An icon of Modernism, Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space stands not only as the culmination of the artist’s pioneering form of Futurist sculpture, but also serves as a powerful visual embodiment of the Futurists’ iconoclastic and revolutionary artistic aims. Conceived in plaster in 1913, in this, the artist’s largest surviving sculpture, Boccioni has taken one of the most revered subjects in the Western tradition of art—the human figure—and split it apart before reconstructing it in a complex, abstract structure of dynamic, interlocking facets and graceful planes that penetrate and activate the space surrounding it. Striding boldly forward in a pose of powerful and continuous motion, this seemingly indomitable figure presents a new conception of man, as well as sculpture, in the 20th-century: mechanical, forward moving and entirely modern.
Boccioni first turned to sculpture in 1912, the year before he conceived the present work. Just as the Futurists had overturned conventions of painting, so the artist wished to do the same for sculpture, seeking to translate the dynamic sense of movement and modernity that had characterized his paintings into three-dimensional form. In March, he wrote to his friend, Vico Baer from Paris about the newfound passion that was driving this dramatic new direction in his art: “These days I’m obsessed with sculpture! I believe I’ve seen a total renewal of this mummified art” ( quoted in L. Mattioli Rossi, Boccioni’s Materia: A Futurist Masterpiece and the Avant-Garde in Milan and Paris, exh. cat., The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2004, p. 35). Likely spurred on by the various forms of contemporary sculpture he had seen during his time spent in Paris—the work of Picasso, Brancusi, Duchamp-Villon and others—Boccioni set about conceiving his own distinct, Futurist response.
A month later, Boccioni laid out his theoretical approach to the medium in the Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture, conceived before he had fully committed himself to working in three-dimensions. Like previous Futurist tracts, Boccioni attacked the art of the past, condemning sculptors—from the ancient Greeks to Michelangelo—for failing to break free from traditional conventions of the medium, thus never creating works that truly embodied nor reflected contemporary life. Instead, Boccioni called for a new form of sculpture, one which, by breaking down the division between the figure and its surroundings and thereby integrating real space into the work, would thus embody the simultaneity and dynamism that defined the spirit of the times. “Why should sculpture be the one to lag behind, loaded down with laws which no one has the right to impose?” he questioned. “Let’s turn everything upside down and proclaim the ABSOLUTE AND COMPLETE ABOLITION OF FINITE LINES AND THE CONTAINED STATUE. LET’S SPLIT OPEN OUR FIGURES AND PLACE THE ENVIRONMENT INSIDE THEM. We declare that the environment must form part of the plastic whole, a world of its own, with its own laws: so that the pavement can jump up on to your table, or your head can cross a street, while your lamp twines a web of plaster rays from one house to the net” (Boccioni, Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture, in U. Apollonio, ed., Futurist Manifestos, trans. R. Brain, et al., Boston, 1973, p. 63).
Following three works that focus upon the motif of the portrait head, as well as a still-life (Calvesi and Dambruoso, nos. 415, 437, 438 and 690), at the end of 1912, Boccioni moved to tackle the standing figure in motion. He worked on a small series of four full-length figures, of which Unique Forms is the culminating work. The three preceding, closely related works—Muscles in Movement, Spiral Expansion of Muscles in Movement and Synthesis of Human Dynamism (Calvesi and Dambruoso, nos. 710, 711, 713; all destroyed and known only from photographs)—are, like Unique Forms, created from a cubist-inspired fragmentation of form, a language that allowed Boccioni to achieve his aim of beginning from the inside, or the core of the figure, to better instill a sense of dynamism into the static, inert material and integrate the object with its surroundings. Inspired by the contemporaneous chronophotography of Etienne-Jules Marey and Anton Giulio Bragaglia, Boccioni explored the effects of motion on the body in these works, as well as the linear rhythms that activate the human form.
Boccioni’s aim in these works was not simply to depict or transcribe the image of a figure in motion, but to convey the sensation of this movement, “the throbbing of its soul” (J. Golding, Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, Newcastle, 1972, p. 8), capturing in visual form the range of simultaneous forces exerting themselves upon a body at the same time. These Bergonsian concepts of synthesis and simultaneity had long interested Boccioni, reaching a fruition in these sculptures. As he wrote in the introduction to his first sculpture exhibition held at the Galerie La Boëtie in Paris in June-July 1913—where Unique Forms was shown for the first time—he was seeking to depict, “not pure form, but pure plastic rhythm; not the construction of bodies, but the construction of the action of bodies” ( quoted in F. Fergonzi, in op. cit., 2004, p. 129).
It was with the fourth and final of this group of striding figures, the present Unique Forms, that Boccioni successfully achieved this aim, creating a work that embodied the concept of “continuity in space”. Every single plane is activated and dynamic, protruding into the area surrounding the sculpture, and incorporating this negative space into its composition, so to give the impression of an innate and most importantly, a constant sense of movement. As Ester Coen has written, “To the extent of representing all the possible variations of a movement in a single, absolute form, it synthesizes with great skill the contrast between object and surroundings” (Futurism, exh. cat., Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 2009, p. 234). The figure is so fluid, elegant and motion-filled it almost appears as if it could be leaping off the earth to become airborne, the gleaming bronze material of its construction serving as a visual counterpart to this seemingly weightless vision. In addition, here Boccioni has refined the flowing forms that constitute the figure, harnessing the play of light and shade created by the combination of curving convex and concave forms. As a result, the figure appears in an endless state of dynamism, as if blown by the air as it marches forward.
