Episode 23: Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913)
Human beings are a little weird when it comes to the future. We treat it like it’s this thing that already exists, this third party separate from us, that’s looking back at us and shaking its head, judging us, mocking our naiveté. Like we didn’t know yet, but the future knew. We do so much in the present at the service of the future, like if we sacrifice at its altar, it will reward us, or take pity on us. But, of course… it is us. It’s the culmination of our own choices and the serendipity that is usually the result of someone else’s choices, all yoked to the back of the perpetual march of time. And we embrace that march – we have to, it’s the only way we feel like we have any sense of control, that its relentlessness doesn't scare the crap out of us. We embrace it with a belief in progress, that since the future has no where to go but forward, it must be an improvement over the past. And we equate progress with technology and innovation and neat stuff, forgetting, of course, that the future is still us. Now. And…now.
That said, we also do this weird thing when we study the past. Because we have a tendency to see history through the eyes, and the moral authority, of the present. Which is to say, we become that judgmental future. And we know we shouldn't. It’s a totally unfair thing to do. We can't judge the past just because we’ve been spoiled, because we already know how that story ended and they didn’t know any better, and especially when we now benefit from the lessons they had to learn. So this is all to say that when, for example, we’re looking back at a crucial period just before the outbreak of WWI, and we’re confronted with, let’s say, a misogynistic band of speed-obsessed, history-hating, anti-intellectual, proto-fascist, and war-glorifying brothers like the Italian Futurists were, we can certainly be leery of them in their own moment, but it’s not actually very fair to judge them in relation to the actual future they never saw coming. Especially when to them, that future was so cool.
And I want to go back to that word, progress. We tend of have this idea that progress too is a thing, not just the life that inevitably happens while we’re busy making other plans, but something tangible, with a power that can be harnessed. Or it’s a terrifying unknown that threatens to undo everything familiar. And when we looked at this period of European art before, it was through the eyes of artists who were resisting progress. From Gauguin to the German Expressionists, we’ve seen artists in the Post-Impressionist, pre-WWI period confront industrialization and modernity in Europe by, essentially, turning their backs on it, retreating from it, and moving instead toward cultures who, in their eyes, had managed either to sidestep it, or just hadn’t gotten there yet. Remember the appeal, in episode 9, that non-Western, “primitive” art held for the German Expressionists, or in episode 14, when we looked Gauguin and how much of the allegory in his work amounted to what he had hoped he would find in his midlife crisis flight to Tahiti, and not what was actually there. There was something so warm and seductive about an exotic world freed from propriety and corsets, and particularly from technology – its speed, its facelessness, its relentless march forward.
But look at the fluid, dynamic form of this sculpture. This episode, clearly, is not about those people. Instead, it’s about this group of young Italian artists who embraced technology, industrialization, the headiness of their own youth. They took enormous pleasure in the triumph of the manmade over nature, this fetishized idea of progress that hooked them by the navels and pulled them violently forward. And this forward momentum was rocket-fueled by a vicious hatred of the past, of museums, universities, history, gray hair. Futurism was about youth, aggression, angry young men, an art movement high on the fumes of its latest release of testosterone.
And everything you need to know about them can be found in the fire and overwrought bombast of their manifesto, which was written by the Italian poet Filippo Marinetti, and published in La Gazzetta dell’Emilia on February 5th, 1909, and, really, it’s impossible to choose just one quote from this thing. He begins, “Up to now, literature has exalted a pensive immobility, ecstasy, and sleep. We intend to exalt aggressive action, a feverish insomnia, the racer’s stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap. We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath…is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.” He is referring here, of course, to the Hellenistic, armless, faceless sculpture at the Louvre. But we’ll come back to that. He continues with a toxic rant against the past and its champions, “Today we establish Futurism because we want to free this land from its smelly gangrene of professors, archeologists, antiquarians…We mean to free Italy from the numberless museums that cover her like so many graveyards…We want no part of it, the past, we the young and strong Futurists!” He then goes onto to glorify war, “the world’s only hygiene”, glorify militarism, patriotism, “the beautiful ideas worth dying for,” and concludes this passage, somewhat arbitrarily, by glorifying “scorn for women” – the only thing more useless to society than old people. In short, this manifesto is seething with a hubristic, steroidal desire to get the coach’s attention, to get off the bench and into the game, and, like all twenty-somethings, to possess the future without ever getting older.
Look, I know they sound like absolute jerks. And fine, they’re young. And when being young is one of the founding principles of your movement, it’s an occupational hazard to be a little passionate and stupid. But their art isn’t, and that’s why we care about them. For all of this macho bravado, this hard-on for speed and diesel stink, their art had a remarkable, and even sophisticated, depth. Because what they contributed to the art world, unequivocally, was an insatiable, experimental desire to see how many ways there were to capture this dynamic fury, with dynamic techniques. From diagonal brushstrokes to flaming sculptures to long photo exposures, there were countless ways, they realized, to grab your eye and pull.
But what makes their art so effective is that this pull was surprisingly gentle on the actual eye. There’s movement, but it feels meaningful, and intentional. And in unpacking the work of the Futurists, we see the necessity of a relationship between past and future. Because although the Futurists so adamantly rejected the past, the aesthetic tools they were using to create this effect came directly from it. We’ve seen, for example, from looking at Cezanne how much ponderous depth can come from a slow build-up of brushstrokes. We’ve seen from Van Gogh how much swirling movement can come from giving those brushstrokes a place to go. And we’ve seen in Cubism in particular layers of overlapping facets that capture a kind of simultaneity of experience. In episode 6 we looked at how Picasso wasn’t just painting the object, but the object as seen from multiple perspectives, and experienced in duration. The object over time. The Futurists were deeply indebted to both the Cubists and the Post-Impressionists for providing a visual language that could easily be cribbed, subbing out the Cezanne and Picasso’s intellectual exercise of looking and multiple perspectives, and replacing it with the physical movement and pull across of the canvas that all these overlapping perspectives provided for your eye.
