Historical Review of Umberto Boccioni’s Life and His Influence on Futurist Art

By Abe Hutcheon

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Umberto Boccioni lived in Rome, Italy, and was instructed in the teachings of Divisionism, a practice done involving the separation of color into a dot-like fashion, by the artist and teacher, Giacomo Balla. His fellow artists, Gino Severini and Mario Sironi, accompanied him at this time. They wrote the manifesto, Futurist Painting: Technical Manifesto in 1910,[1] in which they boldly stated that painting could not exist without divisionism. This essay defines the philosophy and undertakings that Boccioni presented in his artwork, and how he developed the Futurist ideals as a divergence from Divisionism.

To begin, the foundations and methods of Divisionism link to the growth of Futurism and Boccioni’s development of his “universal synthesis.” The Divisionist method is “grounded in scientific color theory and [consists] of divided brushstrokes of generally complementary colors.”[2] This definition lends itself well to the values that Futurism sought after. Divisionism implemented fast moving brushstroke that resembled movement, which mirrored the goal Boccioni had of depicting “motion, speed, and dynamism.” This sparked his thought process toward Futurism in that he desired to effectively depict light and the newly introduced ideas of energy and current through the use of Divisionist brushstroke and color. His use of Divisionist technique is clear, but he uses the technique to support his shift in ideology towards Futurism. He depicts light, energy, and current with Divisionist technique, but entertains a new subject of industry, machinery, fast cars and movement. The implementation of Divisionism is clear, but it is clear that he only uses the techniques and ideas learned to formulate and evolve his own ideology, which would later be called Futurism.

In the Futurist Painting: Technical Manifesto, the Futurist ideals expected in a Futurist creation are concreted in the “ideal of visually fusing subject and action.”[3] This is an ideal that Boccioni develops in which one must integrate brushstroke between the borders of his subjects, thus creating a fused image that depicts the subject and its action. Boccioni developed this philosophy based off of Divisionist styles and conceptual frameworks. Again, his early education in Divisionism seeps into the steps Boccioni took to formulate the ideals for Futurism. In the Futurist Painting: Technical Manifesto, the authors write that, “[we] conclude that painting cannot exist today without Divisionism.”[4] Boccioni ultimately came to the conclusion of a “universal synthesis, intrinsic to Futurism, whereby simultaneous scenes and sensations are collapsed into a single unified image.”[5] Where Divisionism was mostly technique and a new method of painting, Boccioni argues that Futurism employs these techniques to create this “single unified image.”

Examples of Boccioni’s artwork help track the growth of his career as a student artist to an independent artist, and can be seen in his first mature Futurist painting, The City Rises, 1910-11. Since, this was one of his early Futurist works, Divisionist brushstroke is splattered in the painting and is balanced with energetic color. This addition of splashes of solid color speaks to earlier ideals of Divisionism that said colors could be used alone to complement each other instead of mixing them together. In a time when industry in Italy was on the rise and the development of workable, industrious cities was increasing, Boccioni chooses a strong subject contrasting the formality of horsepower to the power of industry. He admits that in the construction of this work, he understands the words of Marinetti when he said, “no work that lacks aggressive character can be a masterwork.”[6] Boccioni finds the value in the representation of this violent scene, showing a unique development for him as a Futurist’s painter.

Before delving into more examples of Boccioni’s paintings, an important figure came into his life that helped shape Boccioni’s integrity not only as a painter, but as an independent thinker as well. Vittore Grubicy, a painter, critic and gallerist was a key figure in the spread of Divisionism, therefore his opinion and view on Futurism was critical and often derogative. He rejected the enthusiasm of Futurists and regarded their philosophies as “bombastic.”[7] Grubicy is an interesting facet in the development of Boccioni’s career, because Grubicy detested the new style Boccioni was trying to bring about. Understanding the criticism Boccioni went through throughout the development of his career is important because it establishes his credibility as an artist, and speaks highly towards his determination as an artist to produce Futurist work proudly.

Although this was not Boccioni’s only critic, he confidently spoke on the differences between Divisionism and Futurism without molding his ideology after the thoughts of one man’s critiques. Some of his statements were criticisms of Divisionism, stating that unlike Divisionism, Futurism was a “way to understand the world, not simply a method of painting.”[8] This would suggest that Futurism allowed one to understand the world and develop successful works of art as well. His writings at this time in his career spoke of this notion of superior naturalism, meaning that, in his paintings, he would imitate the action of light hitting bodies and space. This superior naturalism is a strong Futurist quality seen in many of Boccioni’s paintings; painting like The Laugh in 1911 and in Materia of 1912.

