Radical light: Italy’s Divisionist Painters 1891-1910
National Gallery, until 7 September, Sponsoered by Credit Suisse
Divisionism is based on the scientific theory of the prismatic division of light into the colours of the spectrum. It’s more familiarly known as pointillism and its greatest exponent was Georges Seurat. Italy bred a minor outbreak of Divisionism, and it is to these artists and to a fleeting period of their work that this show is dedicated. Divisionism was one of the key staging posts on the way to Futurism, but I doubt that it deserves an exhibition all to itself.
Divisionism developed out of the Impressionists’ habit of putting unmixed colours next to each other and making the surface of the painting dance with light. The intention of the Divisionists was that the viewer’s eye would combine the unmixed dots or dashes of colour in such a way as to generate a more lively effect than mixed colours. Not everyone used dots, and touches of colour became a standard way of enlivening a painting. In the basement of the Sainbury Wing are six galleries filled with little-known Italian painters who only occasionally succeed in making a worthwhile or interesting painting. I went round the show backwards and was pleasantly surprised to see the high level it started on. Actually, this was the Futurist room it finished on, and the highest point of the exhibition. Apart from a handful of works, this is an exceptionally dull collection which does very little to warm up the NG’s dreary subterranean galleries.
The chief problem is that in so many paintings the method does not mate with the subject. Until the Futurists came along with their urge to depict frenetic movement in an urban context, the subjects of most Italian paintings (at least the ones brought together here) were landscape or figures in landscape.