‘The idea of the speed with which a lighted body spins through dark or lighted tunnels, is conveyed by means of colours, tones and forms. The great notice boards placarded in the stations enter the compartments in motion. The letters written on the placards act upon the memory through their literary significance at the same time as they act upon the eyes by means of their colour’
‘We choose to concentrate our attention on things in motion because our modern sensibility is particularly qualified to grasp the idea of speed. Heavy powerful motorcars rushing through the streets of our cities, dancers reflected in the fairy ambience of light and colour, airplanes flying above the heads of the excited throng… These sources of emotion satisfy our sense of a lyric and dramatic universe, better than do two pears and an apple’
Conjuring a cosmopolitan cacophony of light, movement, sound and people, La Ferrovia Nord-Sud dates from 1913, the peak of Gino Severini’s Futurist period. Here, Severini transports the viewer into the bustling realm of the underground railway; picturing a speeding train carriage filled with people passing various subway stations along the Nord-Sud line of the Paris Métro. A novel type of subject matter, this scene was one of a series of works dating from the end of 1912 and beginning of 1913 in which Severini took this form of urban travel as his subject. For Severini, trains, as well as trams and buses provided stimulating subject matter, allowing him to explore both the frenzied dynamism of the city – a subject deified by the Futurists for its embodiment of mechanical speed, movement and simultaneity – as well as the experience of its inhabitants as they exist and move through the modern metropolis. Offering a compelling contrast from his concurrent depictions of dancers and dance halls, La Ferrovia Nord-Sud was included in the artist’s first one-man show in London’s Marlborough Gallery, as well as at the Galerie der Sturm, Berlin, both in 1913.
For Severini, the underground rail network provided the perfect vehicle, quite literally, to express the fundamental tenets of Futurism. With his Futurist comrades, Severini sought to overturn artistic convention by creating art that distilled the experience of life in the modern city. Like Boccioni, Carrà and Balla, Severini wanted to convey the feeling of these environments; combining various images on a single canvas so to evoke the often disorientating, overwhelming or invigorating sensations, sounds and images that were unique to life in the city. Modes of transport were an obvious choice for these artists; these new technological inventions – cars, trains, buses and trams – and their metropolitan hubs filled with crowds of people serving as beacons of modernity, as well as providing rich formal inspiration. ‘We seek for subjects in landscapes that are thick with black factory chimneys, in streets that are thick with moving throngs…’, Severini declared in an interview in 1913. 'Henceforward we are unmoved by the spectacle of the sea, and of the mountains. But we understand the tragedy and the lyricism of electric light, of motor-cars, of locomotives, and of aeroplanes’ (Severini, quoted in ‘Get Inside the Picture: Futurism as The Artist Sees It’, Daily Express, London, 11 April 1913, in A. Coffin Hanson, Severini futurista: 1912-1917, exh. cat., New Haven & Texas, 1995-1996, p. 37).
It is this celebration of urban life that is masterfully presented in La Ferrovia Nord-Sud. Describing a similar composition, now housed in the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan (Fonti, no. 130), Severini wrote, ‘The idea of the speed with which a lighted body spins through dark or lighted tunnels, is conveyed by means of colours, tones and forms. The great notice boards placarded in the stations enter the compartments in motion. The letters written on the placards act upon the memory through their literary significance at the same time as they act upon the eyes by means of their colour’ (Severini, The Futurist Painter Severini Exhibits his Latest Works, exh. cat., London, 1913, p. 8). Using a series of dark pyramidal forms, Severini has evoked the cavernous mouths of the tunnels, conveying in this single composition the impression of continuous movement as a train passes through the various stops along the Nord-Sud line. The names of the stations, which were emblazoned in tiles along the top of the tunnels to denote the destination – Pigalle, St. Georges and perhaps Trinité d’Estienne-d’Orves, cut to ‘nite’ in the present work – are fragmented and scattered, cubist-like, amidst the scene. Imparting the powerful sense of movement and sound are the rhythmic diagonal lines that echo the prismatic shapes. Yet, any sense of structure is undermined by the plethora of other forms that collide with these lines, creating the unceasing, pulsating energy that flows through this work.
From amidst these abstract lines, the forms of figures emerge, the viewer’s companions amidst this train carriage. On the far left, a woman is seated in profile, her presence identifiable after comparison with contemporaneous works in which she is more clearly depicted (Fonti, nos. 131, 132, 135); while on the other side of the composition, a bowler-hatted, moustachioed male figure stands upright and frontal, facing out of the picture plane. This figure is in fact overlaid upon another man, this one seated with his back to the viewer, perhaps immersed in reading a newspaper. Like Picasso and Braque’s cubist ‘attributes’ – distinguishing, legible signs that they added to their abstract Analytical compositions – these recognisable figurative motifs not only add context to what would otherwise be a near-abstract scene, but, appearing amidst this vortex of lines, signs and forms, they evoke the sense of being immersed in this world that exists underground in the bowels of the city. The rumbling sound of the train running along the railway line can almost be heard; while diagonal lines evoke flashes of light, the headlights of a train or sparks flying off the tracks, successfully achieving the artist’s endeavour, ‘to produce by means of lines and planes the rhythmic sensation of speed, of spasmodic motion, and of deafening noise’ (Severini, ibid., p. 8). Not only this, Severini has also captured numerous temporal states within a single work; depicting multiple sensations and images that occur throughout a passenger’s journey, rather than distinct, hermetic snapshots or moments in time.
Clearly inscribed on the far left of La Ferrovia Nord-Sud, and subtly echoed in the centre, is the name of the railway line: ‘Nord-Sud’. The Nord-Sud operated two underground lines in Paris, the first of which opened in 1910 and linked Montmartre, in the north of the city, with Montparnasse in the south. Severini’s decision to illustrate this specific train route was perhaps not coincidental. By linking these two artistic centres, hubs for artists, writers and poets, this line became associated with the city’s avant-garde; its name was even used a few years later as the title for Pierre Reverdy’s wartime literary publication. In a city that served as the crucible for the avant-garde, the Nord-Sud became synonymous with modernity, and nowhere is this better illustrated in visual form than in La Ferrovia Nord-Sud and the rest of this groundbreaking series.