As Boccioni developed more and more of these intrinsically ideological facets of Futurism and grew as a painter altogether, he created States of Mind after traveling in Paris. A trilogy of paintings, States of Mind breaks apart the way in which Boccioni and former art had been subjected. His subject is not a person, place, or a thing, but a “psychologically fragmented experience,” that depicts the movement of a person through space, time, and emotions.[9] Along with a physical movement, these paintings capture the effect modern industrialization had on people. He contrasts those who come, those who stay and those who go, noting through particular brushstroke, palette, and geometric configuration. Part of this construction could be attributed to his new discovery of Cubism. This came when he spent time in Paris where he studied the use of geometric forms and “splintered space.” So, as Divisionist becomes less evident in his paintings, Boccioni begins to impart ideas from other movements to help formulate his style, and Futurism as a whole.

As Boccioni experiments with geometric forms, he becomes fascinated with depicting light. His fascination is grounded in his desire to depict a subject in one space, but have the source of that light in another space set against it. Boccioni has a “visual objective” that is found in the “full exploitation of the prismatic effects of light upon form,” meaning that his objective was to successfully capture the effects light has on an object in space.[10] He wanted to create an image that was perceived, as one would experience it in the literal sense. Because of his ability to contrast light from separate spheres into a simultaneous image, Boccioni was able to support his “Universal Synthesis.”[11] This synthesis spoke of the notion of collapsing different stimuli and subjects into one conclusive image. A good example of one of his paintings where he experimented with this concept of light and space is The Story of a Seamstress. His focus was on light, and wanted to detail how the light interacted between the natural aspects of its exterior source and its integration into the interior of the room and onto the seamstress. His fascination with light is supported by the Futurist manifestations of light and its symbolic value of overcoming the proverbial darkness of being stuck in the past entities of a non-industrialized society.

In conclusion, Boccioni eventually departs from Divisionism by diffracting light and breaking up the subjects of his paintings with the use of divided pigment and geometric construction. A perfect example would be his The Street Enters the House of 1911, where the view and commotion of the street permeates the woman on the balcony. This fusion of subject and scenery is a perfect example of how Boccioni crafted a subject encompassing the whole scene into one collect image. This supports his universal synthesis definition, and allows his subjects interaction with the scene to be experience by the audience, thus creating a successful picture. Umberto Boccioni successfully diverged from his Divisionist teachings and rejected the critiques of people like Grubicy, and in turn created the movement of Futurism; a movement that utterly changed the way modern art was created, thought, and written about.

Bibliography

Apollonio, Umbro, ed. Futurist Manifestos, New York: The Viking Press, 1970.

Boccioni, Umberto, Carlo Carra, Luigi Russolo, Giacomo Balla, Gino Severini. Futurists Painting: Technical Manifesto, 1910.

Braun, Emily, Flavio Fergonzi, and Giovanna Ginex. Boccioni’s Materia: A Futurist Masterpiece and the European Avant-Guarde, New York: Guggenheim, 2004.

Humphreys, Richard. Movements in Modern Art: Futurism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.


[1] Umbro Apollonio, ed., Futurist Manifestos, (New York: The Viking Press, 1970), 27.

[2] Emily Braun, Flavio Fergonzi, and Giovanna Ginex, Boccioni’s Materia: A Futurist Masterpiece and the European Avant-Guarde, (New York :Guggenheim, 2004), 237.

[3] Emily Braun, Flavio Fergonzi, and Giovanna Ginex, Boccioni’s Materia: A Futurist Masterpiece and the European Avant-Guarde, (New York :Guggenheim, 2004), 239.

[4] Umbro Apollonio, ed., Futurist Manifestos, (New York: The Viking Press, 1970), 29.

[5] Emily Braun, Flavio Fergonzi, and Giovanna Ginex, Boccioni’s Materia: A Futurist Masterpiece and the European Avant-Guarde, (New York :Guggenheim, 2004), 239.

[6] Richard Humphreys, Movements in Modern Art: Futurism, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 25.

[7] Emily Braun, Flavio Fergonzi, and Giovanna Ginex, Boccioni’s Materia: A Futurist Masterpiece and the European Avant-Guarde, (New York :Guggenheim, 2004), 278.

[8] Emily Braun, Flavio Fergonzi, and Giovanna Ginex, Boccioni’s Materia: A Futurist Masterpiece and the European Avant-Guarde, (New York :Guggenheim, 2004), 279.

[9] Richard Humphreys, Movements in Modern Art: Futurism, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 31.

[10] Emily Braun, Flavio Fergonzi, and Giovanna Ginex, Boccioni’s Materia: A Futurist Masterpiece and the European Avant-Guarde, (New York :Guggenheim, 2004), 289.

[11] Emily Braun, Flavio Fergonzi, and Giovanna Ginex, Boccioni’s Materia: A Futurist Masterpiece and the European Avant-Guarde, (New York :Guggenheim, 2004), 290.

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