Visual arts: The Futurist who slowed down

For Futurism's founder, Marinetti, speed and dynamism were the movement's hallmarks and in 1910 Gino Severini agreed with him. But then he moved to Paris...

Michael Glover
Tuesday 16 November 1999 00:02 GMT

Marinetti and the rest of the Futurist gang would have wept for joy if they had been able to see Highbury Corner on a typical weekday afternoon. Such urban seethe! Such raw manifestations of speed! Such dynamism! Such engaging vortices of pure smoke emerging from all those filthy exhaust pipes! How fortunate then that the Estorick Collection, the country's only museum devoted entirely to Futurism and 20th-century Italian art, should be located just a couple of hundred yards away in an elegant, early 19th-century town house on the corner of Canonbury Square ...

Sometimes it is difficult to separate one Futurist from another, and in part this is because Filippo Marinetti, the movement's founder and pettily overbearing theoretical tyrant (though perhaps a little less petty and overbearing than Andre Breton, the major domo of Surrealism), was very keen to foster a notion of collective identity upon the group in order to make it quite clear who the enemy was - all those theoretically misguided Cubists, for example. After all, would it not make it easier to conduct successful campaigns against them if the Futurist battalions moved in disciplined formations?

Unfortunately, one of them at least didn't quite fit in as well as he ought to have done. This man was Gino Severini, and, for the first time ever in England an important exhibition has been devoted to his work alone, showing his development through that crucial decade between 1910 and 1920.

Severini was born in Tuscany in 1883, but before he'd reached his thirtieth year he'd decamped to Paris, where he lived for the greater part of his life until his death in 1966.

Nineteen-ten was a great year for the Futurists, as Severini tells us in his late autobiography, The Life of a Painter: "Nineteen-ten ..." He writes: "I recall an extraordinary feeling of dynamism in that year. There was a frenzied desire for freedom in the air, an inexpressible appetite for innovation and adventure ... Anything was possible."

If this sounds like some young man's vaguely idealistic hogwash, it is certainly no vaguer than Marinetti's Futurist manifesto of the same year in which he proclaimed the virtues of his great new movement. Though the Futurists were certain about several things - that the past must be disposed of, and the idea of tradition vilified in general; that the art of the future was to concern itself with the exploration of speed and dynamism (Marinetti had remarked that the racing car was more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace) - there was little indication of what this art would actually look like.

Within the space of a single decade Severini not only confronted these issues head on, in his work and his own theoretical writings, but also shifted from a position of total allegiance to Futurism and all its various manifestoes (to which he always appended his name) to one which seems in hindsight tantamount to heresy. He shifted from the violent spontaneities of Futurism to a severely rule-driven Classicism.

By choosing to live in Paris and not Milan, Severini had already removed himself from the theoretical centre of the movement, and the early works in the show are almost all celebrations of the various vitalities of Parisian life - its boulevards, its cafes, its metro system, its night life.

Living in Montmartre amongst such artists as Suzanne Valadon, Maurice Utrillo, Picasso and Georges Braque, Severini was already absorbing a variety of approaches to the making of paintings, from post-impressionism to Cubism. The Boulevard (1910), perhaps his best known single canvas, is highly characteristic of the early paintings in the show. 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.

By 1913, in such canvases as Study for Nord-Sud (metro line), collage elements, straight out of Cubism, have been incorporated. But in that same year Severini also painted one of his "purist" Futurist canvases, Sea-Dancer, a concatenation of seethingly energetic cones which represent vortices of pure energy. The cones, tearing into and bisecting each other, seem to be in a mood of unremitting warfare. Marinetti would have been thrilled.

But Severini, a man of much gentler and searching temperament than Marinetti, was often in a mood of theoretical ambivalence throughout this decade, see-sawing from Francophilia to Italophilia, from allegiance to one set of tenets about the making of art to another. This is not some covert proof that he disdained theory. No, he thought that the theory which underpinned the work had to be made clear to oneself before brush was actually applied to canvas.

Proof of this engagingly human theoretical ambivalence can be found in two self portraits executed in 1916, both charcoal on paper. The first is unapologetically figurative, and shows the head of a sober young bourgeois who might be any respectable guest around a dinner table, languidly raising his glass as he tut-tuts at the reported excesses of hot-headed youth. The hair is perfectly arranged, the general demeanour one of sobriety and seemliness. The eye is cool, handsome and actively engaging. A bow tie is a-flutter at the throat.

In the same year, Severini gives us a quite different portrait of a young man also called Severini. This second canvas is a painter called Severini who embodies a rage towards experiment. That same face is now broken up into a kaleidoscope of facets - it is the familiar Cubist's fly's-eye- view of an object, seeing it from all angles at once. What did this all mean? That by the middle of that decade, Severini was moving away from the certitudes of Futurism, and towards a kind of modified Cubism.

Marinetti had despised the Cubists because they represented things statically - and was not the whole principle of life - and the whole of the future - dynamic? Severini was beginning to disagree. The representation of static objects in the still lives that he began to work on from about this time reveal a growing allegiance to the notion that what he had hitherto slavishly regarded as "static" expressed something much more fundamental - something to do with eternal values.

And so began the experiments which resulted in the small collection of exquisite still lives with which this exhibition culminates, such as Still Life with Literary Review (1917), Still Life with Bottle of Marsala (1917) and, best of all, Still Life with Music (1919). In these works Severini is borrowing what he chooses to borrow from characteristic Cubist practice - elements of collage and collage-like superimposition, for example, in Still Life with Literary Review.

Here we see, amidst other objets trouves, playing cards, a fragment of wall paper, the torn-off front cover of the literary review Nord-Sud, and a quotation from Severini's close friend, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire: "Et nous aimons tous deux la France et L'Italie ..." ("And we love both France and Italy...") These late collages, which achieve a kind of beautifully serene harmonious patterning, are a mixing and matching of cut-out and tiny, painted-in figurative scene. The materials from which they are fashioned are also more various than before - one uses gouache, charcoal, pencil and found objects.

At this point in his career, as is evident in the preparatory drawings exhibited here, Severini was plotting every artistic move he made; calculating the geometry and the different ways of laying down particular blocks of colour in order to achieve the most harmonious counterpoint possible within the picture space - a habit recently learnt from another modern master, Henri Matisse.

How far away the raucous, belligerent Marinetti must have seemed in those years, how distant that bullying voice!

Gino Severini at the Estorick Collection, 39a Canonbury Square, London N1, until 9 January. 0171-704 9522

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