Having worked in Paris since 1906, Gino Severini served as a perceptive and tactful mediator in the fray between the Parisian Cubists and the Italian Futurists, as the two groups contended for leadership of the modernist avant-garde. At the artist’s wedding in 1913 to the daughter of the esteemed French poet Paul Fort, the proud father-in-law proclaimed, “C’est le mariage de la France avec l’Italie” (quoted in G. Severini, The Life of a Painter, Princeton, 1995, p. 127).
Severini was on especially close terms with Braque and Picasso. Having learned of Braque’s invention in September 1912 of the papier collé technique, employing cut and pasted papers, and seen Picasso subsequent efforts in this novel, game-changing approach to art-making, Severini too pounced on the idea. He made his earliest papiers collés, as well as his first paintings with collaged materials, during late 1912.
The dancer, some modish habitué of a Montmartre dance hall or a nightclub in Montparnasse, is the key theme in Severini’s work between 1911 and 1915; he featured his favorite exemplar of modern, cosmopolitan life in in nearly forty oil paintings and more than fifty studies on paper. The present Danseuse is his sole effort in papiers collés that treats this subject—still-lifes and a couple of portraits comprise the rest. This work is moreover the largest and most elaborately constructed that Severini ever created in this medium.
This Danseuse marks a crucial juncture in the development of Severini’s Futurism, in 1914 on the eve of the First World War. Here the artist has pared down his subject, employing only a few tell-tale signs—half of a black hat, the kick of a blue-stockinged leg, and, as in various oil paintings, the application of tiny glinting sequins arranged in curving strands as eye-catching accents. He cast his dancer in essential, abstracted forms, repeated to generate a staccato, rhythmical effect. Severini made provision for music as well, in the form of a manuscript notation for a dancehall polka, set in the upper right corner.
The result is an explosion—from the dancer as epicenter, shock waves hurl splintered, shard-like forms outward—the frame can barely contain the force of energy bursting from within. No Cubist papier collé composition was ever so violently conceived. Severini obliterated his subject, aiming instead to impart in his forms the sensation of pure dynamism. His interest is no longer in the dancer herself, but in a universal vision of dance, as a supreme manifestation of the vital life force in all things. “An overpowering need for abstraction has driven me to put on one side all realization of mass and form in the sense of pictorial relief,” Severini explained the drawings he had shown at Marlborough Gallery, London, in 1913. “Each is an objective study, an effort in the direction of synthesis and the absolute. I consider the Plastic Absolute to be the communion, the sympathy which exists between ourselves and the center of things themselves” (quoted in J.C. Taylor, Futurism, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1961, p. 69).
Severini outlined his evolving conception of form in The Plastic Analogies of Dynamism—Futurist Manifesto 1913:
“1. Simultaneous contrasts of lines, planes and volumes, and of groups of analogous forms disposed in spherical expansion.—Constructive interpenetration.
“2. Rhythmic arabesque-like construction, intentionally ordered in a new qualitative architecture, formed exclusively of qualitative quantities... (The subject matter, when its effect is considered, sacrifices its integrity, and therefore its integral qualities, in order to develop to the utmost its qualitative continuities. Therefore our Futuristic expression will be purely qualitative.)
“3. Dynamic composition open in all directions towards space, vertically rectangular, or square and spherical.
“Plastic dynamism, the absolute vitality of matter, can be expressed only with color forms at their maximum of profundity, intensity, and luminous radiation, that is, with painting and sculpture united in a single work” (U. Apollonio, ed., Futurist Manifestos, Boston, 2001, pp. 123 and 125).
The Futurists, in their twin passions for motion and simultaneity, decried the essentially static character of Cubist pictorialism, and the Parisians’ preoccupation with an overly conceptual analysis of the subject, treating virtually anything as if it were a still-life—nature morte. Their emphasis on form, the Italians moreover pointed out, had caused the Cubists to banish from their canvases the excitement and even the vibrant colors of contemporary life. The Cubists, in turn, belittled the Futurists’ attempt to suggest motion in painting, an illusion at best in a medium that is inherently inert.
Each camp had different ideas about what should constitute the desirable, much discussed aspects of dynamism and simultaneity in modern art. “The French artists relied in their paintings on the static contrasts of form and color,” Douglas Cooper explained, “which meant they achieved their purposes by purely plastic means. But to the Futurists, ‘dynamism’ and ‘simultaneity’ lay in the forcefulness and movement inherent in the subject itself, in its extension into time and space, and in the expressive means by which the spectator was made to feel himself situated in the middle of it all” (The Cubist Epoch, New York, 1971, pp. 172 and 175).
Severini’s paintings and studies of 1914 represent a singular fusion of the Futurist principles of dynamism and simultaneity, while drawing on concurrent developments in Cubist form—"the marriage of France and Italy” in his art—that brought the artist to the threshold of abstraction, or “pure painting,” as his friend Apollinaire characterized this tendency in his critical writings. This papier collé Danseuse may have served to guide Severini in his quest. The tumult of slashing, aggressive forms draws the viewer into the welter of exciting sensations that one may experience at such a boisterous scene. This is but the overture, however, to the artist’s ultimate intention. “We want to enclose the universe in the work of art. Individual objects do not exist anymore,” Severini wrote in The Plastic Analogies of Dynamism. “We must forget exterior reality and our knowledge of it in order to create the new dimensions, the order and extent of which will be discovered by our artistic sensibility in relation to the world of plastic creation.”
“With the interpenetration of planes and the simultaneity of environment,” Severini further stated, “we have been able to render the reciprocal influence of objects and the environmental vitality of the subject (intensity and expansion of object + environment); with plastic analogies we can infinitely enlarge the range of these influences, irradiations and contrasts of the will, the unique form of which is created by our artistic sensibility and expresses the absolute vitality of matter, or universal dynamism” (op. cit., 2001, pp. 118 and 122).