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The Light Revolution

Italy’s Divisionist Painters 1891-1910

Review by Penny Cole

Remembered mainly as the forerunners of the Futurists, these northern Italian lovers of light – and strugglers for social change – also deserve to be valued for their own art, as an excellent display at the National Gallery demonstrates. Inspired by a pioneering show some five years ago at London’s Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, Radical Light has been some years in the making, none of them wasted.

The Divisionists emerged at a time of turmoil and political disappointment, as Italy’s unification, more or less complete by the 1870s, failed to deliver the modernisation and social improvements so passionately desired by the heroes of the Risorgimento – the movement for national unification led by Mazzini and Garibaldi. Italy continued to lag far behind the countries on its borders – Germany, Switzerland and France – both in terms of modernisation of economy and institutions. There was widespread poverty and nowhere was the desire for social change stronger than in the north, where industrialisation was creating an angry proletariat. This conjunction of social, political and artistic upheaval gave birth to artists who wanted to contribute to modern Italy by creating a unique Italian school of modern art. Their studies of optics and their socialist ideas came together to form what one might call the politics of light – or as the exhibition is named “radical light”.

Russolo Lightning
Luigi Russolo (1885-1947) Lightning, 1909-10
© Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna, Rome.
Photo Alessandro Vasari

Light was for them a symbol of hope and change, and they believed the best way to show it with greater intensity was to apply pure colour to the canvas in adjacent small strokes rather than mixing colours on the palette. The success of the technique is there in the exhibition’s first room where a series of snowy alpine landscapes and fierce glaciers and crevasses glow with luminosity. This highly-worked style creates not only light but also a feeling of serious intent in line with the political aspirations of the movement.

Artists like Giovanni Segantini spent time in the Swiss Alps not, as the representative from exhibition sponsor Credit Suisse jokingly suggested, for tax reasons, but to escape the bleak urbanisation of cities like Milan and Turin. They wanted to paint what modernisation was replacing – unspoiled nature and traditional ways. And they wanted to put people and their hard lives at the centre of their art, as in Segantini’s Return from the Woods. It makes these paintings of rugged Alps, glaciers and people full of drama but not in any way portentous. The Divisionists were also impressed by the Symbolist movement of the same decades which connected Theosophy with a brand of early psychology. Two deeply depressing paintings of the terrible punishments that await women who are bad mothers or lustful show this aspect of Segantini’s work.

The purest exponent of Divisionism was Gaetano Previati, the student of optics, who in two huge paintings here sets out to combine the technique in continuity with traditional subjects of Italian classical art. Madonna and Child and The Chariot of the Sun suggest that while this approach may have been spectacular, it abandoned the spirit of the age.

Morbelli In the Rice Fields

Angelo Morbelli (1853-1919)In the Rice Fields, 1898-1901
Private collection Photo Courtesy of the owner


But in the next room it all comes right, with paintings by the wonderful Angelo Morbelli of women working in the rice fields. Light shines on these labouring women, and on their unromantic bottoms, up to their knees in water in the heat of the day. They glow with strength and courage in the timeless landscape. A further series, also by Morbelli, of old people in a poorhouse, captures not only the tough life they have but also some universal truths about old people. In I Remember When I was a Girl he captures the spirit of old women, self-contained and determinedly alive, supporting each other with snippy solidarity. And in The Christmas of Those Left Behind, solitary old men suffer their isolation and are, somehow, unmanned by age and infirmity. Reflections of a hungry man by Emilio Longoni is even more overtly political, painted for a special May Day edition of the Socialist Party’s magazine. The model for the hungry man was a well-known local thief, who gazes longingly at a hearty restaurant meal.

Morbelli Holiday at the Pio Albergo Trivulzio
Angelo Morbelli (1853-1919) Holiday at the Pio Albergo Trivulzio, 1892
Musée d'Orsay, Paris (RF1192) © RMN, Paris

December: The Workers’ Dawn is a stunning painting by Giovanni Sottocornola of chilly men, women and children struggling hunched through a hellish dark blue morning to work at the new Pirelli factory. It is modern times in the city, where strikers, workers’ leaders and great crowds seethe and debate. The approach to the Divisionist style has become freer and looser, with a variety of lengths and shapes of strokes giving greater movement and vivacity to the paintings. And there is also a move towards greater realism; the bizarre and slightly queasy anti-realism of the punished mothers. Madonnas and Apollos have gone (only to reappear in the next century in works by the Futurist Boccioni).

Volpedo Living Torrent
Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo (1868-1907) The Living Torrent, 1895-6
Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan (Sprind gift, 1986)
© Su concessione del Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali

The iconic The Living Torrent, where three workers lead their workmates out on strike, dominates the room. Guiseppe Pellizza da Volpedo made a number of versions and this is not the biggest. It is interesting to see how he changed his mind about the front rank of workers, shifting them back slightly to give greater focus on the three leading figures. Two men offer a resolute leadership whilst a woman pleads with them – perhaps to turn back. Behind the sky is dark but the crowd are bathed in a warm midday sun. And in Longoni’s The Orator of the Strike, a young stone mason clings to a lamppost, with passion in every line of his face as he drives forward a piazza full of strikers.

In the final room, the connection to the Futurists is made explicit with Umberto Boccioni’s masterpiece, The City Rises, where a whirling vortex of men, horses, building materials, power and speed celebrate the irresistible power of modernisation. Boccioni’s acknowledged debt to the earlier work of Previati is clear both in colour and in style. The Divisionists were the only influence that the Futurists agreed to. One of the Futurists' great icons of modernity – electric power – is spectacularly symbolised in Giacomo Balla’s Street Light.  The later support for Mussolini’s fascists by leading Futurists cannot obscure that these are great paintings. A different political direction is heralded by Carlo Carrà’s The Funeral of the Anarchist Galli, which puts the spectator at the centre of a great struggle between the mourners and police. Carrà re-worked it under Cubist influence. In turn it had an impact on revolutionary Russian artists.

Radical Light: Italy’s Divisionist Painters at the Sainsbury Wing, National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, until 7 September. Admission £8, but note special £4 admission Tuesday pm and Wednesday 6-9pm.Open daily 10am-6pm

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