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Gino Severini: From The Future To The Past Avant garde painter and father of modern mosaic Ilona Jesnick One of the principle reasons for the decline of mosaic is the separation between the artist who makes the cartoon and the craftsman who makes the mosaic … between art and craft. (1934)


1. Milan, Palazzo di Giustizia, Justice, detail, All-Seeing Eye. 1936. 2. Palazzo di Giustizia, Blind Justice in situ, with 2 all-seeing eyes.

ino Severini, 1883 – 1966, is best known to the world as a painter, a founder of the Italian Futurist movement and a key protagonist in the artistic and literary circles of the Parisian avant garde in the first two decades of the twentieth century. During his career as a painter, muralist and mosaicist, he exhibited in major international exhibitions and won many art prizes. He wrote extensively about painting and mosaic. He focussed his later years on mosaic as a maker, designer and teacher, founding a School of Mosaic in Paris in 1950. He was known as ‘the founding father of modern mosaic,’ (MAS) recognising in an ancient craft its relevance for the art of the modern world. His influence on early 20th century mosaic was immense. The Early Byzantine mosaics of Ravenna were Severini’s inspiration, and the 20th century mosaicists of Ravenna his teachers.1 For him the patient and reflective work of the mosaicist ‘... that gives him time to think, to gather, and see what might be the best way to express his desire,’ corresponded to the way the great Master, Cezanne, whom Severini had witnessed at work, had placed his brushstrokes one by one on the canvas: slowly and with trembling hand, to achieve a deliberate imperfection. (MAM)2 Severini perceived an equivalent in the mosaicists’ gestures: inserting tiles in mortar, hesitating where to place a line, which colour to choose, lost in reverie. (PM) In his teaching he would

Gino Severini: From The Future To The Past 35

3. Detail, Janus looking both ways

always emphasize the link between ancient Byzantine and modern mosaic. Why replicate photographic chiaroscuro, when a better effect of volume is achieved in the Byzantine manner by skilfully arranging tesserae and colours – for ‘in this aspect, mosaic is linked once more to Cezanne and contemporary painting. 3 It was an extraordinary journey for an artist as pivotal to Modernism as Severini: the urbane Italian of Parisian café society, the Futurist, the atheist. He became the advocate of the serene skills of artists expressing their spiritual world of Christian faith. Severini was a man of contradictions. He admitted in 1956 to being torn by ‘two simultaneous and often conflicting aspirations,’ consoling himself with William Blake: ‘Without conflict there is no progress,’ (Fachereau). He criticised the emptiness of the modern art experience, denouncing the same abstraction he had been instrumental in founding. Having stated in 1913 that abstraction was, ‘A sign of that intensity … with which life is lived today,’ he later launched an attack on Kandinsky and Mondrian for unleashing an art without humans or objects. Existentialism and Surrealism, he thought, led only to emptiness and despair. Chance and automatism had no place in mosaic making where, ‘everything must be prepared in advance;’ but he also endorsed an art where the mosaic medium itself had the final say. EARLY YEARS Born in Cortona, Tuscany to a poor family, from age sixteen he received an art education in Rome. There, in 1900 at the studio of Giacomo Balla, he encountered

Pointillism. The Italian development, Divisionism, combined dots and fine strokes applied in a less organised, but more expressive manner. One only has to see Severini’s early paintings or the stippled spaces of Cubism to think of mosaic tesserae. He repeatedly cited his ‘passion’ for Seurat from whom he learned the power of the single spot of colour ‘shining out alongside another, even more effectively in chorus.’ Meeting with little early success, in 1906, penniless and unable to speak French, Severini left for Paris. Soon he was mingling with the habitués of Montparnasse, artists we now consider icons, including Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani, Cocteau and Diaghilev. In 1913, Severini, aged 30, married the teenage daughter of renowned French poet, Paul Fort. Meanwhile, Italy embraced Futurism – a cultural movement encompassing art and social change, glorifying speed, technology, youth and violence, the car, aeroplane and the industrial city. In early 1910 Severini signed the Manifesto of the Futurist Painters – artists sweeping away the stifling weight of academicism, the Renaissance and political and artistic stagnation: ‘New flights of artistic inspiration are emerging … we must breathe in the tangible miracles of contemporary life … Elevate all attempts at originality, however daring, however violent … Destroy the cult of the past.’ Severini pursued the fashionable craze for dancing and made the Parisian cabaret, rather than the motor car, the subject through which he expressed the whirl of modern life. Balla, Severini and Boccioni were key artists of this movement,4 which influenced Constructivism in Russia, Surrealism, Dada and Art Deco and, in Britain the Vorticists, whose manifesto, Blast I, had designated



