By midnight on 7 April 1913, an excitable in-crowd of aristocrats, artists and writers had gathered on Duke Street, in the heart of London’s wealthy St. James’s. This colourful group had come to see one of the most exciting openings of London’s burgeoning avant-garde: Gino Severini’s debut one-man show.
Futurism had announced itself to the city a year earlier, in March 1912, when The Sackville Gallery had staged a touring exhibition of works by Italian Futurist painters. The gallery’s advertisement for the show described Futurism as ‘The latest art sensation’ and stated that the artists — Severini, as well as Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà and Luigi Russolo — were the ‘the talk of Paris’.
Bustling, noisy, and rapidly expanding, London seemed to be the perfect backdrop for the Futurists’ radical works. While the city’s growing underground train network sped passengers to their destinations in the bowels of the metropolis, above them carriages and carts weaved among cabs, trams and omnibuses in crowded streets.
On his return to London in 1913, Severini was exhibiting alone. He filled the walls of the Marlborough Gallery with 30 depictions of trains and dancers, music halls and motorbuses, each rendered with his Futurist language of fragmented lines, rhythmic forms and cacophonous colour.
Visitors unaccustomed to seeing the dynamic nature of the city depicted in art were again dazzled, dismayed and confounded by these radical visions of modern life, which included La Ferrovia Nord-Sud, made in that same year, 1913.
Severini cut an eccentric figure in bowler hat and eye glass, and appeared to relish the scandal his show caused. In one particularly provocative interview with the Daily Express, he spoke of how Futurists ‘understand the tragedy and the lyricism of electric light, of motor cars, of locomotives, and of aeroplanes’. He also said that for him ‘crowded streets, covered with letters — red, green, white — are far more beautiful than the canvases of Leonardo or Titian, and closer, too, to Nature’.
Futurism had reached a climax but, as Severini reflected years later, ‘the commotion and success’ of the exhibition’s press coverage ‘was not accompanied by the considerable material success that I had hoped for’.
Founded in Italy by the poet and writer, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Futurism was an iconoclastic movement that called for art to reflect the spirit of the rapidly changing times.
In 1909, Marinetti’s incendiary Manifesto of Futurism had appeared on the front page of Paris newspaper Le Figaro, with Severini, Giacomo Balla, Boccioni, Carrà, and Russolo quickly uniting under its banner. These artists all deified speed, technology, electricity, cars and trains, while denigrating museums and masterpieces of the past. ‘A racing car… is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace’, Marinetti declared.
Severini had moved from Italy to Paris in 1906, and quickly discovered that modernity existed in every corner of this new home. His art captured the energy and vibrancy of the boulevards and the movement and colours of the dancers he observed in the music halls and cabarets.
At the end of 1912, Severini turned to another aspect of 20th-century life: trains. In Paris’s newly installed underground rail network he found the perfect vehicle, quite literally, to express mechanical speed, movement and simultaneity — the fundamental tenets of Futurism.
La Ferrovia Nord-Sud and Sortie Nord-Sud — below, which is also being offered by Christie’s in the Impressionist and Modern Works on Paper sale on 6 February — are both part of this important series. In the former, Severini presents a speeding train carriage filled with passengers as it hurtles along the Nord-Sud line of the Paris Métro; and in the latter, the frenetic activity of the street on emerging from the subway station.
In Paris, the avant-garde centre of the world, even the underground took on an artistic significance. The Nord-Sud joined Montmartre, in the north of the city, with Montparnasse in the south. Both districts were hubs for artists, writers and poets, and the line thus became both a symbol of modernity and synonymous with cutting-edge art.
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The horrors of the First World War would bring an abrupt end to these halcyon years of energy and experimentation. Having once praised the cleansing power of war, the Futurists quickly realised the tragic reality of conflict.
With Paris drained of its vitality and youth, Severini soon switched allegiance. Swept up in the prevailing ‘Return to Order’, he left modernity behind and turned to the reassuring order and stability of ‘classical’ Cubism.