The Fourth Dimension and Futurism: A Politicized Space.

Author:Antliff, Mark

In the opening lines to his 1914 volume Pittura scultura Futuriste: Dinamismo plastico (Plastic Dynamism), Umberto Boccioni announced his desire to transform Italy. Dedicated to "the genius and muscles of my brothers Marinetti, Carra, Russolo," Boccioni's book proclaimed "plastic dynamism" the expression of an "antitraditional and antirational avant-garde that must rejuvenate Italy and the world by exacerbating their spiritual speed." [1] In his attack on tradition he condemned both the retrograde aesthetic taste of "a democratic public made up of pseudo-intellectuals, anarchists, and socialists" like Enrico Fern, the socialist director of L'Avanti, and the aesthetic preferences of the ultranationalist Enrico Corradini, who had reportedly "dirtied his name" by defending "one of the most mediocre Sunday painters of Verona." [2] As a supporter of Corradini's Italian Nationalist Association (founded in 1910), Boccioni admired Corradini "for his nationalist beliefs" but lamented his failure to appreciate the poli tical import of Futurist aesthetics. [3] In contrast to traditionalists on both the left and right, Boccioni, in Plastic Dynamism, claimed that a "renewal of plastic consciousness" among Italians required opposition to the debilitating effects of "democratic-rationalist education." [4] Thus, the aesthetic of plastic dynamism propounded in Boccioni's volume was not only "antitraditional and antirational," it was also antidemocratic in its regenerative aims and nationalist in its aspirations.

Although scholars have recognized the antirationalist premises undergirding the Italian Futurists' rejection of parliamentary politics, the integral role of Futurist aesthetics in that polemical project has yet to be elucidated fully. Through an examination of Boccioni's Futurist tract, Plastic Dynamism, and works such as his Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913, Fig. 1) and Carlo Carra's Funeral of the Anarchist Galli (1911, Fig. 3), I will explore the Futurists' incorporation of aesthetic theories of time and space into a utopian campaign to transform the consciousness of the Italian citizenry and inaugurate a political revolt against Italy's democratic institutions. By analyzing the role of a theory of the fourth dimension in this highly politicized aesthetic, I will expand on Linda Henderson's important insights regarding the Futurist fusion of the spatial fourth dimension with notions of temporality and intuitive consciousness derived from the French philosopher Henri Bergson. [5]

As Henderson has demonstrated, theories of the fourth dimension and related concepts of non-Euclidean geometry were instrumental in overturning the assumption upheld by nineteenth-century positivists that space was limited to the three dimensions described by Euclid. The new geometries undermined positivism and inspired idealist philosophical interpretations that associated the fourth dimension with a higher, mystical reality beyond three-dimensional visual perception. Theosophist Helena P. Blavatsky announced that perception of the infinite, unbounded nature of fourth-dimensional space opened our consciousness to unseen, spiritual realms, while the Russian mystic P. D. Ouspensky claimed that time itself constituted another, spatial dimension and that motion in time was in fact evidence of higher dimensional "virtual volumes." As Henderson noted, Boccioni's allegiance to the theory of temporality developed by Bergson meant that he was particularly interested in "dynamic" theories of the fourth dimension. Rat her than generating fourth-dimensional form by the motion of a three-dimensional object through space, Henderson argues, Boccioni operated in the reverse process by considering the passage of a higher dimensional form through our space. Boccioni's claim that the spiral was an innately dynamic shape expressive of fourth-dimensional "absolute motion" is interpreted by Henderson as evidence of his awareness of the "hyperspace" philosophy of Howard Hinton, whose book The Fourth Dimension (1904) illustrated a spiral moving through a plane as one of many mental exercises designed to develop a reader's "space sense." Hinton and Ouspensky thought time and motion in three dimensions constituted an illusion to be overcome by nurturing our spatial consciousness; Boccioni, by contrast, "asserted the positive value of time and motion" following the theories of Bergson. Henderson therefore concludes that theories of the fourth dimension were less integral to Boccioni's aesthetic since Hinton's and Ouspensky's devaluation o f temporality was fundamentally at odds with his Bergsonian precepts.

