Gino Severini’s Dynamic Hieroglyph of the Bal Tabarin draws us into the frenzied excitement of a Paris nightclub. Combining a Cubist technique of fractured planes with the use of repetition, Severini creates a brilliant kaleidoscope of partially-glimpsed figures in motion. Dominating the center of the painting are two dancing women —one with blond curls on the left, the other with dark hair on the right— and a swirling pink and purple dress. Looping patterns of real sequins decorate the dress, adding to the shimmering play of light in the painting.
Adopting Cubist techniques
The painting’s emphasis on dynamism is characteristic of Italian Futurism, as is the subject of modern urban life. The Futurists embraced the energy of the modern city, its crowds and electricity. They adopted Cubist techniques to convey the sense of movement in time, while rejecting what they considered the more static and analytic approach of Cubist painters. Whereas in Cubist paintings the use of multiple, fragmentary views of things suggests the viewer is moving around the object, in Futurist paintings it is the scene that is moving around the viewer.
Severini lived in Paris and was friends with many avant-garde painters, including Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso. In Dynamic Hieroglyph he adopts their recent innovations by including painted words and collaging sequins onto the painting’s surface. Severini’s painting is, however, markedly different from Synthetic Cubism in its subject matter as well as its brilliant colors and decorative qualities. It is closer to the paintings of the Salon Cubists, such as Jean Metzinger’s Dancer in a Café. However, Severini’s emphasis on the whirling dynamism of the scene differentiates his Futurist approach from Metzinger’s more static and balanced Cubist composition based on an underlying grid.
Like many Salon Cubists, Severini was influenced by the popular philosopher Henri Bergson. Dynamic Hieroglyph was painted from memory, and in keeping with Bergson’s ideas, it attempts to convey the painter’s intuitive vision of reality in which time and space are suffused with memory and sensation. The dancers’ movements fragment and fill the painting with energy and traces of their momentary presence. They embody Bergson’s concept of élan vital, the vital force of the universe uniting all matter.
A frenetic scene
Severini conveys the dancer’s movements through the repetition and fragmentation of forms. For example, we see parts of the head of the dancer on the left in three or four different positions as she dances. The swirling movements of the dancer’s skirts are depicted as fragments of patterned purple, pink, light blue, and white material appearing in various locations. In addition, abstract curves and angles suggest the changing shapes of the fabric as the dancer moves through space. A bright circle of white dominates the center of the painting, suggesting a spot-lit dance floor and the swirling circular movements of the dancers.
On the periphery of the dancer’s orbit many other figures and objects complete the frenetic scene of a nightclub in full swing. In the lower left corner is a Cubist tabletop still life with martini glasses, over which a woman in a blue dress and black hat stands laughing. In the lower right corner is a mustachioed man wearing a monocle, black suit, tie, and top hat. Directly in front of him is a Cubist rendering of the scroll and tuning pegs of a bass.
Placing the viewer in the center
In depicting the upper portion of a bass projecting into the painting Severini was copying a device frequently used by two earlier innovative painters of dancers and Paris nightlife, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Edgar Degas.
In their works the cropped tops of musical instruments were intended to give the viewer a sense of being present in the audience and looking over the musicians at the stage. Severini’s Dynamic Hieroglyph, in keeping with the Futurists’ goal of placing the viewer in the center of the painting, attempts to provide an even more intense sensation of presence and immediacy through its fractured forms, brilliant colors, and glittering sequins.
Streamers and national flags are draped across the upper portion of Dynamic Hieroglyph, intertwining with suggestions of abstracted figures and light fixtures. Among these chaotic forms several enigmatic, but easily legible, figures appear: a black cat head, a North African man riding a camel, and a nude woman riding a pair of scissors. These figures may refer to cabaret acts or themed costume parties that were often held in the fashionable nightclub.
Severini also included a number of words in the painting, a device he adopted from Picasso’s and Braque’s Cubism. The two most prominent words, “polka” and “valse” (waltz), directly refer to the painting’s subject, while others have less obvious relevance, and may refer to Severini’s personal experiences and memories.
Paris nightlife was an ideal subject to display the Futurists’ fascination with the energy of modern urban crowds and the novel effects of electric lighting. Umberto Boccioni’s The Laugh depicts a crowded club splintered into shards of garish color under the projecting rays of electric lights. A smiling woman, usually identified as a cocotte or fashionable prostitute, wears a large red hat and dominates the scene in the upper left corner.
In the center of the painting we see the huge yellow feather and elaborate hat of another woman. The somewhat less visible faces of three men surround the women, and we can also see fragments of other figures, hands, stemmed glassware, and fruit in the kaleidoscope of colorful planes. Receding into the background are more tables with glasses, and suggestions of figures enjoying themselves under the glowing light bulbs.
Severini’s Bal Tabarin and Boccioni’s The Laugh are Futurist updates of Toulouse-Lautrec’s At the Moulin Rouge, which also depicts the decadent pleasures of Paris nightclubs. The compositions of all three are designed to make the viewer feel as if they are present in the scene, but Toulouse-Lautrec’s is comparatively distanced and reserved. Severini and Boccioni use brilliant colors, abstraction, fragmentation and repetition of forms to create a vibrant whirling energy that seems to fully surround the viewer and encourage us to participate in the contagious hilarity of the crowded nightclub.