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Pulsating Dynamics: Umberto Boccioni’s "The City Rises"

Written for an academic paper.

[ Note: There are images involved with this essay, for the full essay, please see here on ]

The act of aestheticizing tangible forms of chaos within art has been made synonymous to several artistic movements throughout history. However, from popularizing violent dynamics to synthesizing war-fueled social movements, futurism, in particular has been noted for its distinct visual language, artistic technique, and captivating color palette. Originating in Italy in the early 1900’s, futurism glorifies, as well as visualizes both the political and social tensions of its time. A clear example of such is demonstrated in Luigi Russolo’s 1926 "Impression of the Bombardment", which showcases the raw mechanization of a bomb being dropped in lieu of the carnage created by the destructive weapon. The literal “dropping” of the bomb is painted in angular cut forms that are then shown to be shooting from the sky whilst painted in a polarizing red. The hard, jagged, geometrized lines and red scream across the canvas as it viscerally projects a dynamic speed and rage. This clawed aesthetic is also an infusion of modernism as the painting is shown from the perspective of an airplane combined with a complete lack of human bodies. Painted in regards to a non-existent relationship between man and war whilst simultaneously pushing forth the themes of: technology, speed, violence and industrialization - this painting transformed a violent political act into a visual spectacle. However, Impression of the Bombardment was painted roughly 16 years later after Umberto Boccioni’s La città sale or "The City Rises". Widely regarded as one of the early ‘fathers’ of futurism, the 1910 painting marked the beginning of the movement in Boccioni’s work as he himself wrote to a friend that "I attempted a great synthesis of labor, light and movement" (Coen). But, is "The City Rises" a true representation of the techniques, influences, and charisma of the aggressive art movement? In other words, if one was to hypothetically detach Boccioni’s name to "The City Rises", would a cold read of the painting’s formal and conceptual composition continue to render it as a landmark piece of futurism?

Boccioni debuted "The City Rises" in May 1911 in Milan to a receiving press with mostly positive feedback after approximately a year of working on the painting. It was then coined as the painting that “introduced Futurism” as it made its way across Europe the year after in 1912. "The City Rises" formally propels the viewer into the lively streets of the painting as it enervates the dynamism of the street in itself. Shown through large, eccentric compositions of vibrant, bright colors, the street’s festivities are shown in rapid blurs of pigment that dance within a marching cadence (instead of a light wash) across the canvas. The horses in themselves become a dynamo that are transfigured to the mechanized bodies of locomotives instead of loose, organic entities. The airy brush strokes at the tip of each of the horses’ manes create the illusion of the horses dissolving into its own powered speed. In other words, the manes just feathered out into the air like a spool of kinetic energy instead of clean brushstrokes that would otherwise show the silky natural texture of the hair. The human figures, on the other hand, seem to be almost trampled, and completely overpowered by the horses as the natural human forms are painted to be both miniature, and weak.

Furthermore, the formal renderings of the muddled humans add to the conceptual composition that sheds importance on the modern, industrialized town. A common thread seen within futurism is that the movement places emphasis on technology and development and this is seen in "The City Rises". Strictly speaking, by using firmer brush strokes to highlight the solid structures of the town’s construction in the background, the more detailed rendering of the development is hyper-focused. Therefore, despite the humans’ amorphous body shapes being in the foreground, the bodies’ general makeup is of soft brush strokes that loosely stand on the canvas which visually makes the humans less significant despite their placement. Moreover, there is also an absence of cubist techniques in the work, and instead, "The City Rises" invokes a heightened impressionist quality in the painting. The horses were not formally painted in scattered fragmentations, but rather, like impressionist pieces such as Monet’s 1890 Haystacks, there is a conceptually abstract quality in the loose composition of the horses. In other words, the horses are not present to represent accurate biologic still lifes but rather to invoke an inner sensory feeling, and in this case, the speed and tension in the street themselves. This is done so in a similar fashion to how the Haystacks were formally painted to convey a warmth that was made to conceptually invoke a sensation of teleporting to the heat within that field of haystacks. But why is this impressionist quality important? And furthermore, what does the formal and conceptual makeup of "The City Rises" speak to its identification as a work within futurism, and most crucially, when compared to other landmark futuristic paintings, would it cement or invalidate "The City Rises" importance to the movement?

