WHAT WAS LOST?
One of the world's most famous modern sculptures is Italian Futurist painter and sculptor Umberto Boccioni's Unique Forms of Continuity in Space from 1913. It is on display at Tate Modern in London, MAC USP in Saõ Paulo, MoMA in New York and Museo del Novecento in Milan. What is less known is that this sculpture was preceded by three similar sculptures: Synthesis of Human Dynamism, Speeding Muscles 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 own 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. That is what this project is all about.
HOW ACCURATE ARE THE RECREATIONS?
It is an inevitable fact that we lack photographs of Boccioni's lost sculptures from many crucial angles. However, what sources 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 often gives clues to what happens in areas hidden from view. Some shapes are so pronounced that they cannot just disappear into thin air. Above all, analysing the surviving sculptures, together with a thorough knowledge of Boccioni's theoretical thinking and his views on sculpting, goes a long way to reducing any guesswork. In fact, a rough estimate reveals that more than 91% of Synthesis of Human Dynamism (below) can be accurately recreated.
HOW IS IT DONE?
The 3D software 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, closely mimic their real-world counterparts. Machine Learning algorithms cannot be used to perform the recreation since there are too few photographs to train an A.I.
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 semi-transparent clay mass is modified like how contours are traced onto tracing paper. Meticulous attention is given to ensure that all shapes, lines and contours in the image plane photographs intersect, and that the resulting shadows are similar in size and shape to those in the photographs. The result is a digital sculpture extremely close to the original.
The sizes of the sculptures are estimated with the help of the surviving historical photographs. Paintings of known dimensions are displayed alongside the sculptures in at least six photographs. A vanishing point grid projected onto them makes it possible to calculate the sculpture sizes very accurately.
FULL-SIZE 3D PRINTING
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 recreated Boccioni sculptures were exhibited at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art in London between 25 September and 22 December 2019. It enabled modern audiences to see these over 100-year-old masterpieces for the very first time. Further exhibitions are planned and will be posted under 'Exhibitions'. The sculptures were also included in the 2022 documentary Formidable Boccioni.
Anders Rådén is a digital artist, designer and MRI image analyst. He lives in Uppsala, Sweden.
Matt Smith is a digital artist and designer. He lives in Liverpool, England.