For reasons of copyright only available in Print copy

He began a critique of Cubism, although his own art remained infused with it and he was warmly attached to Picasso. In Du cubism au classicism, 1921, he detailed his return to the ideals of Renaissance composition, adopting a neo-classical style. Most important for him was his religious conversion, meeting, in 1923, the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain. In 1924 he won a competition for the decoration of the church of Semsales in Freiburg, Switzerland. Severini ends his autobiography in 1924: ‘I was soon to undertake a serious collective, social experience in the mural arts, essentially in the role of manual labourer.’ Work on this series of painted murals led him to an important decision: he needed to learn about mosaic, the most durable material for a mural, seeking advice from the school of Ravenna mosaicists. CHURCH DECORATIONS

4. Gino Severini, Sea=Dancer, 1914, painting. HeritageImages.

Severini the most important of the Futurists. In April 1913, having missed out on the influential Armory Show, the International Exhibition of Modern Art in New York, because of his allegiance to the Italian Futurists, he held his first one-man exhibition at the Marlborough Gallery, London, where he was treated like a lord, he said, (LVP). A continual sufferer of ill health – though he lived to be 83 – Severini was turned down for service in the First World War, which the close-knit family lived out in France. His daughter Gina was born in January 1915. They were always poor, searching for lodgings, Severini always seeking patrons. 1916, although excellent for his work, was the year when his son Tonio was born and shortly afterwards died, as Severini tells it: the victim of his parents’ poverty, a blow from which he said he ‘never recovered,’ (LVP, 167). This grievous shock would lead to this atheist’s eventual conversion to Catholicism, ecclesiastical decoration and a new life path. Later that year he met the influential gallerist Léonce Rosenberg, whose Galerie L’Effort Moderne was a focus for Cubist artists. He became Severini’s dealer and, despite a rocky relationship, set in train Severini’s growing artistic success from 1917. Through Rosenberg he received in 1921 the first of a long series of decorative commissions: to paint a fresco in the Tuscan castle of Sir George Sitwell.5 The early Twenties marked a period of transition.

In 1927 Severini created the cartoons for the church of La Roche, Freiburg, entrusting the execution to mosaicists from Ravenna and Venice. Decoration is the term he used, without any pejorative intent, in his writings on mural art (PM); easel painting was different – each required a separate aesthetic. Decoration, with its ancient heritage and social function, had become, for Severini a truer art than the self-regarding work of the easel painter. Mural art, he said, must respect the architecture. The artist should not create holes in the wall (by the use of illusionistic Renaissance perspective) nor produce art that imitated pictures attached to it. Design and execution on the spot, he insisted, were the essential conditions for a decorative work of art so that it bonded with the edifice. ‘The wall must be decorated, not destroyed. Its verticality and surface must remain intact.’ (MAM) The muralist must therefore renounce the use of foreshortenings and perspectives, (Benzi). He proudly stated that Semsales was, ‘The first church painted in a cubist spirit,’ Cubism being a style ideally suited for decorative purposes because it emphasised the surface and was not perspectival (MAS, 16). Above all, while the easel painter had the liberty to do as he pleased (LE), the muralist must possess the virtue of sacrifice, prepared to put aside his own desires to produce work responsive to the architectural context and, importantly, the function of the imagery (PM). Further ecclesiastical commissions followed in Switzerland. In Tavannes in 1930 he placed fresco alongside mosaic; in 1931 for the important commission of Saint Pierre in Freiburg, he employed mosaic. He tried a local Genevan mosaic workshop;

