DESIGN EDUCATION IN 1916

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In my last post about the radicalism of Omega designs at around the time of the First World War, I mentioned that the context in which they were produced was the dominance of Arts and Crafts design. Art history focuses on innovation and the history of this period tends to be the history of Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism and Expressionism, so, even if we understand that Omega were designing for a minority with avant-garde tastes, we can easily overlook the fact that the taste of most design-aware people was based on styles developed in the 1880s.

battersea textiles
In 1916, Charles Holme, editor of The Studio, published Arts & Crafts – A Review of the Work  Executed by Students in the Leading Art Schools, from which the illustrations here are taken – a fascinating record of what students were being taught at that time. Since the 1880s, many art school principals and lecturers had been drawn from members of the Art Workers Guild, and by the turn of the century the Arts and Crafts influence was firmly established. Both style and teaching methods changed, with a new emphasis on “designing in materials” rather than on paper. And as Holme’s illustrations demonstrate, art students were producing nothing like the Post-Impressionist and quasi-abstract designs of the Omega Workshops.

camberwellcentralcamberwell furniture

 

SEVERINI’S STATIONS OF THE CROSS, CORTONA

Gino Severini was one of the founders of Italian Futurism. Only because of his first-hand knowledge of the latest art in Paris did the Futurists develop anything like a coherent style. After the First World War, Severini was one of the first artists to abandon the aggressive modernism advocated by the Futurists.

From about 1930, he became interested in classical mosaics. He painted still lifes inspired by wall paintings excavated at Pompeii and Herculaneum and undertook church commissions in mosaic.  Even his 1934 portrait of his daughter Gina (below) shows the influence of mosaics.

Gino Severini, Portrait of Gina Severini. (1934)
Turin, Civica galeria d’arte moderna

In 1944, while Italy was in war and chaos, Severini made a series of mosaics of the Stations of the Cross for his native Cortona, a beautiful little Tuscan hill town. The mosaics were put up along the Via Crucis leading out of the town and up to the church of Santa Margherita. They are a good example of his mature work, beautifully atmospheric, with bold figures of Christ in modern settings and with strong, emotional colouration.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to show them here. They are in the open air, under glass and reflect the sky, so it’s impossible to get a good photo of them. The detail at the head of this post is the best I could make.

Not only are the mosaics difficult to photograph, the reflections make it difficult to see them at all. Why are they covered up like this? There doesn’t seem to be any danger from tourists because the Via Crucis is off the beaten track and difficult to climb in the summer – hardly anyone visits it.

Holiday crowds along the Via Crucis, Cortona.
Severini’s mosaics are in the niches covered with pitched roofs

Severini’s cartoons for the mosaics are on show in the Museo Diocesano del Capitolo di Cortona.  You can get a better view of the cartoons than the mosaics, but even those are not very well displayed and the museum has no notes, no book and no postcard reproductions.

Gino Severini, The Deposition  (1944) Cartoon for the mosaic.
Museo Diocesano del Capitolo di Cortona.
The red sky is characteristic of the series.

I have been unable to find any good reproductions of the Stations of the Cross anywhere. Four were put on Maltese postage stamps, and there are six small images on the Cortona website.  

The neglect of these works is typical of the neglect of traditional twentieth century art. My introduction to modern art was Herbert Read’s Concise History of Modern Painting, written at the high tide of abstract expressionism in the late 1950s and giving the impression that the only important art was that which led to Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning.

Severini’s Futurist career covered seven years.  His post-Futurist career covered fifty years and was extremely productive.  His entire career was covered in the exhibition at MART in Trento last year, curated by Daniela Fonti (below).  It should receive better coverage outside Italy.



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