MOVEMENTS in art tend to be intensive or extensive. The Pointillistes, for example, generally stuck to painting in dots, while the Italian Futurists got into everything. There was Futurist painting, of course, Futurist sculpture, Futurist poetry and Futurist cookery - of which the tenets were that Italians would no longer be allowed to eat pasta, use knives and forks, or give after-dinner speeches. (A typical recipe consisted of a whole skinned salami served in black coffee and eau de cologne.)
He ain't heavy: Tato's Central Weights and Measures (1932), indicative of the Futurists' love of anything mechanical
There were even Futurist waistcoats. One can see Filippo Marinetti, leader of the Futurists, and Fortunato Depero wearing them outside a Turin railway station, in one of the most evocative exhibits in the exhibition of Futurist photography at the Estorick Collection in north London. Futurist photography was, of course, yet another of the spin-offs of Futurist art, but it had a troubled relationship with the main movement. Photography, like pasta, was something that the Futurist leaders were inclined to denounce.
This might seem paradoxical, since the Futurists were dedicated to promoting everything modern. "We will sing of the nightly fervour of arsenals and shipyards blazing with violent electric moons, greedy railway stations that devour smoke-plumed serpents," proclaimed the First Futurist Manifesto in 1909. The Futurists loved all things mechanical, noisy, modern, technological and fast, so you might assume that they would be in favour of photography.
Actually, they were inclined to oppose it because it freezes one instant and is consequently static. Taking this point, a couple of Italian photographers - the Bragaglia brothers - came up with a movement that they called "photo-dynamism". They would use multiple exposures to give the impression of movement - so one sees, in one example, a number of ghostly hands flailing above the keyboard of a typewriter.
This was much the sort of thing that you see in many Futurist paintings (which were, in turn, influenced by photography). But, even so, photo-dynamism wasn't dynamic enough for Umberto Boccioni, the major talent among the Futurists (of whom the Bragaglia brothers had taken a photo-dynamic portrait, featuring four ears, one superimposed on one of Boccioni's noses). In 1913, Boccioni excommunicated the Bragaglias from Futurism, insisting: "We have always rejected with disgust and contempt even the remotest connection with photography."
These feelings, however, did not prevent the Futurists from having themselves photographed with great frequency. Quite often, these photographs, as the catalogue points out, amount to performances for the camera. That is particularly true of the images of Fortunato Depero, whom we see grimacing in a ferociously modernistic fashion, climbing up a tree, hiding subversively round a corner, and generally behaving very differently from the solemn poses of conventional portrait photography.
These are predecessors of such later images of the artist as the famous shot of Yves Klein leaping into empty space, and the many self-portraits of Gilbert & George and Tracey Emin being works of art. Marinetti, however, clearly found it difficult to perform for the camera, probably because of his determination to present himself with the dignity and resolution appropriate to the leader of an important avant-garde movement. With his moustache, and as the years went by increasingly bald, he bears a passing resemblance to Captain Mainwaring of Dad's Army.
Eventually, photography was reinstated among the Futurist arts and some interesting work was done, particularly Enrico Pedrotti's beautiful shots of the swirling movement of skiers, and Filippo Masoero's aerial views of cities (executed by hanging perilously out of aircraft). But by and large - and with the exception of Boccioni - Futurism was more a movement that threw out ideas than one that produced impressive artistic results. It consisted more of rhetoric about being modern and dynamic than of successful efforts to be those things. And that is as true in the area of photography as anywhere else.
Still, some of those ideas later came to fruition. (Even Futurist cookery, revolting as it sounds, foreshadowed the kind of thing one is offered these days in London restaurants.) The artist as performer for the camera - so prevalent today - may well have begun with the Futurists. This well-mounted little exhibition offers a good excuse to visit the Estorick Collection, one of the most unusual and beautifully presented of London's small museums.