Train de blessés signed 'GSeverini' (lower right); signed, inscribed and dated 'Gino Severini/ "Train de blessés"/ Paris 1915' (verso) charcoal and graphite on paper 21 3/4 x 17 3/4 in. (55.3 x 45.3 cm) Drawn in 1915
PROVENANCE Rose Fried Gallery, New York (inv. no. RF 163-57). Acquired from the above by the present owners circa 1958.
EXHIBITED Paris, Galerie Boutet de Monvel, Gino Severini, 1ère exposition futuriste d'art plastique de la guerre et d'autres oeuvres antérieures, 15 January - 1 February 1916, no. 35.
LITERATURE Aria d'Italia, II, 1940, illustrated p.43. M. Drudi Gambilo and T. Fiori, Archivi del Futurismo, II, Rome, 1962, p.333 no.73, 340 (incorrectly listed in the collection of Sam and Ayala Zacks). D. Fonti, Gino Severini, Catalogo ragionato, Milan, 1988, p. 194, no. 231A.
"My modern idea-image of war came from the concentration of a few objects or forms taken from reality and compressed into 'essences', into 'pure notion'. This Symbolist theory, so often mentioned, was always more or less the basis of modern painting in general and of Cubism in particular. And, in my case, I think that I gave it an even further personal interpretation and special importance.' (G. Severini, The Life of a Painter, Princeton, 1995, p. 156.
Train de Blessés [The Hospital Train] is one of a small group of drawings and paintings made by Severini in 1914-15 as a masterful Futurist response to the First World War. Smoke billows through fissures in the suburban landscape as the train races onward past gantries and tiled roofs; in local station signs flash past the window as the crisp white uniform of a nurse is glimpsed attending to stretcher cases. Severini declared that 'speed has given us a new notion of space and time and consequently of life itself. It follows therefore that the Plastic [i.e. Visual] arts of our time should be characterized by a stylization of speed' (G. Severini, Ecrits sur art, Paris, 1987, p. 43). This was perhaps the artist's most exciting and innovative phase: as Professor Daniela Fonti notes, in this group Severini's 'artistic language is once again renewed, and truly sums up [his] long journey through Futurism' (D. Fonti, '1911-1915: gli anni del Futurismo. Itinerario di un protagonista', in D. Fonti, op. cit., p. 113).
In 1915 Severini was living outside Paris, recovering from a bout of ill health and unable to join up even after Italy entered the war in May 1915. He describes his situation in his autobiography: 'We settled into a small house in Igny, surrounded by a vegetable garden, near the gates of Paris but in the open countryside. Freight trains carrying war supplies passed by the windows day and night. Others transported soldiers and the wounded. I did several paintings of this, the so-called war pictures. Although my inspiration derived from those real objects that passed before my eyes, these became more and more synthetic and symbolic, to the point of becoming, in my paintings made the following winter, true "symbols of war"' (G. Severini, The Life of a Painter, Princeton, 1995, p. 156.
Severini was a leading member of the Futurist movement, a close friend of Umberto Boccioni and Giacomo Balla, and in 1910 a signatory of the key Manifesto of the Futurist painters. However, his residence in Paris from 1906 ensured that he was also much more closely engaged with the international avant-garde than his brethren in Milan. The composition of Train de Blessés clearly shows Severini's Futurist spirit but also his engagement with the experiments of Picasso and Braque, combining a passion for movement and speed with an abandonment of the single point perspective. The tightly packed elements, overlapping and apparently jostling for position, are not static and fragmented as in classical Cubism but seem to surge through the picture plane. The innovative structure drives the elements upward through the composition with a precarious dynamism, giving it an immersive, cinematic quality.
Yet this extraordinary composition is more than just a Futurist paean to the glory of speed, it is an engagement with the Cubist exploration of multiple perspectives. Taking a lead from the French philosopher Henri-Louis Bergson (1859-1941), equally influential for Picasso and Braque, Severini is emphasizing the importance of immediate experience and intuition over a rationally arranged depiction. The artist is presenting a simultaneity of impressions much as the passengers in the train would have experienced them. In Matthew Gale's phrase it is a 'dynamic integration of time and space' (M. Gale in Futurism, exh. cat., London, Tate Gallery, and elsewhere, 2009, p. 298). Indeed Severini was a little dismissive of the Cubists' focus on the still life, which he considered unnecessarily static: 'We chose to concentrate our attention on things in motion because our modern sensibility is particularly qualified to grasp the idea of speed. Heavy motorcars rushing through the streets of our cities, dancers reflected in the fairy ambience of light and color, airplanes flying above the heads of the excited throng ... These sources of emotion satisfy our sense of the lyric and dramatic universe better than do two peas and an apple' (Severini quoted in Futurism, exh. cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, and elsewhere, 1961, p. 11).
