This year marks the centenary anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, a conflict that was unprecedented due to the influence of machinery. Modern warfare was conceived in the trenches of continental Europe; tanks, aeroplanes, and machine guns were new technologies designed specifically for the task of taking as many lives possible. It is a sad irony that this mechanical war resulted in the deaths of many artists from the Italian Futurist movement, who worshiped and glorified modernity and all its technologies.
Prior to the outbreak of war, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and his friends coalesced in the industrial city of Milan in 1911, home to the Fiat and Pirelli factories. In the Manifesto of Futurism, the group set out to create an image for Europe’s future; a utopia where ‘machine is god’. The group took an aggressive internationalist attitude, a future world united by technology. The group saw history as their natural enemy, and they aimed to distance Italy from the weight of its Roman and Renaissance past. Marinetti once said, “a roaring motorcar that seems to run on shrapnel is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace”.
One of the most prolific artists from the movement was Umberto Boccioni, who would tragically die in 1916 during the war he and contemporaries had praised. His bronze sculpture Unique Forms of Continuity in Space 1913 is one of the most iconic works from the movement. The work is an expression of movement, speed and forceful dynamism. He aimed to create ‘synthetic continuity’ of motion instead of an ‘analytical discontinuity’ seen in classical art. The work depicts a superhuman figure in motion. Looking at its fluid and aerodynamic form, it is easy to forget that the sculpture is bound to its pedestal just like a classical sculpture. Boccioni manages to create the impression of movement from a stationary object. Art historian Joshua C. Taylor once wrote: “The figure in Unique Forms of Continuity in Space strides forth, a symbol of vitality and strength, yet its impetuous step rests lightly on the ground as if the opposing air gave the figure wings. It is muscular without muscles, and massive without weight. The rhythms of its forms triumph over the limitations of the human stride to suggest unending movement into infinite space.”
Regardless of Boccioni’s attempt to distance himself from art history, it is impossible to ignore the historical qualities present in both unique forms and classical sculpture. The wing-like forms that emerge from the rippling back and the fold of fabric echoes the Victory of Samothrace. Even though the Futurists strived to abolish the past and rid Italy of its nostalgia, in order to make way for the future, in the end their work has been added to the cannon of Italian art.