I will argue that Boccioni did seek to generate fourth-dimensional form through the motion of a three-dimensional object through space, and that his notion of the fourth dimension owed more to his knowledge of the Bergsonian concept of "extensity" than to a reading of Hinton or other "hyperspace" philosophers. Moreover, in contrast to other proponents of the fourth dimension, Boccioni assimilated this spatial concept into the Futurists' highly politicized campaign to renew Italy. The Futurist correlation of the fourth dimension with a Bergsonian spatial-temporal flux made up of "force forms" and "force lines," unfettered by the limitations of three-dimensional space or measured "clock" time, fused with a political program premised on intuition and an antimaterialist call for national regeneration and imperialist expansion. The correlation of imperialism with national renewal was first propounded by the Bergsonian Georges Sorel and developed by his Italian followers Enrico Corradini and Mario Missiroli; the i mpact of Sorelian thought on the Futurists is well documented by historians such as Gunter Berghaus, Giovanni Lista, and Zeev Sternhell. [6] I will argue that the fourth-dimensional force lines and force forms emanating from works like Carlo Carra's Funeral of the Anarchist Galli (1911) or Boccioni's Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913) registered not only the artists' intuitive transformation of the self but also a desire to transform the audience who came to view such work and were intended to transmit the Futurist spirit of heroic violence and gendered will-to-power to the Italian public.

The role of the fourth dimension in the creation of this revolutionary consciousness thus constitutes an example of how politics became aestheticized under the Futurist banner. Such a notion of aestheticized politics thoroughly contradicts that proposed by Walter Benjamin, whose famous essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936) related Futurist leader F. T. Marinetti's glorification of violence to a contemplative, Kantian notion of "aesthetic disinterestedness," allied to theories of aesthetic autonomy and organic closure. [7] In contrast to Benjamin, I would join writers such as Andrew Hewitt and Jeffrey Schnapp in arguing that the Futurists actively repudiated any association of their aesthetic with the contemplative, and that any proper reading of their art must take into account the antimaterialist premises undergirding that disavowal, premises Zeev Sternhell and Emilio Gentile have identified as fundamental to Italian proto-Fascism. [8] Whereas art historian Brian Petrie claime d that Boccioni's endorsement of Bergson's metaphysics allowed his aesthetic to "rise above [the] political metaphors (imperialist, antidemocratic) used by Boccioni to describe his art," I would argue that Boccioni's Bergsonism cannot be detached from the politicized context from which it emerged, namely, the politics of Italian nationalism. [9] As an expression of those politics Boccioni's correlation of the fourth dimension with a Bergsonian rejection of rationalism in both aesthetics and politics indicates the integral relation of plastic dynamism to his political ideals. Before analyzing the ideological dimension of Boccioni's art we must begin with an overview of Boccioni's aesthetic theory, and then consider how Boccioni set about reconciling Bergsonian thought with a theory of the fourth dimension.


Throughout Plastic Dynamism Boccioni employed Bergson's distinction between intellect and intuition to map out conflicting approaches to the making of art. In a critique of the art of "state academies" he claimed that such institutions promoted an "exterior and narrative" art diametrically opposed to the Futurist conception of art as "creative," "interior and interpretative." The Futurists, we are told, reject an art of "external appearances"; instead, they are "living life in its dynamic conception"; they enter an object's "interior" and experience its living dynamism through "intuition." By contrast, academic methods are declared to be "intellectual," the result of "static, nostalgic emotions"; only through intuition are the Futurists able to experience the "violent emotions of movement and speed" that "inspire new plastic ideas." The Futurists, therefore, are the "primitives" of a new sensibility attuned to the dynamism of modern life; moreover, their intuition of the "eternal renewal of life" gives them " superhuman energy." [10]

Verisimilitude serves to constitute a "superficial" art of surface appearances antithetical to an intuitive art of spiritual depth. In a chapter titled "Against Artistic Cowardice" Boccioni attacks the public for having mistaken "the stupor provoked by an exterior optical illusion" for "depth" of meaning. The Futurists' "plastic intuition" alone allowed them to grasp "the essential element of creation" unattainable through artistic verisimilitude. Painting should not be an art of "surface execution" or emulate "mechanical processes of reproduction" such as photography. Boccioni considers such art to be "inferior" and condemns modern-day "Realists" for engaging in the "fragmentary and analytical" study of "surface appearances." Such "imitative and analytic realism" had its origins in Classical Greek...

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