MoMA Audio: Collection, 2008
Curator, Anne Umland: This bronze, gleaming figure by the Italian artist, Umberto Boccioni seems caught somehow, to me, between the classical past and the twentieth century. It's a figure that strides forward purposefully at the same time as its limbs are securely anchored to blocks. It's almost as if the flesh, the surface of the figure flickers back sort of in this fluttering flame-like manner. And its form, its armless torso, its very posture recalls a very famous 2000-year-old sculpture, the Nike of Samothrace. But at the same time, of course, its burnished, gleaming metal surfaces and fractured forms are so much of the early twentieth-century moment.
Boccioni was a principle figure within the Futurist movement, both as a theorist and as an artist. The Futurists were a group of Italian writers and visual artists and poets who in the second decade of the twentieth century wrote a number of manifestos outlining or declaring their desire to invent, to create a new form of art that would reflect the dynamism of the machine age. If you look not only at their sculptures, their paintings, their printed matter, all of them somehow convey a sense of speed of motion, of things broken apart, or on the verge of being.
Boccioni, in a manifesto of 1910, called for artists to fling open the figure and let it incorporate within itself whatever may surround it. And it is that ambition that I think you see him realizing in this sculpture.
Boccioni, who sought to infuse art with dynamism and energy, exclaimed, "Let us fling open the figure and let it incorporate within itself whatever may surround it." The contours of this marching figure appear to be carved by the forces of wind and speed as it forges ahead. While its wind–swept silhouette is evocative of an ancient statue, the polished metal alludes to the sleek modern machinery beloved by Boccioni and other Futurist artists.
The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999
In Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, Boccioni puts speed and force into sculptural form. The figure strides forward. Surpassing the limits of the body, its lines ripple outward in curving and streamlined flags, as if molded by the wind of its passing. Boccioni had developed these shapes over two years in paintings, drawings, and sculptures, exacting studies of human musculature. The result is a three-dimensional portrait of a powerful body in action.
In the early twentieth century, the new speed and force of machinery seemed to pour its power into radical social energy. The new technologies and the ideas attached to them would later reveal threatening aspects, but for Futurist artists like Boccioni, they were tremendously exhilarating. Innovative as Boccioni was, he fell short of his own ambition. In 1912, he had attacked the domination of sculpture by "the blind and foolish imitation of formulas inherited from the past," and particularly by "the burdensome weight of Greece." Yet Unique Forms of Continuity in Space bears an underlying resemblance to a classical work over 2,000 years old, the Nike of Samothrace. There, however, speed is encoded in the flowing stone draperies that wash around, and in the wake of, the figure. Here the body itself is reshaped, as if the new conditions of modernity were producing a new man.