Semiosis of dynamics and stasis
In this paper, we will try to identify the visual semiosis of Futurist and Metaphysics Art. On this basis, we can find a relationship between the two artistic movements with history. Futurism is impatient in action, sometimes violent action, it is projected to urge an ever-closer relationship with its time characterized by a mood of pre-war urgency. In particular, we will analyse two works using Greimas’ semiotic square – “The street enters the house” by Boccioni and “The Philosopher’s Conquest” by de Chirico – with the aim to highlight the presence of the same semiotic contrasts, even if turned upside-down, in both pictures.
History of two Italian Avant-Gardes
Among the XX century Avant-Gardes, Futurism is undoubtedly the one that more than any other has cultivated an idea of rebellion against tradition and an idea of trust, even if a little naïve, towards the future and its technological innovations and new possibilities.
The “Manifesto of Futurist Art” (1910) states that: “The cry of rebellion that we launch, associating our ideals with those of the futurist poets, does not start already from an aesthetic church, but expresses the violent desire that boils today in the veins of every creator artist. We want to fight relentlessly the fanatical, reckless, snobbish religion of the past, fuelled by the nefarious existence of museums.”
Futurist artists are at the forefront of the new artistic currents. The term “Avant-Gard” comes from military slang, and it is used to indicate the frontline advancing on the battlefield, the first to attack the enemy, opening the way to the rest of the army.
“As our ancestors drew matter of art from the religious atmosphere that hung over their souls, so we must be inspired by the tangible miracles of contemporary life, the iron web of speed that surrounds the Earth, the ocean liners, the Dreadnoughts, to the wonderful flights that cross the skies, to the daring gloom of the underwater navigators, to the spasmodic struggle for the conquest of the unknown.”
The Avant-Garde currents are different from those of the XIX century due to the presence of organized groups of artists and intellectuals, the writing of manifestos, the intense publishing activity (especially magazines), and the multi-disciplinarity and international aspiration.
The influence of Divisionism – From a stylistic point of view, Futurism, and in particular Boccioni’s art, is based on the concept of Divisionism, but in a new form that better expresses the concepts of speed and simultaneity: it is because of Giovanni Segantini e Pellizza da Volpedo, that Umberto Boccioni could realize works like “The city rises”, just a few years later.
In several manifestos, the artists state their admiration for Divisionism, with its sophisticated technique borrowed from Post-Impressionism and Pointillism: Divisionism is the technical prerequisite of Futurism.
We can now focus on the pictorial material from this point of view, considering the two main concepts of Futurist language: dynamism and interpenetration.
Boccioni, Carrà, Russolo and Severini
In Milan in 1910, the young artists of Italy published the Futurist Manifesto. Boccioni was mainly concerned with plastic and synthetic dynamism and with the overcoming of Cubism, while Balla passed from the study of light vibrations (Divisionism) to the synthetic representation of the movement. In 1912, Boccioni, Carrà and Russolo exposed in Milan the first Futurist works at the “Exhibition of Free Art” in Ricordi’s factory. 1912 was an artistically tumultuous year: the first exhibition of Futurist artists was set up in Paris; Umberto Boccioni published the “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture” and Marinetti the “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature”. In the same year, the Cubist theorists Albert-Léon Gleizes and Jean Metzinger wrote the critical essay Du Cubisme and the autonomous section of Cubism called Section d’Or set up its first exhibition. Also in 1912, Robert Delaunay’s “Orphic Cubism” was born, a great protagonist of the second cubist season.
Let’s identify the stylistic elements of Futurism. A first approach is with the Milanese Scapigliatura, but they are sharply divergent in themes and motifs. The Futurists leave the refined bourgeoisie to look at the street and the industrial reality.
The influence of Cubism – Futurism is clearly affected by the cubist principles of shape decomposition: the subdivision of pictorial surface in many planes with different spatial perspectives. Futurism uses decomposition to express the temporal dimension, the movement in all its dynamism, instead the Cubists have a static vision of decomposition.
Metaphysical Painting developed in Italy after Futurism and was opposed to it. G. de Chirico is considered the initiator, around 1913. Other painters are C. Carrà, G. Morandi and F. De Pisis.
In de Chirico, Metaphysics anticipates some aspects of Dadaism and Surrealism: for Carrà it is mainly research of pure formal values, independent from every form of description or narration and for this reason he anticipates the following movement of plastic values.