Take, for example, Umberto Boccioni’s “The City Rises” from 1910, his first deliberate Futurist painting. It depicts a horse charging into a city street with all the airy whirl of a Van Gogh. The city and the exertion of the horse, and the exertion of its flailing handlers, melt into a heaving, windy rush of brushstrokes, which are at once soft and pliant, yet keep your eyes spinning in circles, especially if you try to make sense of the horse’s head, which keeps bucking you off to the other corners of the canvas. And this is just the tip of the Futurist iceberg. Remember, they were experimenters. Another way to show movement is to take those overlapping facets and show every movement at once, like all the frames of stop-motion photography superimposed – four dog legs become a hundred centipede legs, like we see in Giacomo Balla’s utterly adorable painting, “The Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash” from 1912). And we can see how this technique would end up influencing Marcel Duchamp’s iconic “Nude Descending a Staircase”, an example of the merging the intellectualism of Cubism and the dynamism of Futurism in a way that only an iconoclast like Duchamp could, which ended up being one of the foremost examples of early 20th century art experimentation and, according to a New York Times critic at the time, reminiscent of “an explosion at a shingle factory.”
But back to the Futurists. Another way to capture movement could be seen in the broken colors and short brushwork that we see in “The Streetlight”, also by Giacomo Balla, which depicts the hazy light around a gas street lamp as a halo of sparks like an exploded firework, luscious as peacock plumage. We see every individual ray, and it would almost seem to echo the pointillism of the post-Impressionist George Seurat, except that every ray has a direction, an arrow expanding outwards, which sends your eye flying along with those sparks. The Futurist manifesto wants us to appreciate that this manmade light is outshining the moon, and score one for technological progress, yet what’s amazing is that in execution, we’re seeing something evocative, intensely beautiful, and indebted to a previous generation of painters.
They also dabbled in other media. They were fascinated with the mechanics of photography and played with exposure length as a means of capturing duration. Consider the long exposure photograph that captures every position up and down the neck and seesaw back and forth of a musician bowing away on his cello, as we see in Anton Bragalia’s “The Cellist” from 1913. Or consider his figure captured in the blur of a bow, morphing from upright to bent at the waist, in “Waving” from 1911.
And, of course, they experimented with sculpture. And this brings us back to our object at hand, Boccioni’s “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space” from 1913. Boccioni had taken a step away from painting works like “The City Rises” and moved toward sculpture, furtively diving into what Futurists had declared a “mummified art.” His goal was to create a figure that exemplified stride: and not as an allusion to it, not the individual pages of a flipbook, a static object placing one foot in front of the other and we fill in the rest of the story – but a visual experiencing of a stride. He wrote, “to render a body in movement, I do not portray the trajectory, that is the passage of one state of rest to another state of rest, but attempt instead to capture the form that expresses its continuity in space.”
This figure is the very definition of a continuous, fluid stride, its silhouette deformed and blurred by the wind and speed. Boccioni said that the sculpture’s form was inspired by a soccer player moving into a perfectly-weighted pass, dynamic, anticipating, yet completely balanced and deliberate. And technically, he strips the figure of anything that would encumber it – a face that registers emotion, an environment, musculature, a body beneath the flames, even – and instead creates a form of simultaneity – like that Cubist painting, all the movement happening at once. And that sense of taut dynamism is expressed in the parts of the body that most experience it: a powerful trunk, active fluttering thighs and calves, mechanized and unstoppable as the Terminator, as the march of time – a manifestation of the momentum of progress cast in bronze.
Yet ironically, in this manifestation of modernism and progress, there are still allusions in this sculpture to that past. This armless, faceless sculpture finds its roots not just in August Rodin’s sketchy, Impressionist sculpture Walking Man, a sculpture intended to explicitly capture a dynamic stride, but even further back to the very same Winged Victory of Samothrace, that Marinetti decries in the Futurist manifesto as paling in comparison to a racecar. This marble sculpture from 200 BCE, was equally headless, equally armless, equally flapping with fabric that pushed against a Hellenistic wind machine, and an equally dynamic example of a static sculpture’s movement, before it was cool.
The appreciation for the symbiotic relationship between past and future, the acceptance of the inevitability that one slips beneath your feet into the other, and that you will, someday, have more past behind you than future ahead of you, seems to me the definition of maturity. And it’s tempting to couch the story of the Futurists as one of immaturity, with a kind of “be careful what you wish for” dismissal. After all, WWI broke out a year after this sculpture was carved, much to their delight. Speed, violence, hygiene, clear victory – the promise of war embodied everything the Futurists held dear. They truly believed that modern technological warfare would be the break from its classical past that Italy needed. But then several enlisted, and a few subsequently died without ever getting the chance, and the privilege, to outgrow their youth, to earn some gray hairs, to value the lessons of the past. And this included Boccioni, who was killed in action in 1916, at the age of 34, and with his whole future ahead of him.
Special thanks to Mary Alice Elcock, my wonderful Writing a Song That Matters crew, and the intrepid museum goers at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. For more information, past episodes, and all of the images, go to the lonely palette.com, or follow us on Twitter, @lonelypalette, or on Instagram, where I regularly post bonus images from each episode, @thelonelypalette, or like us on facebook, and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and please consider leaving a rating and a review wherever you go.
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