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Gino Severini

Italian Painter, Mosaicist, Writer, and Set Designer

Born: April 7, 1883 - Cortona, Italy
Died: February 26, 1966 - Paris, France
Movements and Styles: Futurism, Cubism, Interwar Classicism, Collage
Gino Severini Timeline
[Abstraction is] a sign of that intensity...with which life is lived today
Gino Severini

Summary of Gino Severini

Severini was one of the most progressive of all the twentieth-century Italian artists. An early and important figure within the Futurist movement, the Paris-based Severini produced unique works that, through their emphasis on urban Parisian scenes (rather than machines), broadened the thematic possibilities for the movement. Having exhausted his commitment to Futurism, and to the French avant-gardes' penchant for pictorial deconstruction, he shifted his interest to Neo-Classicism; a move that saw him aligned with the interwar "Return to Order" movement. His modernist credentials were tested somewhat through his associations with the Fascist leader Benito Mussolini's "Third Rome" project (the dream of establishing a New Roman Empire), for which he provided murals and mosaics for architectural structures inspired by imperial Rome. In later years, however, Severini was "reborn" through his new commitment to the Catholic faith which saw the artist produce religious mosaics so finely skilled they earned him the title: "Father of Modern Mosaics". Complementing his considerable achievements as a painter and mosaicist, Severini proved an accomplished polemicist, publishing theoretical essays and books on the art of painting throughout his long career.

Accomplishments

  • Severini's Futurists works were distinguished in the way they privileged the lyrical and rhythmical joys of urban life. Allowing for the influences of Divisionism, Fauvism, and Cubism to inform his work, Severini used contrasts in color and shape with the primary goal of heightening the decorative and kinetic quality of his work. In this way he facilitated a truly cross-cultural Futurism to emerge.
  • Leaving behind the Parisian nightclub scene (to which he had become so attached), and disillusioned with the violent and chaotic path trodden by the Italian Futurists, a more reflective Severini turned to his friend Pablo Picasso and the lessons of Synthetic Cubism. By adopting its flattened planes and simplified forms, Severini produced a series of still lifes and landscapes that found beauty in everyday and/or natural subjects.
  • Putting to one side any sense of patriotic duty (the Futurist remained steadfast in their goal of maintaining a uniquely Italian culture), and the experimental tendencies of the French avant-garde, Severini joined a pan-European group of artists and intellectuals in his support for the interwar "Return to Order" movement. His Neo-Classical style saw him bring the principles of the Italian Renaissance to modern subjects. Such was his enthusiasm for the Classical movement, and particularly its legacy of pictorial proportion and balance, he published (much to the chagrin of the Cubists) an influential theoretical tome, Du cubism au classicisme (From Cubism to Classicism) in 1921.
  • Back in his native Italy, Severini's later career saw him bring renewed interest and credibility to the ancient art of Byzantine mosaics. Having contributed retro-imperial walkways for Mussolini's bloated architectural edifices, he worked under the influence of a new spiritualism (one brough on by personal tragedy) that saw him visualize Christian parables for churches in Italy, Germany, and Switzerland.

Biography of Gino Severini

Gino Severini in 1913 at the opening night of his exhibition at the Marlborough Gallery, London.

Severini's declared that one could locate the dynamism of modern life, not so much in the driving pistons of machines, but more in the "beautifully masked and under-dressed women", the "showers of confetti" and the "multicolored streamers" he encountered in the nightclubs of Paris.

Important Art by Gino Severini

Le Boulevard (1910-11)

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.

Dynamic Hieroglyphic of the Bal Tabarin (1912)

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.

Dancer = Propeller = Sea (1915)

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.

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Gino Severini
Influenced by Artist
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Sarah Ingram

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Gino Severini Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Sarah Ingram
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 29 Aug 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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