Short Essay: Essence, dynamism, vitality and humanity in 20th century sculpture

Filippo Tommasso Marinetti (1876 – 1944)


The turn of the 20th century brought on exciting new changes across the world. Socially, the rigid confines of the 1800s weakened, allowing citizens to lead a freer and even independent lifestyle. With these new liberties, developments to science and technology were made, opening up revolutionary possibilities to citizens and artists alike. In this essay I explore the artistic reactions to this new age with a particular emphasis on sculptural pieces. Responses to this modern era were varied and broad, with the creation of an array of artistic movements, each with their own philosophy that they sought to convey. With particular reference to Boccioni, Balla, Brancusi and Rosso, in this essay I discuss the concepts of essence, dynamism, vitality and humanity – key elements that reflected the hustle and bustle of the modernity these artists found themselves in. I argue that despite how these concepts stem from similar origins, with perhaps similar purposes, these terms are not synonymous and in fact reflect an artist’s personal and individual response to the energetic and fast-paced life on the 20th century.

The terms dynamism and vitality are often associated with Futurism – an artistic movement that sought to celebrate modernism and its latest inventions in speed and machine-based technology. Like many movements, Futurism found its roots in literature, originating from young poets and painters who felt stifled by the constraints of past traditions. (Edwards, H., Umberto Boccioni, The Art Institute of Chicago Quarterly, Vol. 52, No. 2, The Art Institute of Chicago Press, (1958), p. 25.) Filippo Tommasso Marinetti was studying at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1909 when he produced and published the first Futurist manifesto – a document with strong right-wing sympathies, which criticised previous artistic styles and celebrated the delights of technological advancements. The manifesto supported the violent destruction of a long Italian artistic tradition in replace of the creation of a new style of works that expressed speed, violence, dynamic movement, and the passage of time. In painting, Futurist works often consisted of bold colour clashes and busy mixtures of lines and forms. New techniques such as Pointillism (or Divisionism), a technique that broke down light and colour into a field of stippled dots, were used to portray an overwhelming sense of energy and vitality. Like these paintings, Futurist sculpture also explored the concepts of time and speed, having political implications and aggressive undertones.


Unique forms of continuity through space (1913), Boccioni


By the age of 19, Umberto Boccioni had left his home in Reggio, Calabria, to commence his studies at the Accademia di Belle Arte in Rome. During his time at the Accademia, he studied under Balla and was exposed to this artist’s pointillist paintings. In 1906 he moved to Paris to study Impressionist and post-Impressionist works, before moving to Milan where he met Marinetti in 1909. This fateful meeting gave Boccioni a sense of direction and resulted in a joint collaboration on two later Futurist manifestos. In 1912 he released his own Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture, followed shortly after in 1913 by his first sculptural exhibition in Paris. In this same year, Boccioni created arguably his most well known piece and one that has become a symbol of Italian Futurism, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space. Standing at 111cm tall, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space is perhaps one of Boccioni’s most traditional sculptures, cast in conventional bronze. (Tisdall, C., Futurism, Oxford University Press, (1977), p. 36.)

In his own manifesto, Boccioni wrote in regards to this sculpture, “to render a body in movement, I do not portray the trajectory, that is, the passage from one state of rest to another state of rest, but instead its continuity in space.” (Tisdall, C., p. 36.) The emphasis in this work is of an exploration of motion, the movement of a figure through space. Boccioni seeks to capture this sense of dynamism and vitality in order to reflect the changes that were quickly coming about in society at the time. The striding figure, made up of curved smooth bronze planes, suggests rippling muscles which contract and expand with each step the figure takes into the space around him. The figure’s torso twists while his legs appear as if they are mid-way through taking a step, splicing the space around him. Investigating the real living form through art, this work symbolises Boccioni’s fascination with speed and force. He distinguishes between a figurative sculpture that is rendered as moving and a body that is actually in a state of motion, a “living reality”. (Cambridge International Examinations History of Art New Zealand Syllabus, Part 2: Modern Art, Option 1: Towards Abstraction, F. Fullarton (2004), p. 124.) The figure’s personality is anonymous and hidden by planes of heavy armour, adopting a conceptual identity, referencing Modernity. Appearing almost machine-like, Boccioni incorporates into this sculpture a sinister quality that comes across as visually threatening, perhaps indicative of the power and force of this machine-age. Unique Forms of Continuity in Space appears fragmented, as if modelled by its swift movement through space, furthering its sense of dynamism and energy. As a synthesis of man and technology, this work expresses an overwhelming sense of vitality and spirit, reflecting the artist’s personal awe of the fast-paced world around him. Through this sculpture, dynamism and vitality are synonymous concepts that Boccioni, as part of the Futurist movement, captures and brings to light in his work. The impact this particular work had on later sculptures is seen in his teacher Balla’s sculpture, Boccioni’s First: Lines of Force (1915).


Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash (1912), Balla


After finishing his studies in Turin, Balla moved to Rome where he began work as an illustrator and portraitist, eventually having some of his paintings shown at the Venice Biennale in 1899. He met Marinetti and by 1910 was signatory to the Futurist Manifesto, creating and designing his own futurist clothing and furniture. Balla was primarily a painter who experimented with the portrayal of motion through repeating various elements in his works. Such an example is seen in his pointillist painting, Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash (1912), which shows influence of modern time-lapse photography.


