Progression of Art
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.
Oil on canvas - The Esoterick Collection of Modern Italian Art, London
Dynamic Hieroglyphic of the Bal Tabarin
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.
Oil on canvas with sequins - Museum of Modern Art, New York
Dancer = Propeller = Sea
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.
Oil on canvas - The Met, New York
While the Futurist remained committed to presenting a uniquely Italian culture between the two World Wars, many intellectuals of the age (artists, architects, designers, graphic artists and so forth) supported an ambitious ideological project that promoted a so-called "Return to Order". The art historian Rose London summed up the ethos thus: "Historically, in times such as these, wherein society is craving order, simplicity, and security, art often desires the same; and we bear witness to a 'call to order' - a return to classical tradition". She added that this pattern was most "vehemently [...] seen during and after the First World War, with Picasso's neoclassical turn, Gino Severini's 1916 series of figurative paintings exemplary in 'Maternity', and Juan Gris's mid-war return to figure subjects and old master paintings".
While Severini was still experimenting with Cubist techniques, Maternity was the first of his works to signal his shift towards Neo-Classicism; evident here in his modern treatment of the classical elements of motherhood. Severini's "mother" is patently not lionized or beautified but her pose still adheres to the rules of a classical proportion. Her clothing is modern but the folds in the fabric of her blouse is reminiscent of classical sculpture and painting. Her hairstyle appears rather classic in design, but her facial expression and body language connote a sense of modern anxiety. The mother is posed, but there is (as one had come to expect from Severini) a sense of movement in the painting: she seems uncomfortable sat on her wooded stool while her demeanour and facial expressions - her eyes are almost closed and her face is expressionless - suggest she is very much representative of a mother of her time; a mother who worries about the fate of her children in the midst of the "war to end all wars".
Oil on canvas - Museo dell'Accademia Etrusca
Nature Morte (Still life)
This work was one of a series of still lifes Severini produced before the 1920s. The Synthetic-Cubist influence is clear, in the combined flattened planes, the simplified forms and the straight edges that extend beyond the subjects. The canvas represents a more settled time in the artist's life - while his earlier works showed dancers, nights out, and Parisian energy, here is absorbed in the calm of the quotidian that was a ripple effect of his time of quiet refuge in the French countryside during the German invasion. It also represents his close connection with his French friends. The Futurists could be a rowdy bunch and there was often a note of hostility between the French and Italians. Severini wrote in his autobiography: "I always deeply regretted the erroneous Futurist feeling of antagonism, of competing with Paris and Cubism; it would have been more advantageous for them to function harmoniously". Severini was a socialite who brought opposing factions together, and this work pays tribute to the family bonds he found Paris, a city he regarded as his intellectual and spiritual home.
The influence of Picasso in this work is clear; in subject matter as much as style. The pair shared a close friendship, often eating out together when Severini was living in Paris. He said: "Picasso lived a rather conventional life with his ladyfriend [Eva Goeul] as if they were a married couple, and therefore all around him were still-life objects, home-like objects, which caught his eye a hundred times a day. Perhaps that was, if not the determining factor in his frequent choice of the still-life, at least the explanation for it. After my marriage when I began to lead a more sedentary life, I too, understood the beauty inherent in certain trivial objects, and the idea that a painting or a poem might be composed around anything at all became quite clear to me".
The art historian Celia White wrote that the "death of Boccioni in 1916 brought Severini closer to the cubist and purist painters, as well as Henri Matisse and Jean Cocteau". She added that a "greater exposure to the bold colour and structured surfaces of synthetic cubism and the purist work of Fernand Léger and Amédée Ozenfant initiated a shift in Severini's practice away from the expression of movement in favour of an emphasis on plasticity". The upshot was that by "the time of Nature morte, the objects are invested with a far less abstract solidity that presages Severini's return to classicism in the early 1920s".
Underneath a trespassing blood-red sky, and placed within the grounds of classical architectural ruins, circus performers and deformed jesters practice their craft with a cold detachment. Indeed, the performers complement the freestanding colonnades and porticoes that signify the demise of the great Roman age. The painting carries a palpable feel of mourning, and a longing for a return to a time when civilization and progress were to be celebrated rather than dreaded. As White put it, "Painted between the two world wars, L'Équilibriste's geographical and historical uncertainty speak of a Europe in limbo - reeling from the effects of one war while anticipating the next".
Severini's "return to classicism" reached its apotheosis with L'équilibriste, a painting produced when the threat of another war and the march of fascism was haunting the minds of many artists. The "Return to Order" movement offered a way of restoring some sort of formal equilibrium to painting, but in terms of Severini's own oeuvre, L'équilibriste ranks as a keywork in his stylistic journey. Indeed, White puts Severini's move from the avant-garde (Nature morte) to Neo-Classicism (L'équilibriste) down to "an aesthetic [that] may be attributable to the lasting effects of his formal art training in Rome and an exposure to the divisionist technique at an early age" - what she called Severini's newly found devotion "to reconstructing the surface of the painting following decades of deconstruction" - just as much any earnest political gesture. White's argument was that Severini's reputation has suffered unjustly because of his "duel" (Italian/French) identity. But, she argues, the classicism of L'équilibriste, "combined with [the] influence of his Italian roots, allowed Severini to come full circle by the 1930s, back to what he had always excelled at: the production of a harmonious, ordered canvas. This love of order, the aspiration towards solution rather than dissolution, permeates all of his work, and as such [he deserved to] be celebrated rather than sidelined" in the history or early twentieth century modernism.
Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena collection
Mosaic of San Marco
In later life, Severini sought a spiritual calm in his work which he realized chiefly through frescoes and mosaics. These commissioned works brought him financial stability but, more than that, they bestowed on him a sense of order that brought him closer to God and earned him the title "Father of Modern Mosaic". In Mosaic of San Marco, he produced a Cubist-inspired portrait of St Mark the Evangelist with the lion at his feet for the facade of the church in the town of his birth.
Inspired by Early Byzantine mosaics, Severini claimed that working in this medium gave "him time to think, to gather, and see what might be the best way to express his desire". He likened this process to the way Cezanne placed his brush strokes one by one on the canvas. As art historian Ilona Jesnick observed: "It was an extraordinary journey for an artist as pivotal to Modernism as Severini: the urbane Italian of Parisian café society, the Futurist, the atheist. He became the advocate of the serene skills of artists expressing their spiritual world of Christian faith. Severini was a man of contradictions".
Although he had previously declared himself an atheist (he had been a Futurist after all), the shock of the loss of his son Tonio helped bring him back to Catholicism and its religious narratives. Severini said he felt "strongly bound to Cortona", so it was most fitting that his mosaic should be displayed on the main church in the town in which he was both born and buried. As Jesnick said: "Decoration, with its ancient heritage and social function, had become, for Severini, a truer art than the self-regarding work of the easel painter". He also believed that the mosaic must respect the architecture of the building, renouncing the use of foreshortenings and perspective. This made Cubism the most suitable style as it emphasized the surface. Severini said: "I have [...] so much love for this wonderful art form [...] Mosaic can powerfully help restore to art the order, clarity and purity and also the sense of reality that the modern world with its many contradictions can no longer give".
Mosaic on the front-facade of the Church of St. Mark - Cortona, Italy