Gino Severini (1883-1966)
Nature morte
signed 'G. Severini.' (lower center); signed again, dated and titled 'Gino Severini Decembre 1918 nature morte' (on the reverse)
oil on board
18 1/8 x 14 7/8 in. (46 x 37.7 cm.)
Painted in December 1918
Galerie l’Effort Moderne (Léonce Rosenberg), Paris (acquired from the artist, December 1918).
Hermann Gotthardt, Malmö.
Private collection; sale, Christie's, London, 30 November 1981, lot 30.
The Waddington Galleries, Ltd., London (acquired at the above sale).
Private collection, Switzerland.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
D. Fonti, Gino Severini, Catalogo ragionato, Milan, 1988, p. 287, no. 344 (illustrated).

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Lot Essay

Severini painted this still-life in December 1918, just weeks after the Armistice brought the Great War to an end, and at the height of his engagement with synthetic Cubism in its radically distilled late form. The Italian-born artist had made his final and most famous Futurist statement in January 1916, when he exhibited at the Galerie Boutet de Monvel, Paris (his adoptive city) a group of war-themed paintings, their dissonant and visually explosive style embodying—even celebrating—the destructive powers of modern combat. Almost immediately after the show closed, however, Severini began to re-think his allegiance to Futurism, with its ideologically charged, pro-war rhetoric. The fighting now seemed interminable, and casualties were mounting at an alarming rate; Severini had suffered the loss of his close friend Boccioni, killed in a military horse-riding accident, and his infant son Tonio, from pneumonia. Cut off in Paris from his surviving Futurist collaborators, he found himself increasingly immersed in the spirit of nationalistic neo-traditionalism that pervaded wartime French culture, and he became a central participant (along with Juan Gris, Amédée Ozenfant, Guillaume Apollinaire, Paul Reverdy, and others) in ongoing theoretical discussions about the future development of cubism.
By the end of 1916, Severini had repudiated the Futurists’ concern with the dynamism and simultaneity of modern experience and had embraced the enduring still-life themes and comparatively stable, geometric structure of synthetic Cubism. “I, uneasy and dissatisfied with myself, put aside my dancers and started painting static things, deeming it undignified to facilitate my work with ‘subjects,’” Severini later explained in his autobiography. “In other words, I was striving for a dynamic art capable of reaching its maximum potential, but I also wanted to express a universal dynamism using any random subject and using only pictorial means, that is, through the use of lines and colors arranged in a certain order” (The Life of a Painter, Princeton, 1995, p. 165).
In the present Nature morte, Severini has assembled a set of familiar still-life elements—a compotier of grapes, a pair of playing cards, and a pipe—on a background plane of highly schematized faux-bois that signifies a wooden tabletop. As Gris did too during these same years, Severini has given the fragmented idiom of cubism a heightened sense of lucidity and formal cohesion. The three objects in this still-life are arranged in a stable pyramid, which is enlivened by the play of curves versus angles; the subdued palette of blue-gray tones gains richness through passages of ebullient patterning and contrasts of light against dark, while warm russet accents anchor the three corners of the pyramidal armature. The rational structure of Severini’s cubist still-lifes represents his personal contribution to the wartime and post-war rappel à l’ordre, with its emphasis on classical Latin values of clarity and discipline, as well as reflecting the artist’s own mounting interest in proportional systems. “I thought that geometry and mathematics should be used more precisely,” Severini explained, “that artists should apply, and would benefit from, strictly observed laws of geometry and mathematics” (ibid., p. 210).
By the end of 1918, when Severini painted this still-life, the vanguard of the new artistic order had coalesced around the dealer Léonce Rosenberg, who had seized the helm of the Cubist market after the German-born Kahnweiler had to leave France at the beginning of the war. Although Severini continued to develop his own ideas about proportional mathematics, which led him by 1921 to a more visibly descriptive style (“I never belonged to the disciplined troop,” he insisted), he allowed Rosenberg to mount a major show of his work in May 1919, the penultimate in a series of solo exhibitions that provided an astonishingly complete demonstration of Cubism’s continuing vigor. “[Severini’s] Cubism combined with that of Picasso, Laurens, Gris, Lipchitz, and Metzinger during the first six months of 1919 to give the impression that a single type of Cubist art had emerged from the War,” Christopher Green has explained. “It was good-mannered towards the past, lucid, controlled, and, stressing the gap between art and life, made as much as possible of its aesthetic exclusivity. And its appearance of organized cohesion endorsed the prevailing ethos of the sudden new peace: the ethos of reconstruction” (Cubism and Its Enemies, New Haven, 1987, p. 38).

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