- Futurism (Movements in Modern Art series)By Richard Humphreys
- Gino Severini: From Futurism to ClassicismBy Simonetta Fraquelli and Christopher Green
- Primitivism, Cubism, Abstraction: The Early Twentieth CenturyBy Charles Harrison et al
Important Art by Gino Severini
Severini was one of the most important figures within the first flowerings of the Futurist movement. Based in Paris (rather than Milan or Rome) he is credited (amongst other things) with widening the scope and appeal of Futurism by focusing on contemporary urban life rather than the dynamic workings of machines. Like other modern movements, the Futurists wanted to show the modern world, not as it was seen (literally), but rather as it was experienced. One of the ways in which Severini sought to achieve this was through rhythmical and repetitive shapes that recreated a kind of lyrical or musical effect. In this respect, Le Boulevard is one of Severini's best-known early works. Thematically, it deals with the march of modernity with the crowded canvas showing pedestrians moving up and down one of the city's busy boulevards. Trees grow upwards on the canvas and we can also discern small animal figures. The "old world" is represented here through a horse and cart (to the right of the frame) which is juxtaposed by the dazzling headlights of a motorcar (on the left).
The art historian Celia White summed up the work by saying "in the tumultuous [...] overlapping visual planes [that] rise to the surface [Severini presents] a scene at once solid and dispersed, defined yet indecipherable". Movement and change are represented thus through the triangulated forms and repeated patterns, creating a patchwork-like effect. The influence of Divisionism is evident here, with the complementary colors that accentuate contrast and bring a musical quality to the work, and the color palette can be attributed to the influence of Fauvism that had recently defined the Parisian avant-garde. As art critic Michael Glover remarked: "Movement - and it is a canvas which seethes with movement - is represented by the juxtaposition of brilliant, triangular prisms of colour. Certain physical details - the men in their bowler hats, for example - are very clearly represented". It is known that Severini showed the work to Georges Braque, with whom he shared a studio complex in Montmartre. Indeed, Severini would channel the principles of Analytic and Synthetic Cubism in subsequent works.
Futurists were well known for their fascination with kinetics - especially in movement of cars, trains and planes. But Severini stood apart from this tradition in his preference for studies of the human form. Inspired by his hedonistic nights in Parisian clubs, the Dynamic Hieroglyphic of the Bal Tabarin depicts the movement and noise of the dancehalls which Severini loved to frequent. (He wrote in his autobiography: "They were expensive, but being a good dancer, I was soon admitted free and received special favors".)
In its fragmented planes, the work clearly carries the influence of Cubism. The subject at the work's heart are dancing women; one with curled brown hair, bare-shouldered, whose pink, blue and purple dress contrasts with her partner who wears white. Alongside her dances a hatted and mistouched suitor whose moves are intimated through repeated shapes laid out in a spiral. All around are cultural references: the words "polka" (bohemian dance) and "valse" (waltz) share the frame with a bunting of national flags. The frame is dense with figures and shapes thus emphasizing the rhythmic atmosphere of the nightclub.
Severini wanted to create a multi-sensory experience, which he embellished with sequins around the canvas. But he merges these Cubist elements with the Futurist interest in capturing the dynamism of motion. His philosophy was that his Italian counterparts must visit Paris to learn about the cutting-edge developments in modern art. According to art historians Dr Charles Cramer and Dr Kim Grant: "In Dynamic Hieroglyphic he adopts [Braque and Picasso's] recent innovations by including painted words and collaging sequins onto the painting's surface. Severini's painting is, however, markedly different from their Synthetic Cubism in its subject matter as well as its brilliant colors and decorative qualities. In this respect it is closer to the paintings of the Salon Cubists, such as Jean Metzinger's Dancer in a Café". Severini described the work as one of his best canvases.
This colorful abstract work represents the movement of a dancer, a propeller, and the sea. The curvilinear shapes can be understood at once to depict motion and the physicality of the ocean, while the sharper, straight edges supply the manmade element. The bright spectrum of color, interspersed evenly throughout the canvas introduce a note of dynamism and vitality. The Futurists were fascinated by the interactions of movement and matter and the dynamic speeds of the modern world, and this work aims to capture the sensory and visual analogies that resonate across seemingly unrelated objects.
Curator Lisa Messenger said of this piece: "In Severini's mind there was a visual equivalent between the movement of a dancer, an airplane propeller spinning and the roiling motions in the sea. He has combined them into one big abstract composition that suggests simultaneity. You can see them all at the same time, the same way Cubism tried to show the many sides of the same head". Severini was a signatory of the Futurist Painting Technical Manifesto (with Balla, Boccioni, Carrà and Russolo) which stated: "The gesture which we would reproduce on canvas shall no longer be a fixed moment in universal dynamism. It shall simply be the dynamic sensation itself [...] On account of the persistency of an image upon the retina, moving objects constantly multiply themselves; their form changes like rapid vibrations, in their mad career".
Interestingly, Severini used a diamond shaped canvas to enhance the sense of motion in this work - a move that would have been highly unusual at the time. However, this novelty was lost on the work's caretakers and when it was exhibited in Alfred Stieglitz's New York gallery in 1917, it was hung as a regular square canvas. It was also mis-hung when it went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was not until Severini saw for himself how his painting had been (mis)hung that it was repositioned according to the artist's wishes.