Boccioni's canvases in pursuit of movement. America is given its first long look at a turn-of-the-century Futurist

HIGH on the list of 20th-century painters whose talents were great but whose careers were brief is Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916), the Italian Futurist painter, sculptor, and writer. In 1910, at the age of 28, he began work on some of the most revolutionary paintings of the 20th century - only to die six years later, after a fall from a horse while serving as a soldier in World War I. In those brief years his achievements were major, which is amply demonstrated in ``Boccioni: A Retrospective,'' at the Metropolitan Museum here. Around 1910 Boccioni had signed two important documents, the ``Manifesto of the Futurist Painters'' and ``Futurist Painting: Technical Manifesto.''

In the latter we read, ``Everything is in movement, everything rushes forward, everything is in constant swift change. A figure is never stable in front of us but is incessantly appearing and disappearing. Because images persist on the retina, things in movement multiply, change form, follow one upon the other like vibrations within the space they traverse. Thus a horse in swift course does not have four legs: it has twenty, and their movement is triangular.''

And a bit later, ``The way pictures are constructed is stupidly traditional. Painters have always shown us things and persons as if set directly in front of us. We however will put the viewer himself in the center of the picture.''

In other words, images in Futurist paintings would not be static and fixed, but dynamic - depicted as though in continuous motion through space and time.

This exhibition's roughly 150 paintings, sculptures, drawings, and prints, drawn from public and private collections in Europe and America, document all phases of Boccioni's career.

The exhibition, the first American survey of Boccioni's entire career, was organized by William S. Lieberman and coordinated by Anne L. Strauss. Ester Coen, an authority on the artist, was curator of the show and author of its accompanying catalog.

The exhibition's biggest surprise is the remarkable range and quality of Boccioni's pre-Futurist work; his international reputation has always rested on his Futurist contributions. Even in Italy, his earlier paintings have had relatively little exposure, and his drawings and prints are even less well known.

More's the pity, for among the canvases dating from 1903 to 1910 are a number of truly excellent works that deserve a better fate than to be relegated to secondary status as ``merely'' the interesting first attempts at art by a future modernist master.

Even his earliest dated painting, ``Roman Landscape'' (1903), is an exceptional piece of work regardless of whether its creator was 21 or a dozen years older. And much the same is true of the colorful and luminous ``Boats in Sunlight'' and ``The Grand Canal in Venice'' (both from 1907), his ``Self-Portrait'' (1908), and the freely executed and quite amazing ``Lombard Landscape'' (also from 1908).

By 1910, most notably in ``Riot in the Galleria,'' and in ``The City Rises,'' painted shortly thereafter, the familiar Boccioni begins to emerge - a bit tentatively, it is true, but clearly enough for us to identify the direction he is about to take.

We find an emphasis on intense, even violent movement, provocative color, highly energized lines of force, and the kind of overlapping and interlocking structuring of geometric elements that would eventually cause many Futurist works to bear a superficial resemblance to the Cubist paintings of Picasso and Braque.

In ``The Laugh'' (1911), one of the first of Boccioni's canvases that can truly be called Futurist, these traits are given even greater emphasis, and in ``Dynamism of a Human Body'' (1913), they dominate and define the composition. The latter, which appears at first to be a Cubist-like abstraction, proves to be much more complex.

As Ester Coen explains in the catalog: ``...on closer inspection more objective elements can be made out - for example, bundles of muscles - from which the viewer can intuit a body in movement. ... In his studies of dynamism Boccioni deals with progressive stages - from the body's first entering into movement, to the body's increasingly destabilized bound or leap ahead in a spiraling expansion which dismembers its forms, to a concise rendering of the movement's direction, and finally to an almost total abstraction of lines, which thrust forward, creating an impression of arrow-swift speed.''

Later paintings were even more totally energized. In ``Dynamism of a Cyclist,'' for instance, the action is distilled to something just short of pure energy. (The process of achieving that degree of ``irreducibility'' is beautifully demonstrated in the ink studies he made for this canvas.)

In ``Horse+Rider+Houses,'' everything ends up dangerously close to a blur.

Boccioni must have realized that things were getting a bit out of hand, for his next - and last - works were both more static and more volume-oriented. The few paintings he produced during the last two years of his life indicate that a powerful new direction was beginning to evolve. What that was, however, and where it might have taken him must forever remain a mystery.

At the Metropolitan Museum through Jan. 8.

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