The Artist Birthday Series

Gino Severini

Today’s Artist Birthday: Gino Severini

Gino Severini (7 April 1883 – 26 February 1966) was an Italian painter and a leading member of the Futurist movement. For much of his life he divided his time between Paris and Rome. He was associated with neo-classicism and the “return to order” in the decade after the First World War. During his career he worked in a variety of media, including mosaic and fresco. He showed his work at major exhibitions, including the Rome Quadrennial, and won art prizes from major institutions.

Gino Severini, age 30, at the ...., 19..
Gino Severini, age 30, at the opening of his exhibition at the Marlborough Gallery in London, 1913

Severini was born into a poor family in Cortona, Italy. His father was a junior court official and his mother a dressmaker. He studied at the Scuola Tecnica in Cortona until the age of fifteen, when he was expelled from the entire Italian school system for the theft of exam papers. [TML note: There is some evidence that in fact, Severini took the fall for a friend of his who was from a well-to-do, “better” family. The other boy and Gino were to remain friends their entire lives. But more about that another time…] For a while, Gino worked with his father; then in 1899 he moved to Rome with his mother. It was there that he first showed a serious interest in art, painting in his spare time while working as a shipping clerk. With the help of a patron of Cortonese origins he attended art classes, enrolling in the free school for nude studies (an annex of the Rome Fine Art Institute) and a private academy. His formal art education ended after two years when his patron stopped his allowance, declaring, “I absolutely do not understand your lack of order.”

"Self Portrait," 1908 by Gino Severini
“Self Portrait,” 1908 by Gino Severini

In 1900 he met the painter Umberto Boccioni. Together they visited the studio of Giacomo Balla, where they were introduced to the technique of Divisionism, painting with adjacent rather than mixed colors and breaking the painted surface into a field of stippled dots and stripes. The ideas of Divisionism had a great influence on Severini’s early work and on Futurist painting from 1910 to 1911.

"La Danseuse Obsedante," 1911 by Gino Severini
“La Danseuse Obsedante,” 1911 by Gino Severini

Severini settled in Paris in November 1906. The move was momentous for him. He said later, “The cities to which I feel most strongly bound are Cortona and Paris: I was born physically in the first, intellectually and spiritually in the second.” He lived in Montmartre and dedicated himself to painting. There he met most of the rising artists of the period, befriending artists such as Amedeo Modigliani and Georges Braque. He knew most of the Parisian avant-garde, including the scene’s luminaries Juan Gris, Pablo Picasso, and Guillaume Apollinaire. At the time, the sale of his work did not provide enough to live on and he depended on the generosity of patrons.

"Self Portait," 1912 by Gino Severini
“Self Portait,” 1912 by Gino Severini

He was invited by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Boccioni to join the Futurist movement and was a co-signatory, with Balla, Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, and Luigi Russolo, of the Manifesto of the Futurist Painters in February 1910 and the Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting in April that same year.

The Futurists: (from left to right) Luigi Rossolo, Carlo Carrà, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Umberto Boccioni, and Gino Severini - in front of "Le Figaro," Paris, February 9, 1912
The Futurists: (from left to right) Luigi Rossolo, Carlo Carrà, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Umberto Boccioni, and Gino Severini – in front of “Le Figaro,” Paris, February 9, 1912

He was an important link between artists in France and Italy and came into contact with Cubism before his Futurist colleagues. Following a visit to Paris in 1911, the Italian Futurists adopted a sort of Cubism, which gave them a means of analyzing energy in paintings and expressing dynamism. Severini helped to organize the first Futurist exhibition outside Italy at Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Paris, in February 1912 and participated in subsequent Futurist shows in Europe and the United States. In 1913, he had solo exhibitions at the Marlborough Gallery, London, and Der Sturm, Berlin.