Gino Severini: From The Future To The Past 37

For reasons of copyright only available in Print copy

5. Ravenna, San Vitale, Bishop Maximian, Court of Emperor Justinian, 546. Photo: Allan Punton. Right: 6. Cezanne, Self-Portrait, 1880-1, © National Gallery, London

however, he preferred the Ravenna technicians and called on Antonio Rocchi, who became his favourite collaborator. Meanwhile he continued his painting and exhibiting career in Paris. BYZANTINE MOSAIC

7. Gino Severini, Head of Christ, 1946, Rome, Vatican, Collection of Modern Religious Art. Photo: Robert Field

His first encounter with the mosaics of Ravenna had been a profound revelation. When, in the Baptistery of San Vitale, he stood before the portraits of Justinian’s court and saw the face of Archbishop Maximian, he met an art that ‘accorded so well with the aspirations of our generation, in 1910-15, that I immediately thought of Cezanne,’ (ECR). He climbed up on scaffolding to get as close as possible, to see how the smalti were set. ‘…What soon became apparent for me was the analogy both as to intentions and processes between the art of these ancient artisans and so-called modern art,’ which began, he said, with the Impressionists (MAM). What Severini found most impressive was the way the angled tesserae bounced light around, revealing to him, ‘a new concept of form and space.’ But simply returning to the past would be a profound error. The Byzantine craftsmen could teach their ability to reconcile ‘the dynamic and the static,’ ‘the monumental and narrative, the symbolic and the world of the senses … the rhythmic and the idea of



9. Tre Arti, detail.

8. Milan, Palazzo de Arti, Tre arti, 1933

permanence ...’ (MAM) The timelessness of these rich and splendid mosaics could transfer into an art for modern times. ‘… but the real problem lies in linking the two indivisible elements of craft and art,’ (ECR). THE GRAND PUBLIC DECORATIONS In the 1930s Severini, by now a reputed artist and writer, embarked on a series of high profile, large scale public mosaics, beginning with Le Arti, for the Palazzo del Arte in the Vth Milan Triennale, 1933, which remains the sole survivor of a series executed by fellow Italian artists, including Giorgio de Chirico. Severini had since 1928 desired mural commissions in Italy. In 1935, first prize in the Rome Quadrennial allowed him to resettle in Italy, where he remained until 1946. In 1937 he received a gold medal in the International Exposition of Decorative Art in Paris. In 1936 he received commissions for what are considered to be his greatest public murals: in the Palazzo di Giustizia in Milan and on the 38m long façade of the Main Post Office in Alessandria, Piedmont. Here, Severini represented the worldwide destinations of messages and parcels to India, China, Tahiti, Africa, Italy; and the evolution of the post and telegraph, from

10. Detail,

11. Tre arti, detail, Cityscape

Gino Severini: From The Future To The Past 39

12. Milan, Palazzo di Giustizia, 1936, Blind Justice.

13. Archangel over Citadel with ostrich and boat.

the horse rider of antiquity to the plugs, pylons and electrical connections of the modern world. The writer and philosopher Umberto Eco, native of Alessandria, said: ‘I have spent days and days thinking about these mosaics, dreaming, embarking on countless adventures between chimney stacks, propellers, turbines, mounted messengers, apes, crocodiles and Aztec monarchs…’6 The interiors of Milan’s Palazzo di Giustizia, the Law Courts, built in 1932, were decorated by Italy’s

foremost artists with frescoes, mosaics and statues. Severini’s five panels of the Attributes of Justice are located above doorways. Three originally included the fasces – the ancient Roman emblem adopted by the Fascists (a bundle of wooden rods and an axe, bound with a red strap); these were removed after the war. Severini, however, had created universal images, beyond any specific ideology, so the model of Justice still rings true. He was not a supporter of the regime, although