Boccioni’s Fist: Lines of Force (1916 – 1917), Balla


The same lyrical quality of his paintings is also seen in his sculptures, particularly in Boccioni’s Fist: Lines of Force. This work references the aforementioned Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, mirroring a similar dynamic energy. In a construction made of planes of red painted cardboard, this work shows influence from the Cubist developments of collage and breaks new ground in its symbolic use of colour. The bright red panels reinforce the notion of energy, furthering the sculpture’s conceptual basis. Lines of Force traces the path of energy, the movement created by the powerful thrust of Boccioni’s fist upon the previous conservative art world. This work is metaphoric and abstract and its aggressive quality was admired so much by Marinetti that it became a symbol of the Futurists. Both Boccioni and Balla present the concepts of dynamism and vitality in their work, referencing the Futurist background they share. Evolving from these fierce and more objective works is Brancusi, whose Abstract Expressionist sculptures turn attention towards the artist’s internal search for the essence of his subjects. Within this search, his works are softer and less aggressive. His work is more spiritual as instead of focussing on such concepts as dynamism and vitality, he explores the more poetic possibility of flight, be it natural or spiritual.


Golden Bird (1919), Brancusi


It wasn’t until after studying in Bucharest and Munich that Romanian-born Brancusi made his career as an abstract sculptor in Paris. Brancusi’s oeuvre is based on few motifs that he dedicated his career to, reworking and developing subjects and forms to do with eggs, the kiss, and birds. He always retains a figure or object as his focus, but reduces his subjects to their simplest forms, abstracting them from nature in order to capture the essence of the class or group that he depicts. There is an undoubtable spirituality in his sculptures, possibly due to the influence of Plato’s theory that one should not imitate imitations and instead aim for the representation of supreme models that exist solely in the mind. This notion is seen in his Golden Bird (1919), a pivotal piece that shows Brancusi’s transgression away from a descriptive approach of his subject towards a more synthetic and simplistic mode of expression where there is little differentiation between parts and instead a continuous smooth surface. (Andreotti, M., Brancusi’s “Golden Bird”: A New Species of Modern Sculpture, Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, Vol. 19, No. 2. The Art Institute of Chicago Press (1993), p. 141.)

Golden Bird shines like a beacon. It’s highly polished surface is reflective and adds a sense of wonder and awe as when looking at this sculpture we see reflected back a picture of ourselves; it is hard to really see the subject Brancusi has dedicatedly experimented with in nearly 30 of his works. After the widest part of the bird’s breast, the sculpture thins as it rises, suggesting a sharp and delicate move upwards towards the sky. Through this sculpture, Brancusi explores the essence of what it means to be a bird, the essence of flight. Perhaps one of the hardest things for the artist was how to portray the bird’s rising head without conjuring any sense of pride of defiance in this gesture. By incorporating the notion of flight, it is as if the bird is poised about to take to the sky, ridding the work of any implication of haughtiness. The variety of materials is unique as the polished bronze is in stark contrast to the zig-zag wooden and stone pedestal it perches upon.  The geometry of the base appears jagged like a tree trunk, not only giving the bird itself lift and movement up into the air, but providing a sense of context too. Whether Brancusi intended the base to be viewed as part of the sculpture is debatable, but the contrast between the two inevitably impacts on the way the viewer perceives the sculpture; rising tall and strong, this precious bird emerges from a humble grounding, conjuring a sense of spiritualty and something divine. This same idea is also seen in The Kiss  (1916).


The Kiss (1916), Brancusi


In order to further explore the essence of his subjects, Brancusi turns to direct carving. Unlike artists before him who relied on skilled workers to help transfer their plaster casts into bronze sculptures, Brancusi opts for a more labour intensive method. This process was similar to that which was used in non-Western art by which he was influenced (for example, traditional Romanian folklore), and seemed to Brancusi a more “honest” way of depicting his works and arriving at their essence. The Kiss is a profound statement about human bonding, showing two anonymous figures locked in a close embrace. The reductions and simplification of their forms renders them as heavy blocks of stone, forever intertwined with one another by the bond of their kiss. There may be a subdued sense of vitality in these works of Brancusi but the emphasis is on their essence, not on the dynamism their beings create. This differs therefore to the vitality and dynamism found in Futurist works by Boccioni and Balla, and is instead closer to the notion of humanity found in Rosso’s work.


Ecce Puer (1906), Rosso


Emphasising the fleeting moments of life, the wax sculpture Ecce Puer (1906) references modern technological developments resembling a camera snapshot, capturing a glimpse of the boy who the artist met briefly during a trip to London. Unlike fixed materials such as marble and bronze, wax is malleable and subject to change depending on environmental climates. Rosso plays with this idea, bringing to this work a sense of real life degradation through time. Ecce Puer incorporates the concept of movement in an indirect way and realistically expresses the boy’s growth and development over time. Referencing the curtain to which the boy hid behind, Ecce Puer in its seemingly incomplete glory radiates a veiled spirituality through its softly blurred textures and shallow contours. (Cardinal, R., Medardo Rosso, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 136, No. 1094, The Burlington Magazine Publications Ltd., (1994), p. 330.) In this sense, the idea behind the work may be said to be similar to that of Brancusi as both artists share a purpose of investigating the essence of their subjects. However, Brancusi’s work remains aesthetically more abstract to the figurative form of Rosso’s Ecce Puer.

Essence, dynamism, vitality and humanity are key concepts that have been explored intimately through art. As this essay outlines, they are differing elements that stem from independent artistic movements, realised by artists with unique and personal purposes. The Futurist vitality and dynamism of Boccioni and Balla differ to the lyrical vitality that Brancusi gives his bird series and the essence of the kiss he seeks to portray. This same essence however is found in Medardo Rosso’s Ecce Puer, though in the form of a figurative piece, that deals with humanity as much as it does the essence of what it means to be a child, growing and evolving. These sculptures outline the varied responses their creators’ and other artists had to the changing and modernised world of speed and technology, inevitably highlighting the potential of possibility and growth this new world had to offer.

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