Boccioni: A Retrospective

By Danto, Arthur Coleman | The Nation, November 7, 1988 | Go to article overview

Boccioni: A Retrospective


Danto, Arthur Coleman, The Nation


The Futurists viewed the present as an aesthetic battlefield from which they sought to drive the past with manifestoes and heroic artistic gestures. A present without a past would already be the future; and avid for historical acceleration, they undertook to erect the twentieth century out of the nineteenth century in a provincial Italian city. Since nothing defines a historical moment as sharply as its vision of the future, the Futurists anchored themselves unshakably in the times they believed they were changing. They no more lived in the future than a man listening to Lum and Abner on his Atwater Kent in 1932, wearing an inverted fishbowl to look like Buck Rogers. Their work is exactly as dated as their costumes in a famous photograph which shows them in Paris, wearing chapeaux melons and tightly belted overcoats, scowling over fierce mustaches into the box camera for a group portrait. Theirs is what the imaginative German historian Reinhart Koselleck calls a vergangene Zukunft- a "past future."' They are part of our present only as something that, for an intense moment of artistic bombast, was. They earned themselves a place not where they meant to be located, in modern life itself, but in those repositories of past futures, the museums of modern art, as a chapter in the history of false starts.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is dedicating a compendious exhibition (untU January 8, 1989) to the work of Umberto Boccioni, who stands second from the right in the photograph mentioned, an elegant, romantic man, a dreamer, really, whose struggle to become the prophet of a Futuristic future was in part a struggle against his own artistic inclination, which was to be a petit-maitre of late Impressionist styles, and whose paintings characteristically showed women against windows, or were searching portraits of himself in soulful hats. Or perhaps the ferocity of his Futurism, with its exaltation of speed and dynamism, is addressed to his own artistic personality, sentimental, moved by women in muslin dresses in soft interiors -as though the enemy to be defeated were himself. Such a struggle gives the show a human dimension, a poignancy available when a certain kind of artist becomes the militant of a harsh style that conflicts with everything he holds dear, like the ideological abstractionist who cannot stifle the desire to paint warm flesh and flashing eyes. So the first several rooms of the exhibition show the artist as he was before, and as he would have remained had not modernism been felt as an abrupt imperative, demanding that he change himself and the world. They show the inextinguishable underside of an artist who had to destroy his deepest impulses in order to become what he believed himself called to. "It is terrible," he wrote in 1916, "the burden of having to work out for oneself a century of painting."

Boccioni's Futurism was compressed into a period from about 1911 untit 1915, when he joined and served with bravery in a volunteer cyclists' battalion, which dissolved in December of that year. There then remained six months of his artistic life, during which he sought to integrate the two sides of his creative personality. There is an outstanding portrait of the composer Busoni, done in 1916, as if by a gifted student of Cdzanne who had done graduate work in some Futurist academy, in which he learned to assert the sorts of curves Cdzanne would only have approached as the limits of a search. It is an aggressive, even a violent work, in which the artist attacks his natural tenderness rather than merely suppressing it. But he was flung from a horse and killed later in that same year, after having to return to military service, reluctantly, at the age of 34. So Boccioni's was a tragic, truncated career whose chief monuments are the Futurist exercises and the theories that enfranchised them.

It is ironic that a Futurist should have met his death by being thrown from a horse, when his vocabulary of speed and dynamism would have recommended a more suitable vehicle, like an automobile or an airplane. …

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