Let’s open up the figure and let it enclose the environment. —Umberto Boccioni5
As industrialization swept across Italy, its artists sought to shed the pre-industrialist past in favor of the modern machine age. Elements of this new age, such as speed and technology, were embraced. The “Founding and Futurist Manifesto” (1909) declared: “We affirm that the beauty of the world has been enriched by a new form of beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car . . . is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.”
Umberto Boccioni (1882–1916), a principal figure of the Futurist movement, was critical of sculpture’s domination by formulas of the past and particularly of “some sculptors desperately trying to free themselves from the holds of the Greeks.”6 The impressive classical achievements of the Greeks and the Romans loomed large and set the standards for Italian sculptors for centuries. Boccioni had worked primarily in two dimensions before the spring of 1912, but he became obsessed by sculpture. Soon, he had published the “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture” and created several important plaster sculptures, including the plaster version of Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, later cast several times in bronze.
In Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913, cast in 1949), Boccioni captured the Futurist love of speed and machinery. The powerful figure is in motion. The lines of its body seem as if they are molded by the wind and its surroundings and capture various stages of the figure moving through space and time. Boccioni studied and worked on these forms over two years in paintings, drawings, and sculpture before creating this work. Some have pointed out that Unique Forms of Continuity in Space shares elements in common with the Victory of Samothrace—the Greek sculpture from more than two thousand years before that the Futurists explicitly rejected in their manifesto. However, in Boccioni’s sculpture, the figure has been modernized: reshaped by its movement and surroundings and even resembling a machine itself.
Show: Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913, cast in 1949)
- Ask students to list the words that come to mind when they look at this sculpture.
- Ask a volunteer to pose, and even move, like the sculpture. What do they imagine the figure in the sculpture is doing? Is the sculpture realistic? Why or why not?
- Read Boccioni’s opening quote to students. Ask them where they see his figure enclosing the environment, if at all.
- Ask students to compare this sculpture to two works Boccioni was influenced by: Auguste Rodin’s (1840–1917) The Walking Man (1907) and the Victory of Samothrace (220–185 bce).
- The founder of Futurism declared: “We affirm that the beauty of the world has been enriched by a new form of beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car . . . is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.” Ask them how Boccioni’s sculpture relates to this quote. Do they agree that a racing car—or even Boccioni’s sculpture—is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace? Why or why not?
- What do students think is a “new form of beauty” in our own modern world? How should today’s sculptures respond to this?
- Boccioni also captured speed and movement in two dimensions. Show students his painting Dynamism of a Cyclist (1913) and ask them to connect the image to the title. In the “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting” (1910), to which Boccioni contributed, it stated: “To paint a figure one should not paint it as something in itself; one needs to make visible its atmosphere.”7 How did he follow this declaration? Now, ask students to go outside and look for something in motion: a car driving, a child on her scooter. Challenge them to draw the object in motion so that they “make visible its atmosphere.” Look at the results together. What techniques did students use? Did they use abstraction as a tool?
- Although this version was not cast in bronze until 1949, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space is often called machine-like because of its shiny metallic surface. For this activity, students will work with tinfoil to create sculptures that capture a figure in motion. Challenge each student to think of two motions or actions they would like to capture with tinfoil. They should try to choose actions that are different from each other in speed and/or quality (for instance, a person writing versus a person skiing). (You may want to first talk about different “qualities” of movement: choppy, smooth, rhythmic, etc.) Display all of the sculptures together and reflect on them. What can students tell about the speed and/or quality of the actions? How did students express these elements in line, form, and material?
- The Futurists communicated many of their ideas through manifestos. F. T. Marinetti launched the Futurist movement with a manifesto that started: “We intend to sing to the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness” and went on to even more radical statements, such as: “We intend to destroy museums, libraries, academies of every sort. . . .”8 For this activity, challenge students to write their own manifesto. Their manifesto should make declarations about how art should be in their own era. What should be the content of art? What should be the style? What should we “destroy” and what should we “sing to the love of”? Students can view both Boccioni and Marinetti’s manifestos online to get ideas about format (for instance, they may want to write in list form). See Futurism: An Anthology in Google Books.