Umberto Boccioni

The Italian artist Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916) was the leading theoretician of futurism, the most talented of its painters, and the creator of its first sculptures. He is considered the master of the innovative esthetic generated by the machine age.

Umberto Boccioni was born on Oct. 19, 1882, in Reggio Calabria. He went to Rome in 1900 and studied with Giacomo Balla, who revealed the theory of divisionism to him. Boccioni also studied at the Academy of the Brera in Milan. In 1904-1905 he visited Paris and Russia.

To Boccioni's searching spirit the meeting with the poet Filippo Marinetti in 1909 was an event of the utmost importance. Marinetti, the initiator and great orator of the futurist movement, converted Boccioni to his principles. Together with Gino Severini, Carlo Carrà, Balla, and Luigi Russolo, Boccioni signed the "Manifesto of Futurist Painters" in Milan in 1910.


Futurist Painting

Boccioni became the leading theorist of futurist art, both in painting and sculpture. He was the most intellectually active and artistically creative of all the futurist artists. One of his aims was to vitalize matter (Materia, 1912). Matter had to serve as the expression of emotion and states of mind (States of Mind, 1911). The term linee forze, or lines of force, signifies in Boccioni's work the energies which dominate matter and spirit. His famous picture Forces of a Street (1911) is a synthesis of the time and space elements and of form, color, and tone. All the lines of force are in action: the traffic in the streets, the light rays coming from the windows and doors, the light from the sky descending on the busy scene and adding a transcendental quality to it. Geometric forms and intensive colors are in perpetual interplay. The beholder is drawn into the vortex of this field of energies, which even includes "painted sounds." Figures float through the picture in a shadowy, schematic manner. What is more important to Boccioni than the representation of the figures is the human reaction to the experience of the forces of the street. Pictures like this are the esthetic reflections of the industrial era.

The painting Elasticity (1912) is the synthesis of the movement of a galloping horse. Similarly, a synthesis of human movement is found in the paintings Muscular Dynamics and Dynamics of a Human Body.


Futurist Sculpture

Boccioni's first futurist sculpture dates from 1911. In 1912 he wrote his "Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture," in which he propounded the use of unconventional, hitherto unacceptable materials. The "totality" Boccioni strove for was the simultaneous representation of the temporal evolution of an action. His revolutionary dictum for sculpture, "Let us open the figure like a window and include in it the milieu in which it lives," is illustrated by Development of a Bottle in Space (1912) and Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913). Even rays of light were formally incorporated in such sculptures as Head and House and Light.

Boccioni took part in all the important futurist exhibitions in Europe and America, beginning with the Paris exhibition of 1912. His book Pittura, scultura futuriste: Dinamismo plastico (1914) is the most comprehensive statement of futurism written by one of the original members of the movement.

Boccioni was wounded in World War I. While convalescing, he was killed in a riding accident in Sorte in 1916.


Further Reading on Umberto Boccioni

In English, Boccioni's work is discussed in Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Cubism and Abstract Art (1936); James Thrall Soby and Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Twentieth-Century Italian Art (1949); and Raffaele Carriere, Avant-Garde Painting and Sculpture in Italy, 1890-1955 (1955) and Futurism (1961; trans. 1963). There are several good works on the artist in Italian.