Tutor Stewart Roberts :-
I don’t usually submit my student’s work for blog posts but this one seemed to exemplify the idea of examining an artwork firstly without any prior knowledge and then subsequently researching it. The student was Anne Price on D4 History of Art – Art, a World History responding to an assignment on a sculpture she had never seen before.
UNIQUE FORMS OF CONTINUITY IN SPACE – Umberto Boccioni (São Paulo original and bronze cast)
Firstly, this sculpture will be assessed naively, as if seen for the first time without any prior knowledge of its production, then it will be placed in the context of when and by whom it was created.
This is a substantial piece (1.11m high x 0.9m x0.4m) cast in bronze. It evokes movement and power. A figure, obviously male, seems to stride along as he is observed. His sturdiness and body position with the long line of body and leg suggest he is unstoppable but also stable, strong and determined. Fixated on his journey, he is unaware of the effect he is having on his audience or his surroundings, nor does he care. The wide shoulders, narrow waist and thick muscular thighs imply strength. His buttocks are stylised. The loose clothing suggests he might be wearing a cloak, with flaps or perhaps flames shooting back from his heels. However, the numerous flat surfaces imply some kind of metallic armour, and he may be wearing a helmet. From the front, the figure is streamline and aerodynamic, but the face is non-existent and, shockingly, in its place is a cross. This is unexpected and poses questions about its purpose. From behind, there are many projecting pieces, implying turmoil and turbulence. An interpretation might be that something is moving purposefully forward and leaving behind unrest. The many sharp angles give the feeling of unapproachability. Despite this, the piece is extremely tactile, the smooth inner thigh, the possible shoulder blades projecting from the shoulders demand to be touched and stroked.
Under the chin is a small pit of unidentifiable purpose. Knowing that every good artist includes details only if they add to his purpose, the viewer wants to touch this small indentation, as if fingers could interpret what the eye cannot. A small dagger-like projection comes from the right foot. These (the cross, the indentation, the dagger) are alien to the overall message of purpose and determination. Together they create an unsettled feeling, the naïve observer receives ambiguous messages and cannot form a coherent theory of what this piece represents. The title “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space” by Boccioni 1913 gives few clues, other than that the date may suggest a preview of the turmoil of the Great War. This creation, though well crafted, is certainly an abstract, well-considered piece of art; designed to disturb rather than to please. Its amalgam of man, superman and alien strongly suggests that it is meant to be symbolic; with a creator who has a warning to society: here is something with which it may feel very uncomfortable, but it cannot be halted. Alternatively, for those open to change, a possible interpretation could be one of excitement: there are changes ahead which will be powerful, energising and exciting.
Anne then went on to research the work in question and identify the context in which it was produced:
This sculpture was created by the Italian Umberto Boccioni, who was also a painter. His most famous painting Three Women (1910) shows great emotion; it belongs to the Divisionist style, a branch of Neo-Impressionism where colours are painted separately as dots or patches (as opposed to Pointillism where the colours are premixed before application). His The City Rises (1910) was of a very different genre showing the stylised construction of a power station, with huge horses trampling over the construction workers. This style was called Futurism. It emphasized speed, technology, industry and violence. His painting The Laugh (1911) is the epitome of Futuristic painting. Boccioni had signed Mannetti’s ‘Manifesto of Futurism’ which committed to rebellion and socialism. This political group glorified the modern mechanistic age and the violence of the machine.
Boccioni is regarded as the founder of the Futurist school of art. The Cubists had explored perspective by drawing the same object from different angles; for example, in Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending A Staircase (1912), while The Red Horseman (Carra, 1913) shows a moving horse with multiple limbs, similar to flash photography. Boccioni rejected these approaches and made a huge leap into the representation of movement in space and how it changes that space itself. He had already explored this in the 2D painting Elastica (1912), which is colourful and depicts the pure energy of a horse. In 1912 he visited Paris where he was influenced by Braque, consequently he decided to be a sculptor. He explained the ethics of Futurism: “we synthesise every moment and then paint the picture”, “These days I am obsessed by sculpture. I believe I have glimpsed a complete renovation of that mummified art. Not a still sculpture but one that moves” (in Pittura e Scultura Futuriste, 1914). He aimed to create a “synthetic continuity” of motion, not to imitate motion but rather to convey the truth of motion through abstract means. “Boccioni’s gift was to bring a fresh eye to reality in ways that we now recognise” (Michael Glover, The Independent, 27/1/2009).
The idea of the interaction of mass and space had been developed by Einstein a few years earlier; the scene was set for Unique forms of Continuity in Space. With this knowledge the piece can be viewed again in the light of a celebration of energy and movement, echoing the dynamism of modern technology. The strong figure thrusting its way through space and creating eddies in that space can be taken to represent modern industry and technology forcing the way into the future and consequently creating turbulence and change in the world around it. Progress is portrayed as unstoppable. The flames or flaps of clothing no longer represent the figure, but the space through which he is moving and his effect on it. The continuity in the title could represent the continuity of effect – how one thing affects the other things around it.
Change affects us all; nothing is isolated. This does not represent a man moving through space; it is a representation of movement itself. Boccioni has deconstructed solid mass and in its place he has constructed a piece that represents motion. He said “We … proclaim the absolute and complete abolition of definite lines and closed sculptures, we break open the figure and enclose it in the environment”. This piece is regarded as the quintessence of Futuristic sculpture (and is now on the obverse of the 20 cent Italian euro coin). It was originally cast only in plaster, a material which does not last. In that medium the effect may have been different; the limited lifetime of the piece would mirror the ephemerality of progress, as soon as something is created it is replaced by something allegedly bigger and better. The bronze casts are harsher, harder and unyielding with sharp edges; however, the machined look would have reflected Boccioni’s mechanistic view of the world.
Boccioni died in 1916 at the age of 33 after falling from his horse during a cavalry training exercise. Many of his sculptures were destroyed in 1917, but his fellow Futurist Marinetti saved Unique Forms of Continuity in Space from workmen who were clearing the studio after his death. A bronze version was cast from the plaster original and others from this. The plaster original is in Museum of Contemporary Art USP, São Paulo. There are also 14 bronze casts in existence located in the major museums of the world.
Anne Price – History of Art – Art, A World History