A vibrant explosion of colour, pattern and texture, Stanley Cursiter’s The Ribbon Counter is one of a small and important group of Futurist-inspired works that the artist painted in 1913. Having witnessed the radical artistic innovations of the Italian Futurists, Cursiter painted a total of seven paintings throughout 1913 in this dynamic, fragmented style. The majority of these paintings now reside in public collections, including the National Galleries, Scotland and Dundee Art Galleries and Museums. Taking a scene of modern life as his subject, Cursiter has depicted a bustling shop filled with figures. The ribbons that are referenced in the title of the work seem to come alive, floating across the canvas and intersecting the composition in dynamic, highly coloured arabesques. Cursiter would never again return to this bold and striking style, making The Ribbon Counter and the rest of the series particularly rare within the artist’s oeuvre, as well as in the development of early twentieth century Scottish art as a whole.
The Futurist movement had erupted into the public domain in February 1909 with the publication of the incendiary, Manifeste du futurisme (Manifesto of Futurism) on the front page of the Parisian newspaper, Le Figaro. Written by the group’s leader, the Italian poet and editor, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, this emphatic, purposefully contentious and iconoclastic statement declared the need for a cultural revolution. Marinetti called for a complete embrace of modernity: glorifying new technological inventions such as electricity, as well as the automobile and the locomotive, and the beauty of the speed, power and movement that they generated. Exalting violence and conflict, Marinetti called for artists to reject the past, destroying the cult of masterpieces and museums in order to make way for the total embrace of the future.
Originally founded as a literary movement, Futurism quickly inspired a host of artists, writers and musicians. In 1910, Marinetti enlisted Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo, Giacomo Balla, and Gino Severini to join the Futurist movement. Championing originality and innovation in representation, these artists advocated a completely new type of visual art, one which centred on the spectacle of life in the twentieth century. As a result, the sensations and aesthetics of speed, movement, and industrial and technological innovation became their primary subject matter, with the artists revelling in the frenzy of life in the modern metropolis. To capture an impression of these sensations, the Futurist painters used fragmented forms and intersecting planes to show several simultaneous views of the object at once, often including rhythmic repetitions of the subject’s outlines to capture the inherent dynamism of the figure in motion.
The first, now notorious Futurist exhibition was held in Paris in February 1912 at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune and a few months later, in April, the Exhibition of Works by the Italian Futurist Painters was held at the Sackville Gallery in London. With a keen interest in the avant-garde, Cursiter was acutely aware of the developments of his European contemporaries and it is likely that he saw this exhibition, or the single-man show of Severini that was held at the Marlborough Gallery in April of the following year. In December 1913, Cursiter, with the help of Roger Fry, organised the loan of a number of works by European artists for the annual exhibition of the Society of Scottish Artists in Edinburgh. Paintings by Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh, Henri Matisse as well as Severini and Boccioni were included, presenting the Scottish audience with the diverse range of styles that constituted the European avant-garde.
The Ribbon Counter and Cursiter’s other works of 1913 particularly demonstrate the influence of Severini. Cursiter could have seen Severini’s large scale The Dance of the Pan-Pan at the “Monico” (1909-11/1959-60, Centre Pompidou, Paris), which had been included in the Sackville Gallery’s Futurist exhibition, or the vibrant cityscape, Festival in Montmartre (1913, Art Institute of Chicago) that was included in London in the artist’s single-man show of 1913. Severini, more than his Futurist comrades, immersed himself in almost every aspect of modern life. From the theatre and dance halls of Montmartre, to steam trains and boulevards, he captured the pulsating vibrancy of the bustling cosmopolitan metropolis that was Paris at this time. In order to capture the sensation of modern life – the lights, people, colours, objects and sounds – he fragmented his compositions, creating a riotous vision of colour and form. Cursiter likewise chose the sites of modernity as his subjects, picturing the streets of Edinburgh, or as in the present work, a shop or department store in dynamic yet not completely dissected compositions. With these works, Cursiter conjured, like his Italian counterparts, the sensation of modern life, evoking the frenzied atmosphere of the twentieth century city.
What differentiates Cursiter from the Italian Futurists, however, is the ideological impetus behind their art. By embracing every aspect of modern life, the Futurists aimed to return art to the centre of society, to endow it with a purpose and to use it to reflect and record the dizzying changes that were occurring all around them. Theirs was an art of rebellion and iconoclasm; they disregarded tradition and convention and instead conceived of new and radical art forms and techniques. Cursiter was interested primarily in the formal innovations, rather than the ideological implications of this group. With its carefully composed, highly dynamic composition, bright mosaic-like array of colour and pattern, The Ribbon Counter is one of the finest examples of this brief but highly inventive moment in Cursiter’s career.