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Umberto Boccioni - Attack of the Lancers

by Frauke Maria Petry

The oil painting 'Carica dei lancieri' is divided into three picture levels: The lower left corner shows shooting soldiers with rifles. The area in the middle consists of an area of disassembled horse figures and lances. The upper right corner shows a newspaper article with the caption "Aufhalten der Deutschen durch die Franzosen. Progress in Alsace (...)". The limited color palette of the image includes various shades of black and white and yellow. The gradation of colors creates a sense of depth from the lower left corner to the upper right. Because of its size and the illuminating, bordering color distribution, the mass of horses becomes the center of the picture's action. The repetition of the consumed round and angular forms causes a staggering. In the superimposition, several legs, hooves, and the backs of horses can be made out, causing the eye to wander back and forth in restlessness. Movement is imitated, enhanced by the shading lines and color inserts. In the center on the horses' backs, on closer inspection, human figures with hats can be made out. Their arms correspond to shields and lances. Their diagonal course and arrow ends support the dynamics of the picture. In connection with the bright yellow area at the lower edge, which runs diagonally through the blocking gray area of soldiers, a triangle is formed. Thus the whole composition supports the movement simulation of the crowd.

The Futurists, who included Umberto Boccioni, were proponents of the First World War. They propagated a radical new beginning through the destruction of old traditions. Among their followers, the speed of modern machines became the ideology of modern life at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1910, they wrote in their technical manifesto: "Everything moves, everything flows, everything takes place at the greatest speed. (...) Thus a galloping horse has not four but twenty legs, and its movements are triangular." Futurist artists tried to propagate the demands of the grouping through images. Characteristics of the art movement are collages, fragmentary character and the representation of movement through decomposition of form, multiplication of the object and superimposition of surfaces.

Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916) calls this dynamism, where line, surface and volume must be given equal attention. The synthesis of movement, color and form analysis is a fundamental characteristic of Boccioni's art. In contrast to his colleagues, the main representative of Futurist painting, chooses the horse as the main motif in numerous works. For him, not the machine, but the animal is a symbol of progress and, in his opinion, expresses a dynamic ideal. But the representation of movement requires special means in two-dimensional art. While until 1860 the flying gallop was a common pictorial symbol for the speed representation of horses, in the 19th century artists relied on 'speed lines' and other compositional means mentioned above.

Moreover, thanks to Eadweard Muybridge's (1830-1904) snapshot photographs, the real motion of galloping horses became visible to the human eye for the first time. It can be assumed that Boccioni knew the row photographs and therefore painted the gallop in correct leg position. 'Attack of the Lancers' is Boccioni's only war painting and makes it known: the dynamics of a new age - symbolized by the mounted crowd - is overrunning the old, powerful social structures. But the oil painting is also one of the artist's last works. Like most of his colleagues, he volunteers for the front in 1915, shortly after Italy declares war on Austria-Hungary. Ironically, he died in 1916 as a result of a fall from his horse.

Umberto Boccioni - Attack of the Lancers

Oil on canvas, 1915, 50 x 32 cm, Jucker Collection in Milan


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