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Michael Murawski
Director of Education and Public Programs, Portland Art Museum, Oregon
Formerly Coordinator of Education and Public Programs, Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum

In the years during and following World War I, the Italian-born American artist Joseph Stella began to experiment with a variety of avant-garde artistic strategies clearly adapted from Cubism, Futurism, and New York Dada. At the center of Stella’s early experiments was a largely unknown work titled Man in Elevated (Train), likely completed around 1918.1 In this work Stella combined the emerging techniques of collage and reverse painting on glass, pairing them with his continued artistic exploration of urban technological themes. While his early paintings on glass have been predominately framed in terms of the direct influence of the Dada artist Marcel Duchamp’s experimental use of the medium during this period, Stella’s unique transatlantic identity as an Italian expatriate, as the art historian Wanda Corn has argued, should not be overlooked.2 This essay aims to further enrich the study of Man in Elevated (Train) by reexamining it within the context of Italian Futurist aesthetics.

Man in Elevated (Train) depicts a man from the shoulders up as viewed through the window of an urban commuter train. Stella created it by first outlining the forms with lead wire on the reverse side of the glass and then filling them in with oil paint and collage fragments. The viewer is quickly drawn to the sharp vertical and horizontal lines that may suggest the iron window posts of the train, indicating the rhythm of movement as they recede into the upper right-hand side of the composition. By interweaving the man’s head in front of and behind these rapidly repeated vertical lines, Stella attempts to convey a sense of movement through space and time. The artist’s distorting geometric visual vocabulary fragments the view of this figure, further emphasizing motion and speed. Through his application of paint and collage materials, Stella specifically drew attention to the surface of the glass. The transparency of the glass is retained only in areas where he used thick, stippled brushwork as well as in very small areas where there is no paint at all—most noticeably in the ellipsoid at the upper edge of the newspaper clipping. In the lower left quadrant of the work, Stella applied actual pieces of newspaper and wallpaper in two areas loosely outlined by lead wire. These fragments literally depict the newspaper or book that the man is reading, conflating the real with the illusionistic.

Stella’s Man in Elevated (Train) clearly expresses a dynamic sense of movement and simultaneity, ideas that were central to Italian Futurist aesthetics.3 Even prior to his experiments with either collage or glass, Stella’s work already evinced a great degree of abstraction and dynamism. In works such as Battle of Lights, Coney Island, Mardi Gras (1913–14), the geometric shapes, agitated lines, and intense kaleidoscopic colors recall the work of the Futurists. Like many other European and American artists working in New York during the first decades of the twentieth century, Stella was drawn to capturing the sights and sensations of the urban environment, especially the modern bridges and transportation systems that feature prominently in his works from this period.4 In his Autobiographical Notes, he described the energy and modernity of New York City as he imagined it during these early years: “Steel and electricity had created a new world. A new drama had surged from the unmerciful violation of darkness at night, by the violent blaze of electricity and a new polyphony was ringing all around with the scintillating, highly colored lights. The steel . . . with the skyscrapers and with bridges made for the conjunction of worlds. A new architecture was created, a new perspective.”5

While Stella tended to resist direct associations with the Futurist movement due to its radical politics, he was increasingly involved with Futurist aesthetics during trips to Italy and Europe and through the growing exposure of the Italian style in New York during this period. After immigrating to New York in 1896 from his family’s home in a small village near Naples, Stella studied at the Art Students League under William Merritt Chase and spent much of his time drawing immigrant and working-class figures. From 1909 to 1912 Stella’s brother supported his extended travels in Europe, first in Italy and then in Paris. During this time the artist sharply departed from his more realist style to adopt the radical aesthetics of his Italian countrymen.6 In 1912 he attended the first major Futurist exhibition at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris and met a number of artists from the group, befriending Gino Severini. Stella was drawn to Futurist theory and aesthetic practice for its embrace of what was new in modern life: speed, dynamism, and the mechanistic aspects of the contemporary urban and technological environment.7 However, he was never drawn to the provocative political implications that led many Futurists to depict subjects of violence and war.

