Futurist Umberto Boccioni Surveyed at the Met
By Jason Edward Kaufman
The Italian Futurists were outspoken nationalists determined to bring Italian art and culture out of the shelter of its glorious past, into the blazing light of modern Europe. The founding figure of the movement, the poet-novelist Filippo Tomasso Marinetti (1876-1944), published the “Futurist Manifesto” in a Paris newspaper in February 1909. “We will destroy the museums, the libraries, academies of every kind,” he declared. “A racing car…is more beautiful than The Victory of Samothrace,” he professed. “For the new conditions of life,” announced Marinetti, “the Futurists intend to discover a new means of expression.”
An Italian painter, Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916) had been developing ideas sympathetic to Marinetti’s. In his 1907 diary, Boccioni wrote, “I feel I want to paint what is new, the fruit of our industrial times.” When he and several other artists visited Marinetti at his Milan residence, it was agreed that Futurist doctrines would have pictorial expression. Within a month, the painters Giacomo Balla, Carlo Carra, Luigi Russolo, Gino Severini, and Boccioni had drafted and signed the “Manifesto of the Futurist Painters.” Boccioni was mainly responsible for the text, and he would serve as the group’s primary spokesman and theorist until his accidental death, six years hence.
The Futurist Painters exhorted “the young artists of Italy:” “Comrades! …progress in the sciences has brought about, in humanity as a whole, changes so profound as to dredge an abyss between the past and us…. We aim…to destroy the cult of the past…and to render and magnify the life of today, …transformed by science triumphant…. Make way for the young, the violent, the headstrong!”
In keeping with discoveries in modern science and technology such as atomic radiation, x-rays, Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, cinema, and automobiles, the Futurist world view held that conventional models of matter and consciousness were inadequate and false. In subsequent writings, they resolved to paint “the sensation of universal dynamism,” the flux which they held was the characteristic aspect of modern life. They strove to represent “lines of force” by which all things continually interact with their environment.
Though the Futurists painted modern subjects — factories, speeding automobiles, and urban scenes — they lacked the means for giving their theories pictorial form. Divisionism was their preferred technique, and they rendered their industrial themes as vibrant fields of dazzling color. Yet, their paintings remained essentially indistinguishable from Post-Impressionist works. They had no means to express the dynamic interpenetration of object and environment. Not until late 1911, when Boccioni encountered Cubism first-hand in a tour of Paris, was the Futurist style born.
Cubist spatial fracturing permitted the redistribution of component elements of a depicted object, and the integration of those elements with their surroundings. Furthermore, that same process of dissection could serve to demarcate “lines of force.” Finally, by organizing the Cubist planes into dynamic compositions, the Futurists could evoke the sense of motion.
“Movement was the crucial ingredient that separated Futurist from Cubist painting. Boccioni insisted that the Cubists, in “an act of mental cowardice,” persisted in painting from the model, preserving the outmoded tradition of analyzing motionless, still-life objects. The Futurists, he claimed, explored the forces “between objects. Fighting to wrest the cutting edge from the Cubists’ grasp, Boccioni authored articles such as “The Futurists Plagiarized in France,” and proclaimed, “We Futurists are the sole “primitives of a new sensibility, completely transformed.” The fact remained, however, that Futurist technique was profoundly indebted to the graphic achievements of the Cubists.
More than 150 paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures by Boccioni are currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Boccioni: A Retrospective” is the first exhibition in the United States to provide a comprehensive survey of the artist’s career. Curated by Ester Coen, and organized by William S. Lieberman, the show is wonderfully balanced in its selection of pre-Futurist and Futurist works.
In addition to transitional canvasses such as Riot in the Galleria (1910) and The City Rises (1910), which mark the culmination of Boccioni’s pre-Cubist experience, the exhibition includes portraits, self-portraits, and landscapes executed in Impressionist, Expressionist, and Divisionist styles in which Boccioni worked prior to his maturity. The “States of Mind” series (1911-12) and The Laugh (1911) show the immediate effect of Boccioni’s encounter with Cubism. And Elasticity (1912), Dynamism of a Soccer Player (1913), and other mature works illustrate the height of Futurism. The last paintings, completed shortly before his death, such as the monumental portrait of the composer Ferrucio Busoni (1916), evince a Cézannian style that was never absent for long throughout Boccioni’s career. Even while campaigning in an almost militant fashion on behalf of Futurist ideology, Boccioni occasionally lapsed into his pre-Futurist, Post-Impressionist style.
In sculpture, Boccioni demonstrated his greatest originality. Two of his best-known works are included in bronze casts after the plaster originals: Development of a Bottle in Space (1913) is an integration of still life objects into a single, complex solid. Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1912) is arguably Boccioni’s best work. The striding figure’s flamelike body seems perpetually gliding forward in space. Here, the artist succeeded in capturing the sensation of dynamic movement. Had he lived through the war, perhaps Boccioni would have investigated ways of utilizing and channeling the boundless energy he perceived in the modern world. In all likelihood, however, he would have joined Marinetti in supporting Mussolini and the Fascist regime.
The fully-illustrated catalogue of the exhibition (Harry N. Abrams, Inc.) is written by Ms. Coen. In addition to informative essays on the artist’s life and the Futurists’ milieu, a most useful section provides translations of Boccioni’s key writings.
“Boccioni: A Retrospective” continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue and 82nd Street, through January 8. For further information call (212) 879-5500.
Jason Edward Kaufman ©
This article appeared in New York City Tribune, Dec. 12, 1988, pp. 16, 14.