One of the world's most famous modern sculptures is Futurist artist Umberto Boccioni's Unique Forms of Continuity in Space from 1913. It can for example be seen at Tate Modern in London, MoMA in New York and Museo del Novecento in Milan. What is less known is that this sculpture was preceded by three other similar sculptures: Synthesis of the Human Dynamism, Muscles in Quick Motion and Spiral Expansion of Muscles in Motion. Boccioni was tragically killed in an accident in 1916, and eleven years later his three sculptures were destroyed. Today, all that remains of them are some 30 photographs from Boccioni's studio and three exhibitions in Paris, Milan and San Francisco. However, by carefully studying and comparing these existing photographs, very accurate 3D recreations are in fact possible to make. That is what this project is all about.
It is an inevitable fact that we lack photographs of the lost sculptures from many crucial angles. However, what material we have reveal a lot more than is apparent at first. All of Boccioni's sculptures have very jagged, sharp corners and lines. Cast shadows and highlights describe well-defined shapes. Careful analysis more often than not gives clues to what happens in areas hidden from view. Some shapes are so pronounced that they cannot just disappear into thin air. A thorough knowledge of Boccioni's theoretical thinking, his views on sculpting and, not the least, the ability to "reverse-engineer" Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (the final sculpture to be made) goes a long way to reducing any guesswork. For example, with Muscles in Quick Motion (below), a rough estimate is that more than 90% of its original state can be recreated.
The 3D program used to recreate the sculptures is Pixologic ZBrush, widely utilised by the movie VFX industry for sculpting animals, humans, aliens etc. The process of digital sculpting is both additive and subtractive: using a digital pen and a tablet, digital clay masses are added or taken away. Many of the digital brush tools, such as the rake brush and the clay build-up tool, mimic their real world counterparts.
First, all the existing historical photographs of a Boccioni sculpture are loaded into image planes. This provides the reference template throughout the sculpting process. Then a clay mass is modified similar to how transparent paper can be used to draw over a background image, and meticulous attention is given to ensure that all shapes, lines and contours in the image planes photographs intersect, and that the resulting shadows are similar in size and shape to those in the photographs. The end result is a digital sculpture that is extremely close to Boccioni's original sculpture.
When finished, the digital sculpture is transferred from the digital realm to reality through 3D printing. For this exhibition two techniques were used: Fused deposition modeling (FDM) is a 3D printing process where thermoplastic filament is fed from a large coil through a moving, heated printer extruder head, and is deposited on the growing work. The other technique is CNC (Computer Numerical Control) milling of dense polystyrene. This is similar to milling machines that remove material from blocks with rotary cutters to reveal the final shape.
The display of the recreated Boccioni sculptures is unique in that it enables modern audiences to ‘see’ these lost masterpieces for the very first time. There is more information about the reconstruction process in the exhibition guide, available at Estorick Collection. The exhibition is open 25 September 2019 - 22 December 2019.