Laura Gascoigne

Defying definition

Laura Gascoigne on Divisionism

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.

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