Transforming the streets of Paris into a dazzling vision of light and colour, Sortie Nord-Sud belongs to an important series of works that Gino Severini created at the end of 1912 and the beginning of 1913, which focused on a central aspect of the rapidly modernising twentieth century city: modes of transport, especially buses and the underground. This theme allowed Severini to explore not only the quintessential Futurist themes of speed, simultaneity and dynamism, but also the human figure, and the experience of life within the modern metropolis: the sense of intoxicating movement, colour, hordes of people and overwhelming sound.
Here, Severini has portrayed one of the exits of the Nord-Sud train line, a part of the underground railway network, the Paris Métro. With the same language that he used to depict the sparkling stage-lights, elaborate costumes and frenetic movement of the stars and dancers he saw in the city’s cabaret and café-concerts, Severini has, with a combination of gouache, pastel and black crayon, masterfully conjured the sensation of life in cosmopolitan Paris, picking the moment when the pedestrian emerges from the dark bowels of the underground into the bright light and bustling commotion of the street. As is typical in this series, in the present work, Severini has captured the different letters and colours of the signs that dominated the underground station. Here, SORTIE and NORD SUD are legible, rendered in a typically cubist-inspired form of fragmentation, suggesting to the viewer that this is a scene of one of the exits of a metro station. This was a novel theme within the avant-garde; while street scenes had become ubiquitous subjects, the idea of the human impression of a train station – itself a very novel part of modern life in the city – was new. An oval form emerges at the heart of the composition, perhaps evoking the presence of a figure, who stands at the centre of this kaleidoscopic cacophony of colour, line, pattern and light, dwarfed by the unceasing chaos of arresting sensations that characterises life in the metropolis.
Having moved to Paris in 1906, Severini was immediately captivated by the City of Lights, depicting the feverish energy of the people-filled boulevards and the whirling movement and colours of the nocturnal performers, as well as the immersive sensation of travelling around the city on the underground and buses. For the artist and his Futurist comrades, these multi-sensory experiences served as powerful subject matter. ‘Heavy powerful motorcars rushing through the streets of our cities’, Severini declared, ‘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’ (Severini, The Futurist Painter Severini Exhibits his Latest Works, exh. cat., London, 1913, p. 6). Depicting a series of simultaneous sensations in a single canvas, in the present work, Severini perfectly encapsulated the Futurist creed: ‘The simultaneousness of states of mind in the world of art; that is the intoxicating aim of our art… In order to make the spectator live in the centre of the picture, as we express it in our manifesto, the picture must be the synthesis of what one remembers and what one sees. You must render the invisible which stirs and lives beyond intervening obstacles…and not merely the small square of life artificially compresses, as it were, by the wings of a stage’ (‘The Exhibitors to the Public’, in exh. cat., Sackville Gallery, London, 1912, in H.B. Chipp, Theories of Modern Art, Berkeley, Los Angeles & London, 1968, pp. 295-296).
In addition, that Severini chose to depict the Nord-Sud station was not mere coincidence. The Nord-Sud line, which had opened in 1910, linked the two predominant artistic centres of the city: Montmartre in the north, and Montparnasse in the south. As a result, this line became synonymous with the avant-garde; its name was even used a few years later as the title for Pierre Reverdy’s wartime literary publication. Severini often invokes this line in this series of underground and bus compositions, a reflection perhaps of his desire to align his pioneering works with this new beacon of modernity in his adopted home.