LONDON.- As part of its celebrations to mark the centenary of the Futurist movement, founded by F. T. Marinetti in 1909, the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art is proud to be hosting the first exhibition in Britain to focus solely on the work of Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916) for many years. Comprising some twenty dynamic works, Unique Forms: The Drawing and Sculpture of Umberto Boccioni on view at 39a Canonbury Square, London N1, through April 2009 incorporates work from the Estorick’s permanent collection as well as loans from museums in Italy, France and the United Kingdom. Running concurrently and complementing this exhibition will be a show focusing on the contemporary Italian artist Luca Buvoli, whose work directly engages with Futurist ideas and themes.
A signatory of the 1910 ‘Manifesto of the Futurist Painters’, Boccioni was perhaps the most significant of the five artists associated with the first wave of Futurist art. Born in the south of Italy, Boccioni later settled in Rome where he experimented with the languages of Divisionism, Symbolism and Expressionism prior to his move to Milan and association with Marinetti’s movement. Equally articulate with verbal and visual imagery, Boccioni went on to become the foremost theorist of Futurist aesthetics, which he expounded with tremendous energy and rigour in his tract Futurist Painting and Sculpture published in 1914, two years prior to his untimely death during a military exercise. The power and energy of Boccioni’s thought and work remains exhilarating to this day, and familiarisation with his ideas and imagery makes it clear that the First World War deprived modernism of one of its most talented and promising artists.
Like all Futurists, Boccioni was fascinated with speed and movement, although he eschewed the influence of experimental photographers such as Etienne-Jules Marey which led other members of the movement to create their famous images of objects repeated in such a way as to suggest their passage through different points in time and space. Inspired by the philosophy of Henri Bergson, who maintained that movement may be analysed but never experienced in this fragmentary manner, Boccioni’s goal was to capture the indivisible flux of life, an ambition that led to the creation of arguably his greatest masterpiece, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, which is being loaned to the exhibition by Tate.
Futurism remains perhaps most closely associated in the public imagination with its emphasis on the beauty and power of machinery, and its fascination with the dynamism of the urban environment. However, it was in his Divisionist works that Boccioni chronicled the bustling, expanding urban sprawl of the Milanese suburbs where he lived, while his mature Futurist explorations of dynamism centred around more traditional iconography – such as the human body, galloping horses and the seemingly paradoxical genre of the still life.
A number of the works in the exhibition reflect these themes. Drawn from the Civiche Raccolte d’Arte Moderna in Milan, a series of works on paper capture the explosive dynamism of muscular energy in densely worked pieces whose sombre tones and volumetric character recall the vocabulary of Cubism, although here used to achieve quite different ends.
In fact, the subject most favoured by the Cubists was to be the unlikely vehicle for some of Boccioni’s most intriguing explorations of dynamism. Inspired partly perhaps by Marinetti’s exhortation for Futurists to explore the dynamic properties of matter (“its crowds of massed molecules and whirling electrons”), and partly by the more poetic belief that “every object reveals by its lines how it would resolve itself were it to follow the tendencies of its forces”, Boccioni revealed a world in perpetual motion, most famously in his images of bottles that spiral and thrust outward and upward into space, such as Development of a Bottle in Space.
It is an unfortunate fact that very few of Boccioni’s sculptures have survived, having been destroyed after the death of the artist. One of the earliest of these, Empty and Full Abstracts of a Head, a portrait of the artist’s mother in which Boccioni undertook an exploration of positive and negative space, was also the subject of several preparatory studies, two of which will be included in the exhibition. Displayed alongside the version belonging to the Estorick will be another from the The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, which once belonged to Eric Estorick. Reuniting these two works will provide an insight into the radical evolution and reworking of this iconic image.
Unique Forms: The Drawing and Sculpture of Umberto Boccioni represents a long-overdue consideration of the work of one of the twentieth century’s greatest artists, of whom the painter and sculptor Lucio Fontana once said: “I am every day more convinced of Boccioni’s genius. He is the great initiator of modern art.”