In 1911, Carlo Carra’s "Funeral of the Anarchist Galli" deployed usages of a cubist syntax (within a cartoon-like sketch form of multiple fine lines) in order to showcase the intense chaos of the police figures violently clashing in the depicted scene. Here, the dynamism of the crowd is expressly figuratively in relation to the political movements that besieged the city at the time. Formally shown through lines that cut across the page in blazing colors, the aggressive brushing of paint produces a ‘polyphonic’ formation presented through the visual effect of seeing multiple characters clashing across the canvas. Moreover, "Funeral of the Anarchist Galli" also draws from the chronophotography of Étienne-Jules Marey by capturing and analyzing movement (breaking one subject down into multiple component parts) on a single plate. In other words, the intense congestion of horses and policemen packed together like pieces of locomotion signify the mechanism in a symphonic form with rash lines to depict the constant motion (also invoking Marey). Conceptually glorifying the arid of chaos with a bright palette of cadmium red and yellow ochre that mimics sunlight pigmentation, this conceptual employment is also seen in "Impressions of an Bombardment" as the futurists morphed political reality into an enlarged and venerated artistic medium. This politically charged artwork aestheticizes the violent brutality of the clashes between two radically opposing political movements, the anarchists and the fascist police. This technique is also highlighted in F.T. Marinetti, The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism in regards to the “polyphonic surge of the masses” that is constantly repeated in artistic form through futuristic artworks by scenes of swelling chaos of people in busy, ‘lively’ environments such as crowded streets and battlefields (Marinetti 11).

Under Marinetti’s definition of the futuristic art movement, "The Funeral of the Anarchist Galli" is conceptually strong as a futuristic piece with its defining characteristics of popularizing violent dynamics to a digestive, and highly appealing form (in line with tactics used in propaganda). Within the manifesto, Marinetti repeatedly mentions that as audience members, one must adjust to the ‘new’ vision within futurism in terms of “see[ing] more color” as “no beauty is greater than struggle” (Marinetti 8). In other words, the glorification of war, patriotism, and militarism are key proponents within both the futurism art movement as well ideals conveyed through the fascist values in Italy’s government (at the time), and Marinetti himself as the founder of the futurist movement. Moreover, another important highlight brought forward in "The Impression of the Bombardment" and "Funeral of the Anarchist Galli" is that both pieces had focal points on the trifecta of the love of energy, danger and war that emulated into the “favor[able] depiction of speed” (Marinetti 11). There is also a non-existent focus on depictions of single persons but rather, an emphasis on the depiction of the dynamic sensation itself by rendering a whole surrounding atmosphere. Thus, in connection to "The City Rises", despite the aforementioned lack of cubist influences (in terms of technique), "The City Rises" is a landmark piece in regards to the futurism art movement with or without the association of Boccioni’s name by judging the painting solely on its visual value.

In "The City Rises", the pulsating dynamism of the modern city actively invades the space of the individual as there is no room for the single entity in a futurist inspired realm. Under Marinetti’s written definition, as well as the visual language conveyed through Carra and Russolo - the horses in "The City Rises" gives the allusion of running over the viewer whilst simultaneously exposing the viewer to speed as a force in itself without recognizable defined single content. Therefore, it is the specific portrayal of enlarged ( and traditionally intangible) forces penetrating the modern metropolis that qualifies its identification as a work within futurism. The colors and lines synesthetically pushes the jarring images into the viewers’ eyes through both sonic intrusions and percussive impact. However, as "The City Rises" does not share a similar cubist syntax as its futuristic art successors nor is it as politically charged - this does not disqualify its importance to the beginning of futurism. Through a combined academic and visual analysis in both form and function, it should be noted that it is natural for artistic movements to further develop additional entrenched techniques and styles throughout time. Therefore, although "The City Rises" is not identical with its successors (nor should it be), it is fortuitously a valid landmark futurism piece due to cementing the most intrinsic characteristic of futurism- its pulsating dynamics of speed and motion.

Works Cited

F. T. Marinetti, “The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism”

Ester Coen (1989). Umberto Boccioni. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. pp. xiii–xvi