A seminal Futurist work, Umberto Boccioni’s 1910 Riot in the Galleria (see above) joined the Guggenheim’s Italian Futurism 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe this May, generously lent by the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan. This example of early Futurist painting is still executed with a late 19th-century Divisionist method. Riot in the Galleria depicts frenzied spectators around a shocking fight between two women—thought to be prostitutes—in Milan’s famous indoor mall, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Boccioni portrays this disruptive, albeit largely bourgeois, crowd outside a café in a brightly lit shopping arcade—a space created for the relatively new culture of consumption (where the prostitutes are exemplars of the ultimate commodity). Through these interrelated inclusions—the crowd, disruption, consumption, electric light—Boccioni’s nocturnal urban street scene touches on several Futurist preoccupations and epitomizes contemporary city life, a favorite overarching theme of Futurism, all the while realized in a passatista (old-fashioned) style. In Riot in the Galleria, Boccioni concentrates equally on a politicized subject and on painting technique.
Before the Futurist artists arrived at their fully articulated pictorial language of fractured forms and interpenetrating planes, they relied on the idiomatic strategies of their immediate modernist predecessors in Italy, the Divisionists. The Divisionists employed a way of painting akin to that of their late 19th-century French counterparts, the Neo-Impressionists, or Pointillists. These precursors to Futurism applied strokes of individual colors onto the canvas in complementary arrangements. They used color theories and the science of optics to fashion shimmering images that hinged on the effects of light (see Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo, The Sun, 1904, right). Though the Futurists disparaged everything passatista when developing their own mode of painting, they were still bound to the Divisionists in these fledgling years. They even praised their antecedents in the 1910 “Manifesto of the Futurist Painters,” particularly Giovanni Segantini and Gaetano Previati. In that same year, Boccioni sought out the main Divisionist art critic, also a painter, Vittore Grubicy de Dragon, to elicit the older man’s opinion of his work (Grubicy was not altogether positive).
In Riot in the Galleria, Boccioni’s surface is a tight-knit tapestry of painstakingly precise Divisionist brushwork. While the picture is ostensibly focused on a street fight, the top half is all about painting. In the upper part of the composition Boccioni revels in the potential and pleasure of pigment and color as he explores the chromatic effects created by artificial light. The electric street lamps illuminating the vaulted space of the Galleria are glowing orbs encircled by brilliant halos of tiny radiating brushstrokes. Boccioni also uses color to show the play of light across the Galleria’s architecture: yellows and oranges dominate the flat faces of the piers, while recessed zones are defined by blue-green hues. The indoor lighting emitting from the café not only appears in sunburst-like flashes, but also demonstrates Boccioni’s skill in representing the transparency of the glass windows and doors, which further refract light and color.
Though the nascent Futurists adapted Divisionist techniques, it was to investigate subjects emblematic of modernity. Certainly, the energized activity at the bottom of the composition and surging across it in an angle receding from lower right to upper left is what ultimately captures our attention. Women in bright dresses and millinery extravaganzas bedecked with flowers or plumes and men in suits and straw boaters or bowler hats tousle, run to and fro, or fling their arms in the air (like the figure closest to the viewer, in the lower right quadrant). Many cast shadows in a doubling of the animated melee already under way. Even here Boccioni advantageously deploys Divisionist brushwork to define the silhouettes in purple tones across the mosaic of vibrant hues that constitute the Galleria’s floor.
As scholar Christine Poggi has argued, Boccioni’s choice to address crowd dynamics in this public arena is significant.1 The physical aggression between the two women has possibly debased the well-to-do crowd’s behavior (a supposed phenomenon likely stemming from the crowd theories of 19th-century French sociologist Gustave Le Bon, which had currency in the first decades of the 20th century), transforming this center of bourgeois pleasure and its attendant upper-class public into a site of social disorder. A crowd so quickly capable of mob mentality was a linchpin of early 20th-century thought, both in its evolving role as a social phenomenon and in its potential as a vehicle for political power. This crowd’s relevance to the Futurists lay, in part, in the regenerative qualities of disruption and violence (concepts likely drawn, instead, from another French thinker, Georges Sorel), particularly in terms of nation-building, fulfilling their wish to remake Italy into a strong, modern state, and do away with its past and concomitant associations of weakness and decay. As the 11th point of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism” proclaims: “We shall sing the great masses shaken with work, pleasure, or rebellion; we shall sing the multicolored and polyphonic tidal waves of revolution in the modern metropolis.” 2 The Futurists’ shock tactics and insurgent aspirations at this youthful moment were tinged with a sort of nationalistic optimism, yet these same philosophies would later inform the thinking of the worst totalitarian regimes of the 20th century to the most terrible ends imaginable.