"The Bear Dance At The Moulin Rouge," 1913 by Gino Severini
“The Bear Dance At The Moulin Rouge,” 1913 by Gino Severini

In his autobiography, written many years later, he records that the Futurists were pleased with the response to the exhibition at Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, but that influential critics, notably Apollinaire, mocked them for their pretentions, their ignorance of the main currents of modern art and their provincialism. Though resistant to those thoughts for many years, Severini later came to agree with Apollinaire.

Severini was less attracted to the subject of the machine than his fellow Futurists and frequently chose the form of the dancer to express Futurist theories of dynamism in art. He was particularly adept at rendering lively urban scenes, for example in Dynamic Hieroglyph of the Bal Tabarin (1912) and The Boulevard (1913). During the First World War he produced some of the finest Futurist war art, notably his Italian Lancers at a Gallop (1915) and Armoured Train (1915).

"Italian Lancers," 1915 by Gino Severini, an exceptional example of the Futurist's "War Art"
“Italian Lancers At A Gallop,” 1915 by Gino Severini, an exceptional example of the Futurist’s “War Art”

In 1916 Severini departed from Futurism and painted several works in a naturalistic style inspired by his interest in early Renaissance art. After the First World War, Severini gradually abandoned the Futurist style and painted in a synthetic Crystal Cubist style until 1920. By 1920 he was applying theories of classical balance based on the Golden Section to still lifes and figurative subjects from the traditional commedia dell’arte. He became part of the “return to order” in the arts in the post-war era. Works such as “The Two Pulchinella” (1922) exemplify Severini’s turn toward a more conservative, analytic type of painting, which nonetheless suggests metaphysical overtones.

"The Two Pulcinella," 1922 by Gino Severini
“The Two Pulcinella,” 1922 by Gino Severini

After 1920, Severini divided his time between Paris and Rome. In 1921 he published Du cubisme au classicisme: Esthétique du compas et du nombre, a book summarizing his research into mathematical theories of harmony and proportion. In 1923 and 1925 he took part in the Rome Biennale. He exhibited in Milan with artists of the Novecento Italiano group in 1926 and 1929 and in their Geneva exhibition of 1929. From 1928 he began to incorporate elements of Rome’s classical landscape in his work. In 1930 he took part in the Venice Biennale, exhibited in the Rome Quadrennials of 1931 and 1935, and in 1935 won the first prize for painting, with an entire room devoted to his work. He contributed a cycle of works to the Paris Exhibition. He explored fresco and mosaic techniques and executed murals in various media in Switzerland, France, and Italy.

Mosaic of San Marco, on the church dedicated to the saint, in Cortona, Italy, by Gino Severini
Mosaic of San Marco, on the church dedicated to the saint, in Cortona, Italy, by Gino Severini

In the 1940s Severini’s style became semi-abstract. In the 1950s he returned to his Futurist subjects: dancers, light and movement. He executed commissions for the church of Saint-Pierre in Freiburg and inaugurated the Conségna delle Chiavi (“Delivery of the Keys”) mosaic. His mosaics were shown at the Cahiers d’Art gallery in Paris and he participated in a conference on the history of mosaic at Ravenna. He received commissions to decorate the offices of KLM in Rome and Alitalia in Paris and took part in the exhibition The Futurists, Balla – Severini 1912–1918 at the Rose Fried Gallery in New York. In Rome he reconstructed his Pan Pan Dance mosaic, which had been destroyed in the war. He was awarded the Premio Nazionale di Pittura of the Accademia di San Luca in Rome, exhibited at the 9th Rome Quadrennal and was given a solo exhibition at the Accademia di San Luca.

"Il Concerto," 1946 by Gino Severini
“Il Concerto,” 1946 by Gino Severini

Throughout his career he published important theoretical essays and books on art. In 1946 he published an autobiography, “The Life of a Painter.”

Gino Severini
The Master, Gino Severini

Severini died in Paris on 26 February 1966, aged 82. He was interred at il Cimitero di Cortona.

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