In Man in Elevated (Train), space and motion are fused through Stella’s deliberate use of sharp lines and angles—a key structural and expressive concept of Italian Futurism. Futurist artists such as Umberto Boccioni believed that these forms, which they referred to as “force-lines” in their theoretical writings from the period, were the principal means to artistically convey a sense of implied movement and dynamic tension in objects.8 The development of this concept of force-lines and the interrelationship of space and time relied on the ideas of the French philosopher Henri Bergson, who suggested that the simultaneous combination of multiple perceptions and memories was one of the essential characteristics of modern life. In the catalog for the Futurists’ 1912 exhibition, Boccioni described these lines as “fleeting, rapid and jerky, brutally cutting into half lost profiles of faces or crumbling and rebounding fragments of landscape.”9 In Stella’s painting, the lines of force similarly pierce the man’s profile and serve to energize the space by symbolizing the implied movement of the urban commuter train.

Stella’s decision during this period to experiment with nontraditional materials such as glass and collage may have also been influenced by Boccioni and his “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture” (1912). In this pivotal text Boccioni called for modern artists to use the everyday materials around them—glass, cardboard, cloth, mirrors—to create works that would integrate art and modern life. His sculpture Fusion of a Head and a Window (1912), shown in the 1912 Paris exhibition, exemplifies the fusion of a figure with elements of its environment. As the scholar Christine Poggi describes this now-destroyed work, “the frame and glass of the real window seem to impale a horribly grimacing head, while other bits of reality . . . remain discrete and isolated.”10 Although he departed from the suggested violence in Boccioni’s sculpture, Stella similarly established a dynamic interpenetration of the figure of a man and his surroundings, in this case the train’s window. Not only do the newspaper fragments interject elements of reality into the work, but the use of glass is analogous to the physical properties of the window depicted in the painting, a feature that sets it apart from Stella’s other glass paintings.

Strong similarities also exist between Stella’s early collages and the work of Severini, the Futurist artist with whom he may have felt the strongest affinities—due in part perhaps to their friendship but also to Severini’s rejection of the subject matter of war by 1916. In Severini’s collages from 1912 to around 1915, pasted clippings from newspapers served as actual bits of reality within the works as well as providing pictorial contrast to the abstract elements and force-lines of his compositions. He later explained his early use of collage: “the contrast of a realistic element . . . and other elements brought to a level of absolute abstraction generates, like all contrasts, dynamism and life.”11 Severini’s Still Life: Bottle, Vase, and Newspaper on a Table (1914–15) bears a striking formal resemblance to Stella’s initial study for Man in Elevated (Train), contrasting the fragments of newspaper clippings within a monochromatic abstract charcoal drawing. Similar to both Boccioni and Severini, Stella adopted a rather literal use of materials in his work to enhance their expressive properties.

With Man in Elevated (Train), Stella struggled with the problem of communicating the perception of high-speed travel through the city, applying new materials in ways that both embraced and challenged the parameters of Futurist aesthetics. Much of the theory and visual language that he adapted from the Italian Futurists was certainly further reinforced and questioned through his close friendship with Marcel Duchamp in New York. Man in Elevated (Train) presents a moment in Stella’s career when he was actively assimilating a variety of artistic styles drawn from his transatlantic encounters with Futurism, Cubism, and Dadaism. His experiments with glass and collage were undoubtedly influenced by Duchamp’s work in glass and his experiments in the static representation of movement and four-dimensional geometry, yet Stella’s continued engagement with Italian artistic styles is worthy of further exploration.

