Painting in France, Spain and Italy in the Modern Period, c1895-1935

Symposium on European Modernism, 1895-1935

Dr Bernard Vere, Sotherby's Institute of Art, London

16 October 2010

Bernard Vere’s talk concentrated on painting, rather than art generally, but he began by setting out the rapid pace of change during the years in question. Cities expanded tremendously. Inventions such as the aeroplane and the typewriter, electric lighting and the motor car ushered in a radically new way of living. The period was one of immense technological and social change. The first image shown was Paul Signac’s neo-impressionist pointillist portrait of Félix Fénéon. Signac used the word ‘Opus’ as part of his title for the work and stressed the connections between painting and music. As Fénéon also combined the roles of art critic, dealer, writer and biographer of Signac (as well as anarchist activist), the work set the scene for the multi-disciplinary character of the weekend, an multi-disciplinarity exemplified by many of the twentieth-century’s avant-garde movements.

The talk then considered the emergence of Fauvism out of the time that Henri Matisse spent working with Signac in 1904 and his work the following year with André Derain at Collioure. The Fauve style of painting, with bright unmodulated colours juxtaposed with one another, was also very influential on German Expressionism, the subject of Christian Weikop’s talk the following day. Georges Braque began as a Fauve artist but, under the influence of Pablo Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon (despite his initial reservations about this work), he moved away from the Fauves in favour of Cézanne-influenced landscapes which the critic Louis Vauxcelles described as having been painted with “little cubes”. These early cubist landscapes, such as Braque’s at La Roche Guyon, or Picasso’s at Horta d’Ebro rejected single point perspective and a unified light source and piled elements of the landscape on top of one another rather than making them recede. There is either no horizon line, or the sky itself is faceted so the division between land and sky is not respected.

This early stage of cubism, where volume was created by faceting, was traced through to the high ‘analytic’ cubism of 1910-12, where space is suggested by a grid system. Picasso and Braque began to restrict their palettes still further, so that they were limited to greys, blacks and browns, with green disappearing after 1910. Their subject matter also became more restricted as they ceased to paint landscapes in order to concentrate on still-lifes and portraiture. Works are no longer signed on the front of the paintings, either out of a mischievous desire to make it difficult to tell the works of the pair apart, or because the signature would interfere with the underlying grid system of the paintings. The works of Juan Gris, more decorative and colourful than those of Picasso or Braque, were also discussed.

One of the principal rivals to Cubism was the Italian Futurist movement. With interests that went far beyond painting (including architecture, literature, music and even food), Futurism criticised cubists for what the Italians saw as their dated subject matter (still lifes of café tables) and their lack of concern for anything outside painting. Italian Futurist painting began as a modified form of Italian Divisionism, itself a variant of French neo-Impressionism (an early Italian critic described how Angelo Morbelli, a Divisionist, had caught the disease of “painted measles” from the French). Their subject matter was the modern city: riots, anarchist funerals, crowds. The artists attempted to convey the movement and dynamism of the twentieth-century city, to place ”the spectator in the centre of the picture”. Giacomo Balla’s movement studies (such as Hand of a Violinist (1912)) influenced by the chronophotography of Jules-Etienne Marey, provided a further impetus for the group, as did the philosophy of Henri Bergson, used by Gino Severini to produce Travel Memories, a record of his journey from his home town of Cortona to Paris, in which fragmentary recalled images jostle together on the canvas without regard to scale.

The major turning point in Italian Futurist painting came shortly before their Parisian exhibition in 1912. In late 1911 the painters visited Paris, where Severini, a Paris resident, showed them the latest artistic developments, especially cubism. The Futurists immediately altered their style to incorporate cubist planes and as well as stencilled lettering. The works of the Futurists could still be easily differentiated from those of the cubists by the former’s more explicitly modern subject matter, the greater range of colour used and the attempts to suggest movement.

The Futurists set out to commandeer publicity and notoriety. Their 1912 exhibition was visited by 40,000 people in London and resulted in widespread coverage in the popular press. Picasso and Braque shunned such publicity, only exhibiting in France at the gallery of their dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. However, other cubists, such as Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes and Robert Delaunay, participated in the Salon d’Automne and the Salon des Indépendants, where their work gained considerable attention. Works such as Metzinger’s At the Cycle-Race Track (1912) or Delaunay’s The Cardiff Team (1912-13), with their depictions of popular sports, seemed to move this group of so-called ‘Salon’ cubists closer to the work of the Italian Futurists than to Picasso and Braque’s analytic cubism (Delaunay’s response on seeing these works was to exclaim “but they paint with cobwebs, these fellows”).