14. Elephant, palm and compass.

other artists, notably Mario Sironi, were; he dissociated himself from the patriotic movements ‘Italianismo’ and Novecento Italiano, closely identified with a fascist overview. ‘I feel most strongly bound [to] Cortona and Paris: I was born physically in the first, intellectually and spiritually in the second.’ His barely hidden sympathies were revealed in a letter sent to Mussolini detailing the artist’s membership of anti-fascist organizations abroad. (Benzi, 15) Milan’s Justice has her head swathed in a blue lenticular cloud, signifying her blind impartiality. The cloud acts as a unifying device in all five panels. She is has scales to balance good and evil, and a lion: symbol of vigilance. Beneath her feet the All-Seeing Eye, half black, half white denotes right and wrong, good and evil. In another panel, Justice holds, Moses-like, the stone tablets of The Law. A bull signifies stability and a fruiting date palm, fertility. Elsewhere the Archangel Michael, sword in one hand, scales in the other, flies over a fortified city, guarded by an ostrich, whose feathers in ancient Egypt represented the goddess of truth, justice and order and denoted the weight of the soul. 7 Severini was among other leading Italian artists chosen to work on the pavements of the Foro Italico, a colossal sports complex just outside Rome, based on Hadrian’s Villa and built between 1928 and 1938. Its numerous venues include the impressive Stadio dei Marmi, ringed by giant marble statues of athletes. The Piazzale del Impero, 1937, executed by the Mosaic School of Friuli, is a central pavement, 280m long – 3520sq.m of black marble figures on a white marble ground, inspired by the floors of Ostia Antica – where Mussolini began an extensive programme of excavations in the 1930s. This commission, ‘of classical composure,’ includes allegories of the arts, scenes from Mussolini’s Africa campaign and fascist symbols. An emulation of Roman grandiosity, it achieved only nostalgia; despite the fascist elements, it is a magical site. Mussolini personally recalled Severini, acknowledged as the foremost mosaic artist of the time, from France. He contributed Athletes, Still Life motifs and ancient Roman bucolic scenes. In Il Duce’s personal Palaestra (gym) above the swimming pool, Severini created, in a site reserved for him by the architect, a female personification of Italia Fascista; a winged genie of fascism and a lion with sun and stars, Mussolini’s zodiacal sign.8 SEVERINI THE MOSAICIST

15. Foro Italico, Bucolic Scene, detail.

Subsequently, commissions dried up; Severini had fallen out of favour with the authorities. He returned to easel

Gino Severini: From The Future To The Past 41

16. Severini, Foro Italico, 1937, Bucolic scene, Huntsmen.

painting, to theatrical subjects. He had made some small mosaics, but had not liked them. His first, Nature Morte of 1935, was executed by Salviati in Venice. Later, he found a new meaning in the genre, with Rocchi executing work for an exhibition in 1950. After the war the Bishop of Cortona, who had subsidised the teenage Severini at the outset of his artistic career, commissioned a Via Crucis for Cortona Cathedral, executed by the Vatican mosaicists, 1946. Afterwards, Severini returned to Paris where, in 1950, he founded a School of Mosaic. He continued painting and creating mosaic murals in Italy and France. The execution of his large works was given to various mosaic workshops, principally from Ravenna, Il Gruppo Mosaicisti dell’Accademia, with whom he himself had learned the craft in the 1930s. Many witnesses testify to the atmosphere of teamwork that pertained in the workshop, how they proceeded through a series of insights, revelations and surprises where the original cartoon would yield to the demands of the mosaic medium and be changed to reflect that journey. His letters (AMO) reveal how he often asked the ‘Ravennati’ for technical advice on making mosaics. ‘He was not an expert maker,’ Rocchi said of Severini, ‘but he was a connoisseur of the art of mosaic, he knew its potential and its limitations,’ (LE, 13). He understood that what made mosaic distinct from painting related to the manipulation of materials, the discontinuity of its surface, the modulation of light achieved by careful placing of tesserae and how shifting even one could bring profound expressive changes. He was scathing about the practice of employing famous painters as designers simply for their fame, who

then sign the work as their own, despite not touching a single tessera – with debased results. They would then be feted, to the detriment of the mosaicist, regarded as a mere performer. This issue occupied him over many years. He knew that ‘The solutions of the mosaic puzzle are not infinite and he [the designer] needs to be aware of this limitation,’ (AMO, 32). He was adamant that the cartoon should be made by a mosaicist, not a painter (MAM). Rocchi recalled another of Severini’s concerns, the common and continuing view of mosaic ‘as “applied art,” without even considering that between artist and mosaicist there ought to be a contest of ideas, a close involvement.’ (LE) Therefore the cartoon should not be a random drawing, but conceived specifically for mosaic, and of the least possible resolution, otherwise it led to, ‘solving with the paintbrush, pictorial problems that should be resolved with smalti,’ (ECR). For Severini, facility with form and colour were not enough to produce a good mosaic, nor was it a matter of taste. It was a question of control: of composition and materials. He disliked the indirect method – unless on floors, which had their own techniques for producing a smooth, flat surface − but which on walls was: ‘a quasi-mechanical system which prevents any emotion … even to craftsmen of value … but, being faster and less expensive than the true craft, is favoured by architects,’(ECR). Only the direct method had any validity, if possible executed in situ, for only in that way would the mosaicist hear ‘the mysterious voices of the stones …’ Mosaic was a difficult and severe craft that imposed a discipline unknown to the free painters.