  • 1 For a detailed discussion of a 1918–22 dating of Man in Elevated (Train), see Ruth L. Bohan, “Joseph Stella’s Man in Elevated (Train),” in Dada / Dimensions, ed. Stephen C. Foster (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1985), 187–219, esp. note 2. Bohan later argues for a completion date of 1918 for this work in her essay in Joseph D. Ketner et al., A Gallery of Modern Art at Washington University in St. Louis (St. Louis: Washington University Gallery of Art, 1994), 154. For another argument for a 1918 dating of this work, see Joann Moser, “The Collages of Joseph Stella: ‘Macchie / Macchine Naturali,” American Art 6 (Summer 1992): 60, 66, 77n14. Moser’s argument is based on Stella’s early collage Man Reading a Newspaper, which was likely a study for Man in Elevated (Train) and is clearly dated 1918 on the work itself.
  • 2 Stella’s relationship to Duchamp and the link between Stella’s paintings on glass and Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915–23) are discussed at length by Bohan, in Ketner, A Gallery of Modern Art, 154. In addition to Duchamp, several artists at this time were also experimenting with the medium of glass, including Marsden Hartley, Rockwell Kent, Franz Marc, August Macke, Paul Klee, and Jean Crotti. In fact, Crotti also used lead wire to outline some of his forms and then covered the entire surface of the glass with oil paint, as in his 1916 construction The Mechanical Forces of Love in Movement. Between 1916 and 1926 Stella completed more than a dozen glass paintings. On Stella’s Italian expatriate identity, see Wanda Corn, The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 135–90. Corn notes that studies of early twentieth-century art in the United States often present Stella as a New York modernist, with little notice of his being an Italian expatriate, which she considers to be an important aspect of his work.
  • 3 Founded by the poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in 1909, Futurism was an artistic movement originating in Italy that rejected traditional culture and embraced an idea of aesthetics generated by technology, modern machines, warfare, and speed. After publishing his manifesto, Marinetti was joined by the artists Giacomo Balla, Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, and Gino Severini, who proclaimed their allegiance to the movement in 1910. The Futurist style drew on a number of sources, including Cubism, and favored faceted forms, multiple viewpoints, and a sense of movement and dynamism. Especially after 1913, Futurist artists became involved in radical and controversial politics, embracing aspects of war and violence in their art. Although the movement lingered on in Italy until the 1930s, it faded from prominence around 1918 with the end of World War I.
  • 4 Stella’s best-known paintings at the time—and still today—include Brooklyn Bridge (1919–20, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT) and the large-scale five-panel work The Voice of the City of New York Interpreted (1920–22, Newark Museum, New Jersey), which depicts scenes of Manhattan’s factories, theaters, multicolored bright lights, skyscrapers, subway tunnels, and the Brooklyn Bridge in a distinctly Cubo-Futurist visual vocabulary.
  • 5 Joseph Stella, Autobiographical Notes, cited in Barbara Haskell, Joseph Stella (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1994), 81.
  • 6 See Corn, Great American Thing, 135–36.
  • 7 See Haskell, Joseph Stella, 38–39.
  • 8 See Linda Henderson, “Italian Futurism and ‘The Fourth Dimension,’” Art Journal 41 (Winter 1981): 317–23, and Dominic Ricciotti, “The Revolution in Urban Transport: Max Weber and Italian Futurism,” American Art Journal 16 (Winter 1984): 56–57.
  • 9 Umberto Boccioni et al., “The Exhibitors to the Public” (Paris: Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, 1912), cited in Christine Poggi, In Defiance of Painting: Cubism, Futurism, and the Invention of Collage (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992), 170. Boccioni created two portraits using collage in 1914, including Dynamism of a Man’s Head (Civico Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Milan), which depicts a geometric, straight-edged profile of a man’s head infused with a series of curving, fragmented planes.
  • 10 Poggi, In Defiance of Painting, 179.
  • 11 Gino Severini, Tutta la vita di un pittore, vol. 1 (Rome: Garzanti, 1946), 89, 
cited in Poggi, In Defiance of Painting, 172. As Poggi states, through their emphasis on this contrast of elements, Severini’s collages were quite different from those produced by his Cubist contemporaries (ibid., 172–77).