26 August 2021

Gino Severini Sees The Muses

"Of course I saw the Muses
on the hill
roosting in the leaves
Well then, I saw the Muses
in the liberal oak leaves
eating acorns and berries
I saw the Muses on an ancient
oak, where they kept cawing.
My heart marveling
I asked my marveling heart
and told my heart the marvel."

 - Vidi le Muse (I Saw the Muses), by Leonardo Sinisgalli, 1943, translated from the Italian by Sonia Raiziss & Alfredo de Palchi, reprinted from The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2012.

As Italo Calvino famously pointed out there are no birds in the paintings of the Florentine painter Paolo Uccello, whose surname means 'bird' in Italian. But in the 20th century, a painter named  Gino Severini made an entire series of color drawings around the theme of birds.

But where, exactly, are we in Flowers And Masks? Dynamism of the modern urban city, fractured perspective and overlapping picture plans abound.  The hallmarks of  Futurism, an art practiced by a loose band  of Italian artists in the early decades of the 20th century.

From Tuscany (well, Cortona, actually) to Paris sounds  like the itinerary for a vacation and although it wasn't a vacation for the twenty-three year old Gino Severini it was an adventure.  The son of a small town dressmaker, the aspiring artist was mesmerized  by the frenetic merriment of Parisian night life.  Futurists celebrated the industrialization that was late to arrive in their native country, but Severini preferred to portray the dynamism of living beings instead of manufactured objects,

We see that fascination in his series  Flowers And Masks. A dove flutters to the music of the spheres (behind it a violin and  pages of a musical score). The mask is an emblem of an earlier era, the commedia dell' arte that flourished during the 18th century.  

After a brief flirtation with  Cubism, Severini came to regard it as usually static and boring., a view he shared with his fellow Futurists. The charge had legs;  especially in their early experiments, Picasso and Braque copied the muted tones of the silent films they were so enamored of. Severini, ever restless would go on to experiment with the Golden Ratio, a Renaissance emblem  of perfection  This return to classicism led to an unholy alliance with Benito Mussolini for whom he designed murals and mosaics to decorate the dictator's halls. To atone for his sins, Severini returned to the Catholic Church in his later years; the mosaics he produced for the church were of exquisite delicacy, earning him the soubriquet of  "Father of Modern Mosaics."

Leonardo Sinisgalli (1908-1981) was an engineer who became the art director for Olivetti. He is best known for his poetry. While at university, Sinisgalli turned down an invitation to join the Institute of Physics at the University of Rome by Enrico Fermi himself.

Gino Severini (1883-1966) -  Flowers And Masks Number 13, 1930, color stencils on paper, Munson Williams Proctor Art Institute, Utica.

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