Max Carter, Head of Impressionist and Modern Art in New York, tells the story of a career-defining Futurist work, made just two years before the artist’s tragic death
On 11 April 1912, the Italian artist Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916) published his Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture. At the time he hadn’t fully committed himself to being a sculptor and yet, by the end of the following year, he had sculpted a work so complex and forward-thinking that it is now considered to be a cornerstone of Futurism, as well as his masterpiece.
Boccioni’s brainwave was to break down blocks of movement and convert them into curves that extended past the shape of a human body, before reassembling them as a forward-marching figure. As the artist himself stated, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space was a ‘synthetic continuity’ of motion; an abstract image of man striding boldly and continuously towards a brave new world, in every direction at once.
After graduating from Rome’s Academia di Belle Arti, Boccioni spent the first decade of his career travelling around Europe. In between jobs as an illustrator he spent his time producing portraits and landscapes. ‘He wavered between the Impressionist and Pointillist styles he had witnessed while in Paris,’ explains Max Carter, Head of Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Art department in New York.
Then, at the beginning of 1910, Boccioni discovered his catalyst in the form of Filippo Tommasso Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto (1909). Inspired by the rapid industrialisation then sweeping across Italy, the Italian theorist wrote of mechanised bodies and a progressive, aerodynamic future. Its impact on Boccioni was profound. ‘He was hooked,’ says Carter.
On 11 February 1910, Boccioni, along with fellow artists Giacomo Balla, Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo and Gino Severini signed the painter’s version of Marinetti’s manifesto. Less than a month later, Boccioni was reading it aloud at a theatre in Turin.
‘Let’s turn everything upside down and proclaim the absolute and complete abolition of finite lines’ — Umberto Boccioni
The artist spent the next two years synthesising the manifesto with his work, painting first The City Rises, then The Laugh, which are both now in MoMA’s collection. ‘In these early Futurist pictures,’ Carter says, ‘Boccioni subverts realism in favour of motion and complex perspectives.’
Then, in 1912, a second flash of inspiration occurred when Boccioni visited the Parisian studios of the Cubist sculptors Constantin Brâncusi, Alexander Archipenko and Raymond Duchamp-Villon. ‘I believe I’ve seen a total renewal of this mummified art,’ he wrote to his friend, the critic Vico Baer.
Turning his attention to the third dimension, Boccioni launched headfirst into a period of sculptural experimentation. ‘Let’s turn everything upside down,’ he wrote in his manifesto, ‘and proclaim the ABSOLUTE AND COMPLETE ABOLITION OF FINITE LINES AND THE CONTAINED STATUE.’
In less than a year, Boccioni had sculpted three striding figures — Synthesis of Human Dynamism, Spiral Expansion and Speeding Muscles. Each was modelled in wax before being cast in plaster. When Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, the fourth and largest of the group, was unveiled at Galerie La Boétie in Paris, the artist described it as his ‘most liberated work’.
Sign up today
Christie's Online Magazine delivers our best features, videos, and auction news to your inbox every week
Tragically, two years after making this sculpture, Boccioni was trampled to death by his horse during a cavalry training exercise with the Italian Army during World War I. He died at Verona Military Hospital aged just 33.
The first three striding figures in plaster were all subsequently destroyed, with various theories existing as to why. In 2019, however, they were recreated using archival photographs and 3D printing for an exhibition at the Estorick Collection in London.
‘Unique Forms of Continuity in Space was never cast in bronze during Boccioni’s lifetime,’ explains Carter, ‘but several bronzes have been cast subsequently from the original plaster model, which is now in the collection of the Museo d'arte moderna in São Paolo. A few secondary bronzes have also been cast from those versions.’
Fewer than 20 bronze examples exist in total, with all but four residing in museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA and Tate. The version offered at Christie’s in New York on 11 November 2019 — the first time in almost 50 years a sculpture by Boccioni had come to market — is one of 10 cast from another bronze, originally owned by Marinetti’s widow, in 1972. Six of those 10 are now in public institutions.