It’s odd when you find out that something you think of as totally modern in fact turns out to be really rather old. And so it was for me with this week’s artist, Umberto Boccioni, who was born 130 years ago this week, and this work, familiar as an icon of the new modern world, and now almost a hundred years old.
Boccioni moved into sculpture in about 1912 and Unique Forms of Continuity in Space was first exhibited in June 1913. It was the fourth in a series of striding figures he made at this time, and the only one that survives. All four were exhibited in Milan 1916-17 but after the show closed, the plaster sculptures were stored in a courtyard, and were subsequently hacked up by workmen clearing out the building. Saved by fellow-Futurists Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Fedele Azari, who collected the pieces and stuck them together again, this survivor has gone on to become a textbook art work – the poster image for Italian Futurism (along with that Balla painting of the sausage dog).
Enthused about the changes happening in the world around them; cars, trains, electricity, the Futurists aimed to depict modern life in the modern world, and in particular what they saw as its dynamism, progress and speed. Unique Forms of Continuity in Space is full of this exciting forceful movement forward, not only showing the body striding ahead, but also the swirling eddies of the body’s impact on its environment. As he put it himself:
We … proclaim the ABSOLUTE AND COMPLETE ABOLITION OF DEFINITE LINES AND CLOSED SCULPTURES, WE BREAK OPEN THE FIGURE AND ENCLOSE IT IN THE ENVIRONMENT.
Though the progress that the Futurists celebrated now seems either commonplace or even obsolete, their excitement about a new world is what makes this work in particular retain its contemporary feel. Probably the reason that for me it has managed to hang on to its idealistic teenaged feel, regardless of its now advanced age.