The beginning of twentieth century was marked by revolutionary changes in social life: the discoveries made by the science and the achievements of the technical process transformed the course of life once and for all. The tendency for mechanization and, inter alia, employment of automobiles unprecedentedly speeded up the life pace.
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The general enthusiasm for the future of mechanized planet could not be overlooked by the creative community. Poets, musicians, and artists involved into a major revision of creative principles underlying their work. Resulting from this attempt at comprehending the universal trends and employing them for the purposes of art were literary works that served as guidelines for creative activities.
A characteristic feature of those writings is the ardent tone of their authors persuading the readers of the comprehensive righteousness of their theories and of their exclusive importance for the success of future art. Among the most observable projections of the art development course are Filippo Marinetti’s “Manifesto of Futurism” (1908), Naum Gabo’s “The Realistic Manifesto” (1920), and Piet Mondrian’s “Neo Plasticism: the General Principle of Plastic Equivalence” (1920).
The ideas laid out in those works defined the framework for creative practices of many prominent artists, and connections can be drawn, inter alia, with the paintings by such masters as Gino Severini, Marcel Duchamp, and Marc Chagall.
The Italian painter Gino Severini was among the artists who signed Marinetti’s “Manifesto of Futurism” in 1910, and his works naturally reflected the Futurists’ ideas ever since. Marinetti’s inspirational writing urges the artists to break away from the placid rationality of traditional art in order to overcome the mystic ideals of the past (Marinetti 1908, 284–285).
He insists on the necessity to demonstrate a courageously daring attitude in painting and to depict the energy and the beauty of speed in an eternal movement to new findings (Marinetti 1908, 286).
Dynamism is the key characteristics of Futuristic art, and this is perfectly reflected in Severini’s painting Dynamic Hieroglyphic of the Bal Tabarin (1912). The artist uses the setting of the dancehall as the most appropriate scene of dynamic motion and captures the sweeping movement of dance that involves not only the central image of a dancing woman, but the whole surrounding background (Severini 1912).
In order to create the sensation of movement, Severini employs the method of dissecting the image into multiple parts of various geometric shapes and placing those parts in a chaotic collage making them as if dance in the air. This technique also helps to represent simultaneity of movements happening at the same time and creates a rhythm that in its kaleidoscope of overlapping transparent forms reminds of Mondrian’s idea of pure plastic: art is no longer description put rather plastic expression (Mondrian 288).
Another idea of Mondrian’s is rendered in Severini’s painting: the idea of unity of arts (Mondrian 289). By introducing the words ‘valse’ and ‘polka’ in his painting, Severini draws in associations with certain music and its movement that on the one hand foster the unity of arts in his canvas, and on the other hand allow the viewer perceive the smooth movement of valse interrupted by the irregularity of polka in a dancehall (Cork1976, 221).
Another bright representative of modernistic art, Marcel Duchamp appears the messenger of the futuristic delight of mechanisms. In his most revealing canvas The Passage from Virgin to the Bride (1912), Duchamp reflects Mondrian’s idea of plastic expression on the one hand and the futuristic idea of mechanization on the other hand (Duchamp 1912).
When looking at the painting, the stupefied observer can only guess where the virgin and the bride are, and whether they are at all present. There is no actual description of conventional parts of human body: everything that is depicted can be described as nothing else but geometrical shapes that remind of mechanical parts and laboratory equipment.
The absence of actual body parts in a painting intended to depict a human body and the substitution of limbs with shapes that rather reminds a mechanism echoes Mondrian’s idea of not description but plastic expression. Duchamp experiments with planes of picture: due to artful employment of light and shade techniques, various graphic segments as if move and change their position to form relationship with various bordering elements.
On the one hand, this perpetual motion is the essence of Futurism as such: futurists speed on throughout Marinetti’s “Manifesto” — and so do the fragments of Duchamp’s canvas. On the other hand, this hard-to-trace motion is symbolic of the swift transition of a virgin to a bride: the bridal state lasts no more than one day and is over as soon as the wedding is celebrated (Seigel 1995, 73).
In the context of contemporary artistic practices largely dominated by theoretical postulates, the artistic personality of Marc Chagall is singled out by his peculiar approach of not working by prescription but primarily using the canvas as a means of rendering artistic, not theoretical messages.
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In this sense his attitude is close to the position of Russian sculptor Naum Gabo which he laid out in his work “The Realistic Manifesto” (1920). Together with recognizing the necessity for searching new artistic forms, Gabo denies the efficiency of Futurism and Cubism since according to him those two movements operate on the surface of art and do not appeal to its basis (Gabo 1920, 326).
Gabo calls upon the artists to base the foundations of their work on the real laws of life which are eternal and objective; he emphasizes the necessity to neglect abstract manner of thinking and engage in a realistic approach (Gabo 1920, 328). A connection to these ideas is traced in Marc Chagall’s canvas I and the Village (1911) where the artist assumes a down-to-earth approach to painting.
The subject of the canvas is obvious even without knowing its title: the central images of a countryman and a cow joining their looks in a loving gaze provide an understanding of the mutual importance of animals and people (Chagall 1911). Such attitude was characteristic of Chagall’s background from peasant Russia: born into a family of Orthodox Jews, the future painter was raised on ideals of mutual charity and good deals (Larson 1985, 91).
From the clarity with which Chagall paints the figures of people and cattle, the silhouettes of village houses and church, it becomes clear that he follows the principle of rather depiction than plastic expression and thus is here opposed to Mondrian’s views (Mondrian 1920, 288). On the other hand, Mondrian’s ideas on importance of composition are strikingly obvious in I and the Village (Mondrian 1920, 289).
The four sections of the work — the cow, the man, the village, and the tree — are juxtaposed in a symmetrical arrangement and thus clearly render the message of the painting: everything is arranged in harmony, with the tree of life being the source of existence (Walther and Metzger 2000, 20).
The paintings of Severini, Duchamp, and Chagall discussed above were all painted at approximately the same time period. The more sensational is the contrast between them in terms of ideas that constitute their theoretical background and practical implementation. While all three paintings are united by the same technique of Cubism, they demonstrate crucial divergence in the way or treating and depicting reality.
Chagall, Marc. I and the Village. 1911. Oil on canvas. The Museum of Modern Arts, New York.
Cork, Richard. Vorticism and Abstract Art in the First Machine Age: Origins and Development. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1976.
Duchamp, Marcel. The Passage from Virgin to the Bride. 1912. Oil on canvas. The Museum of Modern Arts, New York.
Gabo, Naum. 1920. The Realistic Manifesto. In Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics, ed. Hershel B. Chipp, 325–330. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1970.
Larson, Kay. Chagall before the Fall. New York Magazine, 27 May 1985: 91–92.
Marinetti, Filippo Tomasso. 1908. The Foundations and Manifesto of Futurism. In Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics, ed. Hershel B. Chipp, 284–289. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1970.
Mondrian, Piet. 1920. Neo Plasticism: the General Principle of Plastic Equivalence. In Art in Theory 1900–1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, eds. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, 287–290. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1993.
Seigel, Jerrold E. The Private Worlds of Marcel Duchamp: Desire, Liberation, and the Self in Modern Culture. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1995.
Severini, Gino. Dynamic Hieroglyphic of the Bal Tabarin. 1912. Oil on canvas with sequins. The Museum of Modern Arts, New York.
Walther, Ingo F., and Rainer Metzger. Marc Chagall, 1887-1985: Painting as Poetry. Köln: Taschen, 2000.