Unique Forms of Continuity in Space is a famous large bronze sculpture by Italian futurist artist Umberto Boccioni. Boccioni made the plaster sculpture in 1913, with the bronze examples seen in museums being cast from the plaster sculpture or from other bronze castings.
The work is a part of the short lived but influential futurist movement. Originating in early twentieth century Italy, futurism was an artistic, philosophical and social movement that emphasised modernity, constant change and movement into the future, technology and inventions, speed, youth and violence. It said it wished to destroy Italy’s old artistic and social past (Though I would contend it merly built on it). It lauded such modern technology as cars, airplanes and the industrial city. One futurist said the car was more beautiful than an ancient Greek statue. The futurists glorified war and welcomed World War I as a way to cleanse society of its old ways. It was nationalistic, aspiring to make Italy modern and victorious, bring it to a glorious future. It is telling that Boccioni and the movement died with World War I.
Along with issuing numerous manifestos, including by Boccioni, futurism wished to express its ideas in new, original artistic ways. It encourage originality, rebellion against traditional styles and even good taste, and dismissed traditional art criticism. It used many mediums, including painting, sculpture, architecture, theater, film and fashion. This not only showed that they wanted to dominate all aspects of society and life, but that their ideas couldn’t be captured by just one medium. Boccioni’s works were in painting, literature (futurism manifestos) and sculpture, and he was the first to freely use different materials in his sculptures.
In Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, Boccioni wanted to express this philosophy, including of constant change, movement, speed and moving in the future.
To the casual viewer, there may be mystery to and head-scratching about the abstract parts of the sculpture, as there is to much abstract art, but the theme of movement and speed are clear. The body and legs positions and the flames, wind or wing symbols on the back of the legs visually and symbolically represent speed and movement. As a test, I showed the picture of the sculpture to my 81 year old dad with dementia and he said it looked like a running figure. Color and texture express ideas and evoke aesthetic responses, and the shiny bronze evokes to the average person modernity, invention and futuristic technology. Some call it a superman.
This shows that Boccioni was not completely breaking from the past and past art as he supposedly aspired to, but was building on it. He incorporated traditional representational forms, recognizable symbols and medium (bronze). I would call his sculpture a response, or furthering, of traditional art, rather than a break. Art, even rebellious art, requires shared language the audience can understand. The sculpture bends and expands the language, but does not get rid of it.
It has been said that the sculpture alludes to Rodin’s The Walking Man, which shows a more recognizable and traditional depiction of a man walking, though without head and arms. Rodin focused on part of the person, breaking away from the academic tradition of showing a full figure. He also produced an unidentified person, where traditional sculptures usually depicted specific and famous people. Boccioni can be seen as an extension of Rodin’s work. Michelangelo’s sculptures showed stationary known people in perfect detail, Rodin showed a walking anonymous and more impressionistic man and Boccioni showed a running, even more abstract figure. The progression is clear.
Boccioni was familiar with and influenced by the impressionists. His early paintings have an impressionistic look and even his later abstract paintings use bright impressionism colors. The wings on the legs and the ‘blurry’ abstraction on Unique Forms of Continuity in Space is a very impressionistic way to depict movement and change. Interestingly, he dismissed impressionism, saying: “While the impressionists paint a picture to give one particular moment and subordinate the life of the picture to its resemblance to this moment, we synthesize every moment (time, place, form, color-tone) and thus paint the picture.” I bet the impressionists would say they were evoking movement and thus time. No doubt Boccioni’s rhetorical rejection of impressionism was in part because of their quaint, quiet, mundane life topics– something he definitely was rebelling against.
culpture is often a reaction to or commentary on previous works, so to understand a work you must know the history of sculpture. So comparing Boccioni’s works to previous works, including impressionistic paintings, is important to understanding them. Understanding the futurism philosophy is also essential. Even a reaction or rebellion can only be understood by known what it was reacting to and rebellion against. And rebellions often retain many of the qualities and methods of what they are rebelling against. As I mentioned, Boccioni was both rebelling against impressionism and using impressionistic visual techniques.
Beyond depicting movement, the sculpture intended to express other less tangible and more theoretical futurism ideas, including the futurism idea of ‘’universal dynamism.’ Universal dynamism says that objects are not separate from each other and that an object is not separate from its surroundings. A futurism manifesto said “The sixteen people around you in a rolling motor bus are in turn and at the same time one, ten four three; they are motionless and they change places … The motor bus rushes into the houses which it passes, and in their turn the houses throw themselves upon the motor bus and are blended with it.” Boccioni wrote about his art “Let us fling open the figure and let it incorporate within itself whatever may surround it.” This explains much of the abstraction of the sculpture. It is not about a constant, single figure, but a changing figure and it’s surroundings, all in one and one in all. If the traditional viewer wants a single, unchanged, easily identifiable image, they miss the entire point and are exactly what the futurists were rebelling against. It is not supposed to be one figure, have one identity. After all, it is titled ‘Forms’ not ‘Form.’
People have commented that the sculpture changes significantly as you walk around it. This represents the theme of constant change, in particular in relationship to movement and time. As the viewer moves, both physically and in time, the work changes.
Boccioni and the futurists adopted techniques of the cubists, and Boccioni’s later paintings are clearly influenced by cubism. Cubism expressed things in new, radical ways. It addressed the age old problem of depicting three dimensions in two dimensional space by showing objects from multiple angles at once. It also used abstract techniques to show such things as movement and the passage of time. For example, to depict movement and the passage of time a cubist painting might show a series of still images of a figure in different places. Boccioni’s paintings and sculpture are similarly abstract and ‘different’ to casual eyes because they tried to show many things all at once. It attempts to show different perspectives, including from physical and time changes, in one solid piece.
There are many different ways of depicting things such as movement and time in a still work of art, usually using symbols and mimicking natural cues recognized by the audience. Literature describes it in letter symbols, demonstrating how humans use symbols to perceive things in their minds. A human can ‘see’ a sunrise and ‘hear’ sounds in black letters on a white sheet of paper. The Bayeux tapestry showed a series of figures and events along a long time line, which is similar to how cubists sometimes expressed movement and time. A still painting or photo expresses movement by body and object position, cropping and effects such as blurriness and color changes. Cartoons often use lines to express movement. None of these show actual movement, but evoke it in the viewers’ minds. Art perception is about imagination, and, in part, the audience looking at painting, sketch or snapshot just assume it is a snapshot in time. There are countless other ways to depict and express movement, including by incorporating real movement: a mobile, play, the changing series of still images of motion picture film.
Wikipedia articles on Boccioni, futurism, the sculpture
Khan academy website
Tate museum website
Theartstory.org article on futurism