“The forms of the body are taut, and eminently sculptural”, John Golding has described. “Negative space is almost as important as solid mass, so that there is also an air of weightlessness, and the sense of speed is now euphoric and heady. The tough, elastic limbs convey overwhelmingly the sense of a new kind of motion… We sense that this is a creature driven by forces that are only partly human, capable if necessary of flight and of competition with the deified racing automobile at top velocity. The bulging muscles, half metal, half flame are pulled back to reveal the trajectory of earlier phases of motion, but these only serve to emphasize the inevitability of the forward drive” (op. cit., Newcastle, 1972, pp. 22-24). Yet, it is this powerful, unstoppable forward motion that also lends this work a striking poignancy. Unbeknownst to Boccioni, the seemingly indomitable figure of modern man that is deified in Unique Forms would, just a year later, march forward into battle. The industrial and mechanical world so revered and idealized by the artist and his Futurist comrades would become responsible for unleashing previously unimaginable levels of destruction and death. Regarded in this context, Unique Forms captures the sentiment of an era, embodying the spirit of innovation, zealous optimism and the supreme confidence that defines turn-of-the-century, pre-war Europe.
Forme uniche della continuità nello spazio, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913, is the highest achievement of Boccioni’s entire sculptural oeuvre. Here the body prolongs itself in a trajectory of motion masterfully simplified in a single and absolute form of all the possible variations of a movement. An utterly astounding thriving synthesis of the dynamic interconnection between an object and its ambience.
The present lot is one of the ten 1971-1972 examples of Boccioni’s renowned Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, commissioned and produced under the supervision of Claudio Bruni Sakraischik, director of the Rome art gallery “La Medusa”, in agreement with Count Paolo Marinotti, owner of the model for this edition: a 1951 bronze cast acquired from Benedetta Cappa Marinetti, widow of the Futurist leader Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. Of these ten casts two are unnumbered and unmarked respectively for the commissioners Claudio Bruni Sakraischik and Paolo Marinotti.
The bronze casting of the ten pieces was carried out by the Francesco Bruni foundry in Rome on the Marinotti example, employing the surmoulage technique (bronze cast from a finished bronze) and the first two copies were ready as early as April 1971, as borne out by the foundry’s letter to Bruni Sakraischik. More than half of the casts from the edition are in public institutions, including the Israel Museum, the New Orleans Museum of Art, Städtische Kunsthalle, Mannheim, the Kröller-Müller Museum, the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art and the Hakone Open-Air Museum.
As mentioned above, the surmoulage edition of La Medusa derives from the bronze version made from Umberto Boccioni’s plaster, at the Giovanni & Angelo Nicci foundry in Rome, as deduced from an estimate of costs dated October 10, 1950. Presumably the cast was made in early 1951—as appears from Paolo Marinotti’s letter (February 10, 1951) in which the collector tells Benedetta Cappa Marinetti that he would like to see the work at the foundry just a few months after closure of the important exhibition Futurismo e Pittura Metafisica (Kunsthaus Zürich, November-December 1950), one of the initiatives aimed at revaluation and rehabilitation of the Italian avant-garde movements’ role at an international level.
In 1952 Benedetta Cappa Marinetti agreed to sell the original 1913 plaster work, still in her possession, to a leading Brazilian industrialist of Italian origin, Francisco Matarazzo Sobrinho. He then donated it in 1963 to the Museu de Arte Contemporânea da Universidade de São Paulo which he himself had founded. With the new change of ownership two more bronzes were made in Brazil out of the plaster: one probably at the moment of donation (now in the same Brazilian institution, MAC USP) and the other in 1972 for the Tate Gallery of London in exchange for a Henry Moore sculpture.
More than fifty years after the artist’s death in 1916 Claudio Bruni Sakraischik, having sought legal advice on copyright, as testified by his gallery assistant at the time, decided to have an edition of ten pieces made. Since the plaster was no longer available for the reasons stated above, Bruni reached an agreement with Marinotti to produce an edition from the bronze owned by the latter.
Casts were made on two occasions (in 1931 and again twenty years later) by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti—Boccioni’s moral heir—and by his widow Benedetta Cappa Marinetti, from the plaster of Unique Forms of Continuity in Space. These are distinguishable by their different bases (the first cast included two blocks beneath the feet while the second had a further base, like the original plaster). There is however a version done by the Giovanni & Angelo Nicci foundry of Rome prior to 1956 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Lydia Winston Malbin) with a double pedestal, as in the “La Medusa” edition.
Another two pieces with block and base were created, as we have seen, by the Museu de Arte Contemporânea da Universidade de São Paulo when it purchased the original sculpture.
A CASTING INVENTORY
The original plaster of the present sculpture is located at the Museum of Contemporary Art of the University of São Paulo. All further examples are posthumous. The two 1931 casts are at the Museo del Novecento, Milan and Museum of Modern Art, New York. The 1949 cast is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The 1951 cast was in the collection of Count Paolo Marinotti. The 1963 cast is located at the Museum of Contemporary Art of the University of São Paulo. A single 1972 cast is located at The Tate Gallery, London. Of the ten casts from the 1972 numbered edition, six are located in public institutions, including The Israel Museum, Jerusalem; New Orleans Museum of Art; Städtische Kunsthalle, Mannheim; Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo; Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art; and Hakone Open-Air Museum, Ninotaira.