Severini gathered his 'War Series' into an exhibition at the Galerie Boutet de Monvel in January 1916, a little-known gallery but one of the few that had remained open. The mood in the Paris was dismal, with increasingly apocalyptic reports arriving from the Front, but Severini saw this as an opportunity to show that art could be a positive force even in the darkest hour. 'He effectively asserted that the formal experimentation of the pre-war avant-garde generally, and his merging of Futurism and Cubism specifically, could support the allied war effort. The fragmentation of reality present in the work was posed in Bergsonian terms of fleeting sensation overlaid with patriotism and a continuing faith in technology.' (M. Gale in op. cit., 2009, p. 298). The exhibition gave Severini an opportunity to present his latest theories. Although his text does not survive, the invitation printed on the back of the catalogue gives a flavor: he would talk on 'The avant-garde plastic arts and modern science', 'The physical origins of aesthetic emotion' and perhaps most significantly in relation to the present drawing, 'The splintered, ultrafast, kaleidoscopic life: the world of perception'. Reaction to this display was muted, but the exhibition did give the art world something on which to focus in the depths of the war. Picasso, Braque and Modigliani attended the opening night, and Severini was able to renew his acquaintance with Ozenfant, Lipchitz, Lhote and Cocteau.
Severini and Futurism
A train belching smoke was one of the key Futurist images, as Filippo Tomasso Marinetti wrote in their foundational manifesto: 'we sing of ... deep-chested locomotives whose wheels paw the tracks like the hooves of enormous steel horses bridled by tubing' ('The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism', Le Figaro, 20 February 1909. As a movement, Futurism was distinguished from the other artistic groupings of the period by its self-knowledge. It was at its root a theoretical proposition, driven by noisily published manifestos and promulgated through demonstrations bursting into the street and into public life, fundamentally 'anti-Pastist', determined to demolish the past and build a new future of modernity, mechanization and speed. Unusually, they named themselves: 'For a moment, I hesitated between the words "Dynamism" and "Futurism". My Italian blood, however, surged more strongly when my lips proclaimed aloud the freshly invented word "Futurism". It was the new formula, art-as-action, and a guiding rule for mental health. It was a youthful, regenerative banner that was anti-traditional, optimistic, heroic and dynamic, to be raised above the ruins of an obsessive concern with the past' (Marinetti, Guerra sola igiene del mondo, 1915, quoted in F.T. Marinetti, Critical Writings, New York, 2006).
Visually, Futurism started quite slowly. The key players were sequestered in Milan, and reacted largely to earlier Italian movements such as Divisionism. From his Parisian viewpoint Severini what the others could not, and in 1911 convinced Marinetti to fund an expedition including Boccioni, Russolo, Carrà to Paris. There they were suddenly introduced to the real Avant-Garde, to Picasso and to Cubism. On returning to Italy they feverishly applied these new ideas, putting together in a matter of months an exhibition to be presented at Bernheim-Jeune in Paris in February 1912. It was this extraordinary and groundbreaking show that launched them into the forefront, travelling on to the Sackville Gallery in London, Der Sturm in Berlin and on in various forms to Moscow, Amsterdam and Chicago.
War held a central place in the Futurist firmament: in Filippo Tommaso Marinetti's telling phrase in his foundational Futurist manifesto, 'We glorify war the world's only hygiene'. The application of modernity and mechanization to sweep away the detritus of history and 'Pastist' recidivism was a guiding tenet. As Marinetti wrote to Severini on 20 November 1914, 'What we need is not only direct collaboration in the splendor of this conflagration, but also the plastic expression of the Futurist hour. ... We urge you to interest yourself in the war and its repercussions in Paris. Try to live the war pictorially, studying it in all its mechanical forms (military trains, fortifications, wounded men, ambulances, hospitals, parades etc.).' quoted in C. Tisdall and A. Bozzolla, Futurism, London, 1977, p. 190-191).
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