100 Years Ago: Boccioni’s Schnelligkeit
Ever wonder what was going on in the art world 100 years ago? I took a peek in WCMA’s collection to get a whiff of the creative juices of 1914. Happy Birthday Boccioni’s Schnelligkeit!
The story of how the Italian Futurist artist Umberto Boccioni produced a lithograph with the surprisingly German title Schnelligkeit, or Speed, relates to the history of the print’s production. The only known lithograph by Boccioni, Schnelligkeit was based on a drawing Boccioni did in 1914 and was produced with a mechanical method that borrows elements from photography. The drawing was part of a series of drawing studies he created in 1913-14 related to his colorful oil painting Dynamism of a Cyclist (today on long-term loan to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice from the Gianni Mattioli Collection). In 1922, the photolithograph based on his drawing appeared in the German Bauhaus’s Mappe, a portfolio of such lithographs also produced by Boccioni’s compatriots Carlo Carrà, Giorgio De Chirico, and Gino Severini, among others. The collection was dedicated to Russian and Italian avant-garde artists and was issued in an unnumbered series of 110 (as well as twenty sets beyond the original series). This history left WCMA’s work with the improbable German title.
Whether regarding painting, sculpture, drawings, prints, poetry, or music, the Futurists glorified dynamism and simultaneity. In Boccioni’s Schnelligkeit and in most of the related drawings, parts of the cyclist’s body and of the bicycle, itself, remain legible. In the colorful painting, cycle, figure, and space fuse in a moment of simultaneity, and abstract cones and fin-like forms convey dynamic motion as much as any representational elements. WCMA’s lithograph, too, includes vectors and force-lines that demonstrate the physics of motion in two dimensions. Here, the artist evokes time, extolled in this period as the fourth dimension and also a focus for many of his contemporaries. The diagonal lines give a sense of the cyclist’s trajectory. Speed takes over the cyclist’s body and makes him one with the space around him.
Boccioni exhibited at the Galleria Futurista in Rome and in Naples and Florence in 1914. Also that year, Boccioni published his book Pittura Scultura Futuriste, or Futurist Painting and Sculpture, a summary of his aesthetic views.
In the spring of 1914, Boccioni went to Paris. What did he see there? Marcel Duchamp was questioning what we take for granted as standard measurement in his 3 Standard Stoppages (1914, mixed media, The Museum of Modern Art, New York); Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, and Albert Gleizes were in the throes of bringing color back into Cubism; Picasso brought this approach to sculpture with his Glass of Absinthe (1914, painted bronze with absinthe spoon, The Museum of Modern Art, New York) and even included a real sugar spoon in the sculpture; Robert Delaunay painted the Eiffel Tower in shattered planes of color, while his wife Sonia applied bright colors to abstractions alone. Boccioni’s friend and fellow Futurist Severini, living in Paris, had written home to his friends in Italy of all he was seeing there. He introduced Boccioni to it all first-hand on the artist’s first visit to Paris in 1911. Subsequent visits like this one in 1914 only cemented Boccioni’s appreciation for the Parisian art scene.
Spring 1914 was, in short, a moment thick with the elaboration of some of the most influential movements in art history, from Futurism to Cubism to Dada (not to mention German Expressionism and Russian Constructivism). Boccioni had soaked it all in. He took the relatively new modern bicycle out for a spin and ran with it in the interests of Speed.
This moment of aggrandizing motion as the way of the future was short-lived for Boccioni. World War I got in the way. Boccioni demonstrated in favor of Italy’s intervention in World War I in September of 1914. He was arrested along with Marinetti. Italy entered the war in 1915, and Boccioni first enlisted (appropriately for a Futurist and for our story) in the Volunteer Cyclists’ Battalion alongside Marinetti, the painter Mario Sironi, and fellow Futurist painter and musician Luigi Russolo. The Cyclists’ Battalion dissolved in December of 1915. Soon after, Boccioni was cleared to join the regular army. He died at the front the next year after a bad fall from his horse.
—Jane R. Becker, WCMA Blog Writer