17. Severini, Foro Italico, 1937, Bucolic scene, Fishermen.

They only sought sensation, disregarding the art and technique of mosaic, never realizing that with the very materials rested the power and magical enchantment they pursued, (LE). Severini learned in practice how, ‘The multi-coloured tesserae, in the hands of the true mosaicist, invite endless creative possibilities,’ (MAM) and even come to have a precise ‘decision-making effect,’ (AMO, 27). He admired the ‘Ravennati’ who had reached such consciousness in mosaic-making that they could forget ‘the cartoon and all forward planning’ and perceive, ‘what the stones and smalti want to invent.’ He knew that finally, the real creation of mosaic lay with this effect, allowing for the autonomy of the tesserae, which ‘placed themselves beyond the cartoon, sometimes even in opposition to it,’ (MAM). SEVERINI THE TEACHER Severini devoted years of intense activity as teacher and director to the Parisian School of Mosaic. Opened in 1950, it was supported and financed by the Italian Embassy and staffed by mosaicists from the Ravenna School, invited by Severini. The School was known for its unusual mix of theoretical and practical lessons and was attended by many foreign students, mainly artists

and teachers. His lectures and the summary of his teaching are collected in Lezione sul Mosaico (LE). The primary objective of Severini’s teaching was public and social: wall mosaic, not substitutes for private easel painting. ‘If we want to rise above amateurism, we must consider mosaic as an art, with its own specific methods, with a particular purpose that is not a picture, but the wall itself,’ (ECR). Concerned that a fundamental error had persisted since the Renaissance, that mosaic was a technique in the service of painting, he designed an aesthetic training based on historical and contemporary art, underpinned by a secure mastery of the craft founded on Byzantine techniques. This broad education was aimed at producing mosaic artists rather than skilled artisans. Only then could there be a ‘real mosaic,’ he argued, meaning a work where there was a constant interchange of ideas between the original cartoon, its translation into mosaic and its architectural context. ‘I would like a mosaic to be made as a mosaic and not a painting translated into mosaic, as happens today,’ (AMO, 156). Severini’s studies of mathematics and proportion influenced his curriculum where history, colour and composition took up almost as much time as practical lessons. He despised instinctive mark-making styles, like French Tachisme, thought Jackson Pollock lacked creativity. He could not see that spontaneity had ever a created a solid work of cultural value. For Severini ‘technique’ encompassed the many conditions that can impose a direction on the work, including religious feelings, personal sentiments, the materials, the tools and dexterity. ‘Good mosaic technique is not that which allows for the accurate reproduction of ancient or modern painting, but one that can express in full what the form means,’ because, ‘In the hands of the mosaicist everything takes life.’ A kind of fraternity existed between the tool and the hand – since they communicated their vitality to each other. And between the hand and the stones there existed a similar vibrancy – ‘so the very stones are impatient … to enter the scene.’ (MAM)

