Umberto Boccioni and the Futurists
written by Chris Panatier on July 10, 2008
Umberto Boccioni was born in Italy in 1882. He was first a painter and then a sculptor, ultimately signing on as part of the Futurist movement; a group of artists anxiously awaiting the changes the future would bring while embracing movement, energy and mechanization. Fellow Futurists were other artists and poet/founder Filippo Marinetti.
Boccioni began as a sign painter in Italy. He moved to Paris in 1902 to study the impressionists. This was his chief early influence. He met the group that has already named themselves the Futurists in 1909. In 1910 and 1911 the group published and amended its Futurist Manifesto. Boccioni’s first solo show was in 1910 and he progressed quickly within the sect from that date until his death six years later.
Who are the Futurists and what did they stand for? This group embraced the advancement of technology and industry as the means to move forward as a race to a bright future. The elements of then current technology embraced by these artists were movement, speed, energy, violence, and dynamism.
The Futurists transferred their philosophy and ideals into art by learning to “depict” motion. This was done in several ways. The primary signature of a futurist painting was the “breaking” of lines into segments and spacing them in ever-increasing intervals to give the impression of acceleration. Even though they embraced modern technology, they continued to utilize traditional painting techniques to connote movement such as bright colors and large swooping brush strokes. Futurism has been linked as an important influence to other art movements of the early and mid-20th such as Surrealism, Art Deco and Constructivism.
Along with Marinetti’s first Futurist Manifesto, the group shamelessly promoted their movement. They went so far as to attempt a cooperative with the Fascists, who were coming to power in Italy at the time. Their efforts were to no avail as Mussolini was an avid traditionalist.
The futuristic elements can be seen in Boccioni’s art in particular. His progression from a fairly straightforward impressionist to futurist can be seen in his piece “Riot in the Galleria,” painted in 1910 [link]. Here, his impressionist style is consolidated and less diffuse. The large façade of the Galleria itself presents the opportunity for the intersection of clean, gleaming lines – something that the futurists utilized more and more up until the start of the first World War. It also suggests Cubism, as those lines intersect and divide the scene in stark contrast with the softer figures.
One year later Boccioni meets Picasso and paints the “States of Mind” series. States of Mind: The Farewells [link] is an illustration of the cubist style on Boccioni’s subject matter. The overall painting is abstract in nature with obvious visual signposts allowing the viewer to appreciate the location: a train terminal. Rather than focus on the human interactions at the terminal as other artists had (Monet and Turner), Boccioni is embracing the locomotive itself. The futurists were glorifying the potential and promise of mechanization and industrialization.
Perhaps Boccioni’s most famously known piece is also the one that most illustrates the essence of the futurist style. “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space” (1913) has the elements of movement, futuristic style and breakthrough forms that defined the movement [link]. This piece has been recreated and copied all over the world and is perhaps the hood ornament on the futurist movement. Even though the movement largely died out by the 1920s, it played an important role in the rise of modernism.
Boccioni was mobilized into an artillery regiment in 1916. Ironically, it was a symbol of the past under which he met his demise. During training exercises he was thrown from his horse and trampled to death at age 34.