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Joseph Stella
If you think the painters and paintings of the Ashcan School, in depicting the urban landscape with their social realism were a bit grim, take heart. There is another side to the coin. There was also a school of artists (though it's an “ism” rather than a school this time) that looked upon the urban landscape not with foreboding but with an exciting, optimistic outlook, revelling in the soaring skyscrapers, the gaudy neon, the noise, the perpetual motion, and the gargantuan scale that was the American cityscape in the first half of the twentieth century. This movement included artists such as Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler, Stuart Davis, and Joseph Stella. This movement was called Futurism (sometimes Precisionism).

The city might be New York, but the movement, as well as its most prominent practitioner, were both imported. Joseph Stella was one of the original signers of the Futurist Manifesto, which, like Stella, was born in Italy where he happened to be a student at the time; and where he was greatly influenced by Gino Severini, Carlo Carra, and Umberto Boccioni, the real founders and leaders of Futurism in Europe. However, even though he was born in Italy, Stella had been an American since the age of 19 and thus was able to endow the American brand of Futurism with a delightful, bustling vigour not seen in the work of his European counterparts. His painting, Battle of Lights, Coney Island, done in 1913, is a fantastic example of this. Though stylistically quite abstract, one can nevertheless make out a melange of roller coasters, sea gulls, Ferris Wheels, and neon signs rising from a dark well-littered base to a towering pinnacle replete with searchlights and skyrockets. You can almost smell the popcorn and cotton candy!

However Stella's most famous work came some 26 years later and is, colouristically at least, more subdued, lofty, and grand. The Brooklyn Bridge: Variation on an old theme, came at the high point in his career (he died in 1946). Rising this time from a base depicting the city's skyline, steel cables sweep upward majestically to a pinnacle illuminated by the beam of a single searchlight, between the lofty, Gothic arches that are the trademark of this landmark. Through these arches are seen the stylised skyscrapers that symbolise his version of the urban landscape, soaring daily to new heights amidst the chattering of the jackhammers and the shrill sirens of emergency vehicles. Here it seems, Stella has replaced the delicious smells of the amusement park with the vibrant sounds of the big city.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
21 August 1998


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