The term Metaphysics is chosen by the artists Carrà and de Chirico to indicate a moment of their own pictorial research and a critical attitude toward contemporary art. The meaning given to the word “Metaphysics” was never clearly stated, but the style is characterized by pictures that convey a sense of time suspension. De Chirico’s pictures seem to be suspended in an indefinite time, emptied from any human presence but populated by shadows, statues and unarmed mannequins, pervaded by a latent melancholy that accentuates the sense of loneliness and deafening silence. The concept of time in Metaphysics is related to a waiting time; the space invites to meditation.
At first, Fascism exalted Futurism, but when the regime was consolidated it changed its strike horse, preferring the Italian squares and monuments represented by de Chirico.
The semiotic square in “The streets enter the house” by Boccioni
It’s time to consider the deep semiotic aspect, based on the analysis of two works: “The street enters the House” by Boccioni (1911, Hannover Kunst Museum) – and “The Philosopher’s Conquest” by de Chirico (1914, Chicago Art Institute).
Apparently, these two works are one the opposite of the other, but if we analyse the deep structure, basing our analysis on Greimas’ semiotic square, it could not be a surprise to find out the same generator core. Here is the antithetic couple: open vs closed. Let S1 be “open” and S2 be “closed.” There is also another generating pair: dynamic vs stasis. We have now to study how the square’s vertices intersect to produce the superficial structure. Only after this, we will consider the plastic dimension, which is not only which images appear but also how they appear: shapes, colours, and frames.
We can now begin the analysis of Boccioni’s work. In the foreground, we can notice a human figure that clearly reminds of another work of the same author: “Mother with crochet,” a 1907 pastel.
Another reference could be “Naked shoulders”
The feminine figure is leaning against a balcony framed bias, overlooking the busy street. In the background, the buildings converge toward the top. The woman looks to the left, but the vorticism of the buildings recalls the look to the right. It’s a visual structure based on a chiasm, which expresses with great evidence the contrast between open-closed, dynamic-stasis: the openness is represented by the street that would like to enter the closeness of the house; the idea of the closeness of the house is also represented by the buildings in the background, that seems to protect themselves from the dynamic of the street. This dynamism is represented by the heavy movements of the men working on a construction site (the work theme), in contrast with both the woman in the foreground and the other two women on the two sides. The three women suggest the underlying geometric theme: the spiral. In this work we can’t talk about cubistic influences, as the criticism has already stressed out, but about divisionist influences. The contribution of Boccioni is to have accelerated this process. If we come back to the semiotic square, we can see also the opposite of S1 and S2. The not-closed ¬S1 is represented by the buildings’ balconies, which, with their whirling movement, are an extension of the apartment’s closeness projected to the street’s openness. The barrier of the buildings in the background closes the external space in a not-open vision ¬S2.
Summing up: the closeness S1 of the house is projected to the openness of the street S2, animated by the workers on the construction site. The scene is prospectively closed, even if biased, by the static buildings in the background that identify the not-open and not-dynamic theme ¬S2. The whirling movement of the other balconies and buildings that climb all around the picture identifies a not-static and not-closed space ¬S1.
We can analyse also the title of the picture: the street “enters” the house. The verb is more important than the subject and the complement. The subject “enters” the complement, this is not static contraposition. We can say that the observer is hit by the dynamics of the workers on the site, and it’s us to look behind the woman’s shoulders. Boccioni wrote:
“The dominant sensation is what you can have by opening a window: all life, the noise of the street, break-in at the same time as the movement and the reality of the objects outside. The painter should not limit himself to what he sees in the window, as a simple photographer would, but reproduces what he can see outside, in every direction, from the balcony. “
The cited spiral movement is suggested by the two other women that look from other balconies as if there were more points of view. Looking better, we can see that the imbalance of the building derives exactly from these multiple looks, external from the principal, biased. It’s not a negation of the perspective but an overlap of many points of view. This situation makes the dialectic of the points of view strongly dynamic.
Furthermore, the dynamic and crossing perspective is the key to closing the second semiotic square: dynamics and stasis. The closeness is naturally associated with the observer’s stasis, as opposed to the dynamics of the building site. On the other hand, the not-open of background buildings block the perspective in the not-dynamic. The overlapping perspective determined by the crossing look of the women “moves” the side buildings, that are not static anymore. Finally, the not-closed of the balcony, as the title suggests, recalls that the balcony is not-static because the street “enters” the house through the balcony.
