Giacomo Balla, Sculptural Construction of Noise and Speed, 1914-15. Aluminum and steel on painted wood, 40.13 x 46.5 x 7.9 in.

Random Observations Regarding Futurist Sculpture

Futurism is 100 years old this year, yet there is barely a sign of the rambunctious movement having mellowed with age. Exhibitions in Paris, Milan, Venice, and London celebrating the centenary have only added to the many open questions that still remain to be answered. The following is but a preamble to a hoped-for, and long-overdue, re-examination of Futurist sculpture. I have focused on only three of Umberto Boccioni’s sculptures and added for good measure some random observations regarding Giacomo Balla and Fortunato Depero as sculptors.

The historical importance of Futurism, especially of Futurist painting, is assured. Yet of the many artistic movements from the astonishingly fertile period between 1900 and 1914, only Futurism retains much of its original energy and remains as fascinating, and irritating, today as it was in the days of its birth and triumph. We understand and admire Fauvism, Cubism, and the various branches of Expressionism as successfully concluded styles with a well-charted position in the history of Modernism. Futurism, on the contrary, strikes us as an intriguingly unfinished story and continues to bother us in the 21st century not only because of its achievement (not nearly as significant as that of Cubism), but also because of its unresolved contradictions, its weaknesses, and, above all, its ability to speak to both an art-loving elite and the entire range of contemporary society.

The reckless nature of Futurist enthusiasm was so great that it overrode logic, decorum, and common sense. The artists’ willingness to take risks, to leave questions open-ended, is perhaps more clearly evident in sculpture than it is in painting. The best Futurist paintings are faits accomplis. They stand before us as fully matured images, admirably accomplished expressions of the artists’ intent, and we are free to enjoy or ignore them, make them our own or reject them. Futurist sculpture is far more enigmatic, surrounded as it is by any number of unresolved questions that challenge us to find answers. Perhaps it is also in the field of sculpture that the aims of Futurism reach their apex. Painting is always a two-dimensional abstraction, immediately perceived as an artifice that exists apart from the three-dimensional world. Sculpture interpenetrates far more directly with palpable human realities, and it is precisely this amalgamation of art and life that forms Futurism’s noblest ideal.

There is a basic contradiction that bedevils Futurism and the art of sculpture. In spite of the daring and frequently successful attempts apparent across Europe from 1900 through 1930 to dematerialize and destabilize sculpture (e.g., Duchamp’s Large Glass, Belling’s motorized sculptures, Archipenko’s jointed wood sculptures, Calder’s wire works, Severini’s articulated cutouts, and Gabo’s celluloid works), the traditional characteristics of sculpture—stability, density, massive displacement of space—predominate in mainstream pre-World War II sculpture (Matisse, Maillol, Picasso, Brancusi, and González). Futurism’s ambition to abolish the fundamentals of European sculpture, exhilarating as it was, was never realized. The sculptural masterpieces created by Boccioni, Balla, and Depero open a new direction and achieve a greatness of their own, but they never negate the essentials of traditional sculpture. In some ways, Medardo Rosso was more successful in this respect.

Rosso, the only predecessor openly admired by the Futurists (who had an almost manic desire to present themselves as uniquely independent of all preceding art), didn’t quite realize all of his ambitions either. Yet he did produce a number of works that are fully persuasive of daringly advanced, contemporary perceptions, including the fragmentary and fugitive nature of vision, the negation of gravity, the interpenetration of mass and space, a pars pro toto presentation of palpable or imagined forms, the direct involvement of the viewer, and an acceptance of the mutability of forms. All of Rosso’s proposals and conjectures became part of Futurism’s theoretical baggage. Yet the Futurists, while inspired by Rosso, were unwilling to relinquish the power of a finished sculptural form. This obstinate desire to eat their cake and have it too is one of the features—both endearing and exasperating—of the Futurist program. They want to propagate Italy’s glory without admitting the grandeur of its cultural tradition. They want to be à la page, but they refuse to admit their dependence on events in Paris ateliers. They want to extol factories, but they despise the commercial aspects of the new industrialism. They have nothing but contempt for the philistine bourgeoisie, yet they make every effort to woo the ever-more-powerful middle classes by means of shock tactics.

Our lack of information about much of Futurist sculpture only adds to its mystique. Just to begin, we do not know where Boccioni intended his sculptures to come to rest. According to Futurist theory, sculpture was to serve higher ends than aesthetic pleasure in homes or (horror!) museums. But where? And how?

Which brings us to the heart of the matter: every cast that we have of Boccioni’s sculpture is posthumous, so we really can’t be sure that what we see is true to his intentions. The model produced by a sculptor in his studio does not necessarily represent the finished work. In Boccioni’s case, for instance, we have no way of knowing the final color of the patina or degree of polish. Nor can we be sure of the dimensions in which he wanted his model to be cast. In the case of Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, these become particularly significant questions. The flame-like forms have an entirely different effect depending on their dark or bright, burnished or matte patina. And while the plaster model is very satisfactory when seen in the ambience of a museum, it does not necessarily satisfy Boccioni’s or Futurism’s, goals and ambitions. No undue effort is required to imagine Continuity on a high pedestal out of doors, twice the size of the plaster model, a dimension that could easily have been achieved by any decent foundry following the artist’s instructions. …see the entire article in the print version of October’s Sculpture magazine.