One further Italian working in Paris was Giorgio de Chirico, whose deserted classical squares, multiple vanishing points and mysterious statues had little to do with Italian Futurism but would prove to be a vital influence for the Surrealists.  The final part of the talk traced two post-World War One developments in art in Paris. Surrealism, in which a return to figuration was evident in the works of Salvador Dalí and Yves Tanguy (who resolved to become a painter after seeing  an exhibition of De Chirico’s work from the top deck of a passing bus), but which also valued the supposedly direct presentation of the unconscious revealed in ‘automatic drawing’, the basis for works by Joan Miró, for example.

The second strand, Purism, arose out of cubism. ‘After Cubism’ written by Amedée Ozenfant and Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (better known as the architect Le Corbusier) advocated a pared down, but more legible version of cubism based on universal shapes. Although Jeanneret and Ozenfant were the founders of the movement, its best-known adherent was Fernand Léger, who managed to combine his own past as a cubist with a distinctive portrayal of industrial modernity under the presiding control of geometry.

A full list of slides shown is given at Appendix A.


Appendix A

  1. Bernard Vere, Painting in France, Spain and Italy in the Early Modern Period     16 October 2010
  2. Paul Signac, Opus 217: Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones and Tints, Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon in 1890, 1890. Museum of Modern Art, New York
  3. Henri Edmond Cross, The Evening Air, 1893-94. Musée d’Orsay, Paris
  4. Henri Matisse, Luxe, Calme et Volupté, 1904. Musée d’Orsay, Paris
  5. Henri Matisse, The Red Beach, Collioure, Summer 1905, 1905. Private collection (on loan to Courtauld Gallery, London)
  6. André Derain, Boats at Collioure, 1905. Kunstmuseum Dusseldorf
  7. André Derain, Trees at Collioure, 1905. Sold at Sotheby’s London in June 2010 for £14.5m
  8. André Derain, Portrait of Bartolomeo Savona, 1906. Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham
  9. Georges Braque, The Yellow Sea Coast, 1906. Private collection
  10. Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907. MoMA, New York
  11. Pablo Picasso, The Dryad, 1908. Hermitage, St Petersburg
  12. Georges Braque, Viaduct at L’Estaque, 1908. Tel Aviv Museum of Art
  13. Georges Braque, Houses at L’Estaque, 1908. Kunstmuseum, Bern
  14. Pablo Picasso, The Reservoir, Horta de Ebro, 1909. MoMA, New York
  15. Pablo Picasso, Girl with a Mandolin, 1910. MoMA, New York
  16. Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, 1910. Art Institute of Chicago
  17. Pablo Picasso, Bottle of Rum, 1911. Metropolitan, New York
  18. Georges Braque, The Portuguese, 1911. Kunstmuseum, Basel
  19. Pablo Picasso, The Aficionado, 1912. Kunstmuseum, Basel
  20. Pablo Picasso, Still Life with Chair Caning, 1912. Musée Picasso, Paris
  21. Juan Gris, The Watch, 1912. Private Collection
  22. Juan Gris, Bottle of Rum and a Newspaper, 1913-14. Tate
  23. F. T. Marinetti, Words-in-Freedom, Premier Récord, 1914. Private collection
  24. Carlo Carrà, The Funeral of the Anarchist Galli, 1910-11. MoMA, New York
  25. Giacomo Balla, The Hand of the Violinist, 1912. Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, London
  26. Gino Severini, Memories of a Journey, 1910-11. Private collection
  27. Luigi Russolo, Dynamism of a Speeding Automobile, 1912-13. Pompidou Centre, Paris
  28. Umberto Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913 (cast 1931). MoMA, New York
  29. Umberto Boccioni, Dynamism of a Cyclist, 1913. Peggy Guggenheim Museum, Venice
  30. Jean Metzinger, At the Cycle-Race Track, 1912 Peggy Guggenheim Museum, Venice
  31. Robert Delaunay, L’Equipe de Cardiff F.C. Troisième Représentation, 1912-13. Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris
  32. Giorgio de Chirico, Melanconia, 1912. Private collection
  33. Yves Tanguy, Outside, 1929. Tate, London.
  34. Salvador Dalí, Bird, 1928. Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh
  35. Salvador Dalí, Autumnal Cannibalism, 1936. Tate
  36. Joan Miró, The Birth of the World, 1925. MoMA, New York
  37. Fernand Léger, Mechanical Element, final version, 1924. Pompidou Centre, Paris
  38. Fernand Léger, Study for Woman in Blue, 1912-13. Private Collection
  39. Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (Le Corbusier), Still Life, 1920. MoMA