In futuristic pictures, the research of dynamics is almost constant, the subject is never static but in motion: for example, in a futuristic work a horse does not have four legs, but twenty. The simultaneous vision becomes the main theme of futuristic painting; the observer does not look passively at a static object, but he is wrapped by the action during its course.
To make the idea of the movement in traditional arts, obviously static, Futurism uses lines of forces, both in sculpture and painting: since the line acts psychologically on the observer with a directional meaning when it is placed in various positions it overcomes the essence of the simple segment and becomes a centrifuge and centripetal force. Also, colours and planes push together in a chain of “simultaneous contrasts”, determining “universal dynamics.”
When we consider the plastic dimension of the picture, we can see a game between hot and cold colours: the cold is represented by the stasis of the blue sky, drawn like a flap, and the vortex of the violet used for the surrounding buildings. At the centre, we find hot colours, very bright, especially yellow. Even without recognizing the surface images, we can find the semiotic square as pure vision, with its oppositions and contradictions.
The semiotic square in “The Philosopher’s Conquest” by de Chirico
The theoretical justification of the metaphysical painting is based on Schopenhauer’s theory about apparitions, according to which the dream’s image evokes desire and surprise, offering itself from one side to the sleepers with its reality, on the other side beyond the human possibilities of latent action. The dream goes beyond the cerebral function of space, time, and causality and captures a truer reality. This sense of surprise and the achievement of a not-contingent reality are for de Chirico the aim of Metaphysics.
As already said, Futurism and Metaphysics seem to be antithetic movements, but we can find precise parallelism if we analyse the deep structure. We will now use the same semiotic square but turn the vertices upside-down.
This time the first term of the generating pair S1 is the theme “open/dynamic”: in Boccioni, the observer immediately stops his look at the woman in the foreground and only after that looks to the street. Here we do not dwell, in the first instance, on the insignificant and inanimate artichokes in the foreground, but the look is projected on the background, also because of the strong perspective lines. The background, even if obviously an open space, is artificially closed (S2 – closed/static) by static objects. The stasis is marked by the sign of the fixed clock.
The not-closed and not-static ¬S2 is represented by two typical elements of this productive phase of de Chirico, which are the sailboat and the train in the distance, together with the flags that emerge from the palace window. Even if they are “stopped” by the point of view, these elements contain an underlying principle of movement (the wind on the sails and the flag, the smoke that goes up). This sense of movement is made even stronger by the direction to opposite sides: the sailboat goes to the left while the train moves to the right. Finally, the ¬S1 theme of not-open/not-dynamic can be seen in the restriction of the perspective due to two geometrical elements on the sides of the picture: the grey wall on the right and the cannonballs on the left. They are also a symmetrical element with the artichokes in the foreground. The vertical elements make the space seem tight, which is actually wide. The impression is strengthened by the shadow of the palace, which turns to the left, together with the pedestal, which turns to the right. In this shadow dance, the only strange and disturbing element is the other shadow, maybe a human shadow, protruding through the palace columns. While in Boccioni the multiple points of view stir up an otherwise static background, here the presence of two opposite shadows fix and close a landscape that should be, instead, open and sunny.
Like in Boccioni, on the plastic level the colours reproduce the same semiotic square. In Boccioni, the background was in cold colours. Here the background stands out with hot colours like the yellow floor and the red architectural elements. In the foreground, there are neutral colours tending to cold (grey, black and the green-grey of the artichokes). The reversal of the colours between the two paintings, confirms the opposition of the plastic elements.
The semiotic analysis makes us penetrate the generative structure of the texts. In this way, we can better understand the typical elements of the arts, establishing a fruitful dialectic between images and the plastic dimension. This doesn’t mean that every style, in the end, represents the same elements, but we want to deny the sharp contrast that is made between different styles and currents. Every time is necessary to look into the works, looking at the elements of signified with the same accuracy given to the signifiers.
Antonio De Lisa
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This is a report for the 15th Congress of Semiotics IASS-AIS, Thessaloniki
August 30- September 3 2022 and published in the online journal “Semiotic Papers): http://www.semiotic-papers.site
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