Laura Gascoigne

Defying definition

Laura Gascoigne on Divisionism

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In 1888, visitors to Earls Court were treated to the novel sight of an exhibition of avant-garde art from Italy. The show was mounted by the Milanese Vittore Grubicy de Dragon, the art-dealer son of an impoverished Hungarian baron. A follower of the Paris art scene and a convert to the optical theories of Ogden Rood, Grubicy was training up a stable of young artists — most of them graduates of the Brera Academy — in the principles of optical mixing pioneered by the Pointillists. He dubbed his modern art movement Divisionism — not a school, he said, but ‘a technical means for reproducing, with colouring materials, the luminous vibrations which go to make up light’.

Grubicy’s London venture was a flop; the show lost money and opened a permanent rift between him and his brother and business partner Alberto. But now the Divisionists are back for another attempt in a rather more prestigious venue. On 18 June, the exhibition Radical Light: Italy’s Divisionist Painters 1891–1910 opens at the National Gallery (until 7 September) fielding a top team from Divisionism’s First Division, led by Giovanni Segantini, Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo, Angelo Morbelli, Gaetano Previati and Emilio Longoni and including the future Futurists Giacomo Balla and Umberto Boccioni. One of the challenges, in the home of Seurat’s ‘Bathers at Asnières’, will be to persuade the British public that these Italian pointillists are not just pale (or overbright) imitations of the French.

A glance at the show’s catalogue should be enough to dispel that impression. Not only do the Divisionists extend the Pointillist vocabulary of punctuation marks, adding a blizzard of dashes, slashes and commas to the French full stop, but their subject matter ranges far more widely than Neo-Impressionist afternoons on the riverbank. It covers an extraordinary sweep of ground, from Segantini’s dream-like Alpine landscapes with their crystalline light and transcendental symbolism to the rabble-rousing social realism of Longoni, whose 1890 painting ‘Orator of the Strike’ depicting a May Day demonstration in Milan’s Piazza Fontana won him a dangerous reputation as ‘the anarchist painter’. Throw in the airy spiritual visions of Previati and the moving meditations on old age in Morbelli’s atmospheric studies of the Pio Albergo Trivulzio old people’s home in Milan, and it becomes clear that you’re dealing with a movement with as many subdivisions as there are artists.

How to define Divisionism? To put it in focus, a party of us travelled to Milan. We looked in on the artists’ alma mater, the Brera, where we saw Boccioni’s sketch for ‘The City Rises’ (1910), celebrating the construction of cooling reservoirs for a new electricity-generating plant in Piazza Trento. We visited Milan’s Galleria d’Arte Moderna in the gaudily restored Villa Belgiojoso Bonaparte, where we saw (with difficulty in abominable lighting) the pantheistic polyptych ‘Winter in the Mountains’ produced by Grubicy in the Lakes in the 1890s after he jacked in picture-dealing for painting. We walked around the Cimitero Monumentale (where the Grubicy brothers’ ashes are interred together) to take the pulse of the city’s secular culture among some astonishingly erotic funerary monuments by Symbolist sculptors such as Enrico Butto and Leonardo Bistolfi. We strolled down the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele, where Boccioni used to visit Previati in his studio and where he set his hilarious ‘Riot in the Galleria’ (1910), showing ladies in ridiculous floral hats fleeing an anarchist explosion in a café. And for a more authentic flavour of political activism we dined in the Osteria del Treno in the old Railway Mutual building in Via San Gregorio — recently reclaimed from a porn cinema — where three young art students at the Brera painted a mural of marching workers on the ceiling in 1898.

The mural’s official unveiling had been scheduled for 1 May, but political events overtook it. On 6 May 1898 civil unrest over a new flour tax erupted into direct action when crowds of protestors marched on the Palazzo Reale, raiding bakeries en route. General Bava-Beccaris’s troops opened fire on the crowd in the Piazza del Duomo, killing 80 protestors and wounding several hundred; King Umberto decorated the general and was himself rewarded with assassination two years later.

The Bava-Beccaris massacre and the savage clampdown that followed dampened the political powder of the Divisionists, who retreated to the relative safety of rural subjects. Pellizza retired to his home village of Volpedo outside Tortona, where he devoted three years to painting ‘The Fourth Estate’, paying (and clothing) the local peasantry to pose as workers marching on the village square. By the time he showed the work in 1901 its moment had passed, and its disappointing reception contributed to the depression that culminated in his suicide six years later, after the death of his wife. Pellizza’s friend Morbelli, who came from Colma near Casale Monferrato, had more luck with his muted protest paintings of women rice-pickers in the Po Valley, winning praise at the first Venice Biennale in 1895 for a picture poignantly titled ‘For Eighty Cents!’. Even Longoni made a successful transition to landscape, taking to the mountains in the steps of Segantini — though when his painting ‘The Glacier’ won the Prince Umberto prize of L6,000 at the exhibition celebrating the opening of the Semplon Pass in 1906, the boracic old anarchist refused to accept it.

As it happened, our arrival in Milan coincided with the anniversary of the Bava-Beccaris massacre. We passed the sites of 1898 barricades, but although Berlusconi’s new government was sworn in the day we arrived, we witnessed no angry raids on panifici. Milan’s old trams may look identical to the one used as a barricade in Longoni’s ‘Orator of the Strike’, but life in the big city has moved on. It’s in the rural villages of Volpedo and Colma, where time seems to stand still, that you get a sense of where the Divisionists were literally coming from. In the freshly renovated gallery of the Cassa di Risparmio di Tortona there’s a good collection of Pellizza paintings — beautifully hung and lit — while Casale Monferrato’s museum in a 15th-century monastery houses Morbelli’s art collection, plus an entire studio’s worth of original plasters by Bistolfi (including several for monuments in the Cimitero).

But it’s in Pellizza’s and Morbelli’s rural studios — the former open to the public, the latter not — that you bump up against the basic contradictions in a modern-art movement rooted in an agrarian economy. No wonder Divisionism is so confusing. It was left to the Divisionists’ urban heirs, the Futurists, to propel Italian art into the modern era. ‘The suffering of a man is of the same interest to us as the suffering of an electric lamp,’ their 1910 manifesto brutally declared. In fact, what did for Divisionism was electricity. With Balla’s 1910 study of one of Rome’s first electric streetlights, the beauties of nature and social issues are thrown into shadow.