Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space. The conquest of the fourth dimension

Considered to be the greatest sculptural masterpiece of Umberto Boccioni (Reggio Calabria, 1882 - Verona, 1916), "Unique Forms of Continuity in Space," a work well known to all also because it was reproduced on Italy's 20 cents, is the sculpture that opened up contemporary art.

To fully understand the revolutionary scope of Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, Umberto Boccioni’s masterpiece, one might start with Lucio Fontana and his Technical Manifesto of Spatialism: “Futurism adopts movement as its principle and only end. The development of a bottle in space, unique forms of the continuity of space begin the one and only great evolution of contemporary art (plastic dynamism), Spatials go beyond this idea: neither painting nor sculpture ’forms, color, sound through spaces.’” Fontana, who would return to Boccioni several times in his writings and interviews, acknowledged one primacy to the futurist, the basis of all contemporary art: that of having united time and space in the same work. Unique Forms of Continuity in Space is the description of a figure that is caught in movement, in its gait: the masses of its body are deconstructed, we do not see the arms, the muscles are transformed into concave and convex forms modified by the action of movement. And the body becomes a kind of architectural construction in continuity with the space: the space is no longer the setting in which a figure fits, it is no longer the backdrop against which an action takes shape. Boccioni has conquered space: his structure stands in direct continuity with the environment in which it is located, around the walking man a space is formed on which the movement of the masses acts, and the light in turn produces effects on the form, darting suddenly and frantically on the different planes of the sculpture, on the solids and voids, and communicating the idea of a body performing a movement, in full continuity with space.

Boccioni’s sculpture, we might say, lives in time and space: time acts on the figure, the figure acts on the space by fricting the air, the same frictions of the air (and thus space) in turn concur in shaping the figure. Boccioni’s ideas find, in this sculpture, their apex, their fulfillment. The idea of simultaneity, meanwhile: “form, in my sculpture,” the artist himself had to write, “is perceived [...] more abstractly. The viewer must ideally construct a continuity (simultaneity) that is suggested to him by the forms-forces, equivalents of the expansive power of bodies.” In constructing his figure, Boccioni does not simply present the action of a man in motion, nor does he adopt the solution that Balla had reached a year earlier with his dynamisms, breaking down the movement into all its phases, solving the problem with a linear sequence. One can detect almost a Bergsonian echo in Boccioni’s sculpture: in his work there is no spatialized time, no measurable succession of moments. It is, if anything, Bergson’s time of consciousness: a time as duration, differently perceived and experienced according to what one feels at that moment, unrepeatable. “We must render the invisible that stirs and lives beyond thickness,” the artist proposed in 1911. Boccionian simultaneity thus consists in communicating to the subject a “complex of plastic sensations,” to use his own expression: the man moving, the environment changing as the man passes, the air moving, the lights and shadows changing after each step, the different directions the figure can follow.

Umberto Boccioni, Forme uniche della continuità nello spazio (1913, fusione in bronzo del 1931; bronzo, altezza 126,4 cm; Milano, Museo del Novecento)
Umberto Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913, 1931 bronze casting; bronze, height 126.4 cm; Milan, Museo del Novecento)

A complex of sensations to be rendered with a single figure, according to the ideas Boccioni had inferred from studying the sculptures of the Cubists in Paris, especially during his repeated stays at the turn of 1912 and 1913 for a number of exhibitions that gave him many ideas to work on. “One feels the absolute need to get out of the constructive elements found in recent times,” Boccioni wrote to Nino Barbantini from Paris on February 12, 1912. “This synthesis [...] cannot be expressed except by means of spiritualized objective elements. This spiritualization will be given by pure mathematical values, by pure geometric dimensions, in place of the traditional reproduction, now conquered by mechanical means. [...] If the objects will be mathematical values, the environment in which they live will be a particular rhythm to the emotion that surrounds them.” The revolution that enabled Boccioni to conquer space lies in having introduced dimensions that were unknown even to the Cubists: movement, dynamism, speed, energy. To get there, the sculptor had had to work on another of his ideas, the “line-force,” the means by which Boccioni, rejecting and surpassing the contour line, gave rise to his decompositions, built objects on moving trajectories, gave direction to matter, opened the figures to space by making them capable of absorbing energy and releasing it in turn. Force-lines, to use Boccioni’s own words, constituted “the dynamic manifestation of form, the representation of the motions of matter in the trajectory that is dictated to us by the line of construction of the object and its action.”

When Boccioni presented his masterpiece, the year 1913 was running: the artist had only been making sculpture for a year, but with Unique Forms of Continuity in Space he had already, in the meantime, marked an enfranchisement: “it is so rich in plastic impulse,” De Micheli wrote in 1958, “that its lesson will undoubtedly remain acquired by Italian art as an invitation to freedom, to research, to emancipation from nineteenth-centuryism.” And he had then built the foundations for the conquest of the fourth dimension: also for this reason Fontana, who was among the first to recognize the historical relevance of Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, if we want also in advance of the critics of the 1970s to whom we owe the full re-evaluation of Futurism, places him as his ideal father, identifying precisely in Boccioni’s Futurism the direct antecedent of Spatialism.

But even before Fontana, before anyone else, the first to sense the greatness of Boccioni and his sculpture was a 24-year-old Roberto Longhi, who registered the novelty practically in real time, already inserting it into the history of art, a continuation of the Baroque, in a writing entitled La scultura futurista di Boccioni (Boccioni’s Futurist Sculpture), 1914. For Longhi, the Unique Forms were already Boccioni’s absolute masterpiece. On the part of the Piedmontese art historian there is, first of all, a description of the formal characters of the work that has remained probably unsurpassed, with a flowery prose, almost to the point of excess. This passage will suffice: “the skull sags into sugarbread, the globular shoulder resists, with soft shadows, an energetic curve compresses in the shadows, where the hip is about to rise from the groin, until the flowing buttock, pinched by the ’air rises back into the light, and the thigh below curls softly, linking its curves to others, so that from the hip to the terminal scorching tentacle a continuous undulation encloses lene unrestrained movement. The other thigh launches its own torpedo blossoming from beneath the pulp into a solidly fleshy berry.” For Longhi, Boccioni had been able to create a perfect synthesis, to give life to a work capable of proceeding in space “without beginning or end,” to “organically transfigure [...] the matter already organized in life,” to lay the groundwork for the fusion of figure and environment. And his name was already to be added to those of Giovanni Pisano, Jacopo della Quercia, Michelangelo, Bernini.

Longhi saw the Unique Forms as part of their third exhibition, at the Galleria Gonnelli in Florence, between March and April 1914: before that, the sculpture had been shown at the Gallerie La Boétie in Paris, between June and July 1913, and then over the Christmas holiday period in Rome, before concluding its “tour” at the Galleria Centrale d’Arte in Milan at the end of 1916, in a posthumous exhibition. Today, the plaster original is in Brazil, at the São Paulo Museum of Art: after Boccioni’s death, it came into the possession of the painter Fedele Azari, who sold it in 1928 to Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, and later, in 1952, his wife Benedetta Cappa sold it to a Brazilian industrialist of Italian origin, Francisco Matarazzo Sobrinho, who donated it to the museum in 1963. In the meantime, however, a number of bronze casts had been made from the plaster, all posthumously. Which are now preserved in several museums on all continents.

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