a lot of violence already in society, and that’s why he uses the stuttering speech to read the words about speed. I would say that the answer to the first part of the question is probably yes, in that I think that there is great value in looking at Futurism. I think it can tell us a lot about contemporary society. I’m not sure that a rebranded, reduced Futurism would necessarily have a great impact. I think Buvoli’s work achieves the former but not in an attempt to achieve the latter. He analyzes Futurism and he draws direct parallels with today’s society. I don’t think he would see himself as a Futurist but as someone who looks at Futurism and shows its relevance today.

FW: What led to your decision of displaying Boccioni alongside Buvoli?

CA: Our director, Roberta Cremoncini proposed an installation by Buvoli. She saw his work at the Biennale and was very interested by the idea of a contemporary artist addressing Futurist ideas and dealing with the movement from a historical point of view.

FW: What would Boccioni have thought of Buvoli’s work?

CA: It’s difficult to say (laughs). That I don’t know. Boccioni was always very much against photography, but I think he might have changed his mind on that over the years. I think Boccioni was an artist who was dealing with very pure ideas. He wanted to express movement. He wanted to express dynamism. He was very much focused on those, I think. He wasn’t that interested in reinterpreting the past, and I suppose in a way that’s what Buvoli is doing. He’s looking back at a historical movement.

FW: In the future, will the Estorick continue to exhibit contemporary artists?

CA: Yes, but first I would like to say that while a lot of the works in the collection are Futurist, it’s more the iconic nature of the works that we have by the Futurists that has led to this association of the Estorick Collection with Futurism. It’s actually split much more evenly than people realize between Futurist works by artists from completely different schools: De Chirico, Modigliani, Morandi, Guttuso, Campigli and so on.

In terms of how we contemporize work, that’s something that I think we are beginning to do increasingly now. Italian Modernism is a bit of an unknown quantity. If you say the name Picasso or Matisse to people, they know who you are talking about even if they don’t know much about art. If you say Giacomo Balla or Boccioni, I think people would say, ‘oh yeah, he has that striding figure in the Tate’ and that’s about it. Up until fairly recently, our work has been more of a historical museum type organization saying, “These are works that have been created, get familiar with these and then we can start discussing them.” It has been our role to raise the profile of the names. Until that has been achieved, it’s difficult to put these people into a context.

But having said that, all of our exhibitions aim to contextualize our collection. It’s all about what was going on elsewhere in Europe at the time, and what was going on in Italy just before or just after the works we are exhibiting were created. It’s gradually trying to build some kind of context around the collection. And certainly the works and the exhibitions that we have had over the years have been bringing things more up-to-date, but our remit remains about increasing people’s knowledge of a historical period. That’s our main remit for sure.

Image credit: Luca Buvoli, stills from Velocity Zero, 2008