Divisionist art that shocked Italy goes on display

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The Independent Culture

When Gaetano Previati's portrait Motherhood was unveiled at Milan's 1891 Brera triennial, its bold and "mystical" treatment of Christian iconography was met by public shock and disapproval.

The artist, whose immense work showed a Madonna-like figure emanating light with swirling angels surrounding her, was among a group of firebrand Italian painters who shook-up the artistic establishment in the late 19th century with innovative techniques focusing on light and confrontational "socialist" subject matter in which images of almshouses, rice fields and political agitation on the streets of Milan featured highly.

These men were called the Divisionists, one of the most significant artistic movements of their age that influenced a generation of 20th-century Italian painters. In their lifetimes, these painters based in Milan achieved fame and infamy in equal measure. But unlike their Italian Renaissance counterparts such as Donatello, Michel-angelo and Leonardo da Vinci, they were all but forgotten by Europe's mainstream art history by the mid-20th century.

Now, the National Gallery is launching a major new exhibition, Radical Light: Italy's Divisionist Painters 1891-1910, which revisits the work of these masters.

The display in the Sainsbury Wing which opens in June, will show 50 works including an unprecedented three paintings lent by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It promises to bring together the seminal pieces of the movement in the most comprehensive survey to be undertaken outside Italy. Dr Nicholas Penny, the new director of the National Gallery, welcomed a show that introduced new aspects of European art history to the public and was confident visitors would be drawn in spite of the obscurity of the artists in Britain.

He also criticised "blockbuster" exhibitions which dealt with artwork with which most people were familiar. "There used to be a time, about 20 years ago, that the public expected exhibitions to show them something new," he said.

"It's the responsibility of a major gallery to show something that has not been seen, and do its utmost to make it popular. Among art history students, the works of Divisionists are recognised to be important and I'd like to do more of these kinds of exhibitions."

By the end of the 19th century, the newly unified Italian state faced economic crisis and social unrest. Unification had promised the masses an idealised vision of democracy but they were disillusioned by the reality that had emerged decades later.

This was expressed in the works of Divisionists such as Giovanni Segantini, Angelo Morbelli, Emilio Longoni and Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo, who adopted socialist ideals and strove for "an art not for art's sake but for humanity's sake". The show is open from 18 June until 7 September.

The Divisionists


Previati was the most religiously engaged of the Divisionists. Motherhood, 1891, unveiled at the Brera Triennial, marked the Divisionist movement's public debut.


Born in Piedmont, he was forced to abandon a career in music before receiving a scholarship in fine art at the Brera, where he befriended Segantini and Previati. His works were painted in the social realist style typical of the Divisionist painters.


He began his career in his half-brother's photography shop and then in a studio in Milan, where he also attended classes at the Brera Academy. He won several awards and earned an international reputation for his depictions of motherhood, peasant life and panoramic landscapes.

GIACOMO BALLA (1871-1958)

Taught himself to paint. He moved to Rome with his mother and travelled to Paris for seven months, working with the painter Sergio Macchiati. After the journey, he turned towards Divisionism.


Began life as a journalist before moving to Rome and becoming a pupil of Giacomo Balla, who introduced him to Divisionism.