The future is Italian

In the apathetic Nineties, when some designers still meekly indulge in free or barely paid pitches for the honour of creating new crisp packets, it comes as something of a surprise to discover how dedicated to their art Italian designers were at the turn of the century.

The graphic design fraternity was voluntarily destroying vast chunks of forest to produce manifestos promoting futurism. Such unbridled enthusiasm for design is difficult to imagine now, even among fiery Latins.

While futurism was an international movement, the Italians were especially influential in its early development, and they are naturally the focus of a new exhibition at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, in London.

It tells how, after the publication in 1909 of the first futurist manifesto in Le Figaro, more than 300 further manifestos were published. These looked at everything from art, literature and architecture, to science and lust.

Printed in huge numbers they were distributed as freesheets, which is possibly why few remain intact. A number are on show as part of the exhibition though it helps to speak Italian to understand the readings of them being pumped through the speakers at the Estorick gallery. While unarguably a beautiful language, loud Italian manifesto readings can’t help but sound like a Mussolini speech to the untutored ear. And while he could possibly be classified as futuristic in some elements of his outlook, Il Duce does not feature in the exhibition.

However, featuring prominently is poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944), who wrote the 1909 manifesto to promote modern life, technology and the beauty of speed and machines. Copies of a number of his books, each with a suitably futuristic jacket design, are among items on show loaned from the Derbylius Libernia Galleria d’Arte in Milan. Zang Tumb Tumb, the title of the exhibition based on an onomatopoeic rendering of cannon fire, is taken from one of these books. The sheer volume of work, and its consistently modern aesthetic, is fascinating, but more explanation of what the work is about would be welcome.

Present too, is the work of Fortunato Deporo, who created the limited edition Deporo Futurista, to show as many futuristic innovations in type, print and illustration as he could fit between its covers.

Like a modern day annual report for a slightly unconventional engineering company, the book is bound by large nuts and bolts in a reference to the machine age. The design was also the wrong size and shape for most bookshelves, and would scratch coffee tables, but can now be handily dismantled for display in museum galleries.

Deporo also created a number of commercial posters on display at the exhibition. While following the look and feel of the futuristic movement, the commercial posters make no attempt to force-feed futurism to their audience. They are all the better for it, showing how, in a watered-down form, futurism actually found acceptance with the public without shouting manifestos at it.

Zang Tumb Tumb: The Futurist Graphic Revolution, is showing until 11 April at the Estorick Collection, 39a Canonbury Square, London N1

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