Gino Severini: From The Future To The Past 43

WRITINGS Severini’s teaching and extensive writings: theoretical essays, reflections and memoirs – were as influential as his visual art. He conceived a philosophy for mural decoration in public spaces that remains important today. He recognized that there was a specific aesthetic for such work that took account of architectural context, audience and patron, sacred or secular. From 1917, he wrote essays on Cubist aesthetics and space; later, ecclesiastical and mural decoration. His 1946 autobiography: Tutta la vita di un pittore – tantalisingly only reaching 1924 – is a fascinating account of his early days and a vivid picture of the artistic milieus of Paris, Milan and Rome in the early 20th century. His collected writings are published in Témoinages, 50 ans de reflexion, 1963, and Ecrits sur L’Art, 1987. Gino Severini made the profound shift from master of the avant garde to servant of an ancient craft. His revelation that the Byzantine treasures of Ravenna could infuse modern mosaic with the life that had drained from it since the Renaissance, helped facilitate the resurgence of mosaic in the 20th century. He urged that mosaicists should be at once sustained by formal discipline and open to the mystical moment when the materials themselves take life. He insisted that designer and mosaicist should be close collaborators, each cognisant of the demands of the craft, shifting prevailing views of mosaic as merely paintings in stone. This marks his unique contribution to mosaic. ‘I have … so much love for this wonderful art form … … Mosaic can powerfully help restore to art the order, clarity and purity and also the sense of reality that the modern world with its many contradictions can no longer give.’ (MAM)

Gino Severini, Sea=Dancer, Heritage-Images. Gino Severini: Photo, Ida Kar, Vintage bromide print, 1954, © National Portrait Gallery, London. Cezanne Self Portrait, © National Portrait Gallery, London. BIBLIOGRAPHY. Benzi, Fabio, 1992, Catalogue: Gino Severini, Affreschi, mosaici, decorazioni monumentali, 1921-1941. Rome. Fachereau, Serge, 1987, Preface: Gino Severini, ‘Ecrits sur L’Art, 1913-1962,’ Diagonals, Paris. Fiorentini, Isotta ; Sarasina, Federica, 2004, Gino Severini, L’amore per il mosaico, Ravenna. Including previously unpublished letters. [AMO] Greco, Antonella, 1991, Foro Italico. Rome. Mascherpa, Giorgio, 1985, Severini e il Mosaico, Ravenna, [MAS] Severini, Gino, 1921, Du Cubisme au Classicism. 2001, From Cubism to Classicism, trans. Peter Brooke, London. 1927, ‘La peinture mural – son esthetique et ses moyens,’ Novae et Vetera. [PM] 1946, (Tutta) La Vita di un Pittore, (1983) The Life of a Painter, Princeton, 1995, Trans. Jennifer Franchina. [LVP] 1951, Preface to catalogue: Exposizione delle copie dei mosaici di Ravenna, Paris, [ECR] 1952, Mosaique et art mural dans l’antiquite et dans les temps modernes. [MAM] 1963, Témoinages, 50 ans de reflexion. Rome. 1988, Lezione sul Mosaico, Ravenna. [LE] All translations from Italian and French by the author. Ravenna honoured him in 1959 by attaching his name to


the famous school: Istituto Statale d’Arte per il Mosaico – “Gino Severini” – ‘Ravenna. MAM, proceedings of a conference held Ravenna 1952.


The touring exhibition, including Paris and London, of copies of the Ravenna mosaics by the revitalised Ravenna School was widely influential. Preface to catalogue: Exposizione delle copie dei mosaici


di Ravenna, Paris, 1951. [ECR] Mascherpa, 99 -102. Important art works were Boccioni’s sculpture, Unique



Forms of Continuity in Space, and Balla’s painting, Abstract Speed + Sound. The sculpture and a similar

My grateful thanks to Robert Field for introducing me to the subject, guiding me to see Foro Italico, for the loan of books, general encouragement and advice, and for photographs.

painting can be seen in Tate Modern, London. 5

Father of Osbert, Sacheverall and Edith. Severini thought they were like characters from Dickens.

Quoted in: Carlo Bertelli, Mosaics, 1989, p.323, with


coloured pictures of the frieze; also online at ‘Alessandria.’


We were unable to obtain photographic copyright. Cf: Robert Field in Grout, 2004, 16-17 for a fuller


Milan, Tre Arti; Palazzo di Guistizia; Rome, Foro Italico: Photos: Robert Field. Ravenna: Allan Punton.

description. Cf. also the Effects of Good and Bad Governance in the Palazzo Publicco, Siena, Ambroggio Lorenzetti, 14th C. Antonella Greco, Foro Italico, Rome, 1991.


Gino Severni: From the Future to the Past by Ilona Jesnick  
Gino Severni: From the Future to the Past by Ilona Jesnick  

Reprint of an article from Issue #6 of Andamento, the journal of the British Association for Modern Mosaic (BAMM). Copies of Andamento may...