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Giacomo Balla / Estorick Collection, London

“Our art will probably be accused of tormented and decadent cerebralism,” write the artists Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carra, Luigi Russolo, Giacomo Balla, and Gino Severini in their “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting” from 1910, a sequel to the more general “Futurist Manifesto” by F.T. Martinetti; call it Too Fast, Too Futurist 2. In the ensuing years, these haven’t proven the most serious charges levelled at the ideology of Futurism, but an overly-mannered or melodramatic tendency is always a possibility when valourising “sincerity and purity”—point number eight from the nine declarations the manifesto asserts. Art that courts doctrinaire ideologies often quickly deteriorates into a kind of vapid propaganda however visually arresting it may be, and, indeed, however good the cause for which it is proselytising may be. Futurism itself may have a mixed legacy, but in the first advance of its visual wing, the ideology produced a number of fascinating works and figures. Among these is the manifesto’s signatory, Giacomo Balla. Balla, having passed his thirty-ninth birthday as of the signing of the manifesto, was inclining toward decrepitude by the standards of a movement that so fetishised youth that Martinetti’s manifesto took pains to note that “the oldest of us is not yet thirty” on multiple occasions; nevertheless, as the exhibition Designing the Future at London’s Estorick Collection makes clear, Balla was as exhilarated by the innovations of the nascent century as the students on the courses he taught.

Designing the Future takes care to trace the multiple aesthetic identities that Balla embraced at different times in his career. His earlier works suggest a life as a moody portraitist awaits him, but Balla’s ability to shape-shift not only allowed his aesthetic to embrace a kind of transitional position between the Cubism that was infusing the continental art of his early middle-age, but also the more radical transitions entailed by futurism, not least an apparently whole-hearted engagement with abstraction. But Designing the Future also allows the viewer to ask how whole-hearted such commitments were. Despite signing his work “FUTURBALLA” to show that he was down with the kids during his “hardcore” Futurist period, as the expansive exhibition demonstrates, Balla periodically produced portraits that would not have been out of place in his pre-Futurist past.

Among the most interesting elements of the exhibition, along with some dynamic cloud study paintings, is the way Balla appears to have applied a logic of design to his work. This is not simply true of the literal designs he created for some highly impractical clothing—not least a drawing for a bit of “future Fascist” menswear—but also in his nature “studies”. Among the clothes and interiors FUTURBALLA imagines are “Future Butterflies” that seem to import the logic of Futurist proto-accelerationism to nature itself. These works are nothing if not timely, and perhaps have a satirical character, one hopes, that interrogate the hyper-humanism of a movement that fetishised the technologies that would come to define a war that would cut short the futures of a generation of European men and underwrite a colonial enterprise that deformed the futures of whole continents. Manifesto-art may be climbing back into the discourse in the 21st century, but as Designing the Future demonstrates, the journey, even for a manifesto’s most enthusiastic boosters, is never a straightforward one, and perhaps this is not such a bad thing. The past is always with us, particularly in the future.

Giacomo Balla: Designing the Future
Estorick Collection
39a Canonbury Square
London N1 2AN
until 25 June
www.estorickcollection.com

Images courtesy of Estorick Collection and The Biagiotti Cigna Foundation