Division of Labor
Italian Divisionism/Neo-Impressionism at the Guggenheim Museum

INITIATED AND NAMED BY GEORGES SEURAT, Divisionism (a.k.a. Pointillism) was defined by Paul Signac: “Division is a complex system of harmony, an aesthetics rather than a technique.… The Neo-Impressionist does not dot, he divides.” Dots, a wealth of them, were simply means to aesthetic ends yoked to the radical politics of the era. Interest in the new method and its formative milieu reached northern Italy in the late 1880s via French and Belgian periodicals, such as the anarchist “Les Temps Nouveau” and “Le Révolté.”

Angelo Morbelli, For Eighty Cents!, 1895

“Divisionism/Neo-Impressionism: Arcadia and Anarchy” undertakes to raise the profile of Italian Divisionism and assert its autonomy from French models. On view are some forty paintings by Giovanni Segantini, Angelo Morbelli, Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo, Emilio Longoni, together with works by George Seurat, Paul Signac, Maximilien Luce, and Camille Pissarro, among others.

The exhibition is organized around five themes: Light, Landscape, Rural Life, Social Problems and Symbolism. Every category is splendid, no matter a sometimes heavy-handed vanguardism laced throughout the commentary. Nostalgia for art’s lost social role and a coded urge to stoke possibilities still available for rekindling an avant-garde provide a subtext.

One glorious work follows another. Segantini’s majestic “Triptych of Nature” (1896-99), with its confession of light as a primordial force, is one of several landscapes that could bring any contemporary painter to their knees. His alpine paintings are as commanding now as they were to the international resort crowd of his time. (It is unikely, however, that his crystalline pastorale “Return from the Woods” was greeted in 1890 as a “depiction of brute labor.”) Longoni’s startling “Glacier” (1905) and Vittore Grubicy De Dragon’s limpid “Winter” (1898) are gems of perspective and design.

Even the improbable, Pre-Raphaelite excesses of the Symbolists, linked to the Divisionists by enthusiasm for anarchism, are lovely judged solely as decorative surfaces. Touches of pure pigment placed against each other to mix optically — in the eye, not on the palette — fulfill Delacroix’s aim to give color its greatest brilliance. No other way of putting paint down speaks more eloquently “the aesthetic language of tints and tones,” in Signac’s phrase.

Less convincing is the claim that Italian Divisionism is an independent idiom, rather than a translation from the French. It would be more accurate to say that the Italian variant marks a particular moment in art’s stride along a continuum from the grandfathers of French socialism (Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier and their theories of art’s societal purpose) to the Fascist Academy, founded in 1926. Implicit in the exhibition, and explicit in the writings of the artists, is a utopian yearning for the organization of life by artistic means that underpins totalitarian aesthetics.

Among the distinct differences claimed for the Italian Divisionists is their disdain for pictures of “bourgeois life” and their espousal of radical politics. But French Neo-impressionists were themselves staunch partisans of the socialist-anarchist movement. In the 1880s and 1890s, anarchism was the favored form of social radicalism among French artists and intellectuals. Pissarro, a leading Impressionist, was an anarchist; so were Seurat, Luce, the Belgian-born Theo van Rysellberghe and Signac, the most politically-minded artist of his day. Each read and admired Peter Kropotkin who made a direct plea to artists as victims — together with the working class — of the existing bourgeois social order.

French influence is pervasive. Luce’s “Man Washing” (1887) recalls Gustave Caillebotte’s bare-chested floor scrapers from 1875-6. Plinio Nomellini’s dockworkers are later cousins to Degas’s washerwomen. Barbizon peasants people the Rural Life section; Daumier’s peasants appear under Social Problems.

Camille Pissarro, Apple Picking at Éragny-sur-Epte, 1888

Angelo Morbelli’s “For Eighty Cents!” (1895), a tonally delicate and serene view of women weeding a rice paddy, is thematically identical to Seurat’s earlier “Farm Women at Work.” Jean-Francois Millet’s bending gleaners are behind both compositions. Both are ineffectual as socio-political messages because intent (“solidarity with their attempt to unionize”) is overwhelmed by the art. The same is true of Pissarro’s apple-pickers (“emphasizing the communal aspect of farm labor”) or Henri-Edmond Cross’s grape harvesters. The very qualities that make them enduring artworks mutes them as social statements

Pellizza’s “Ambassadors of Hunger” (1891) is distinguishable as social sympathy mainly by its title. The success of his magnificent “The Fourth Estate” (1898-1901) lies outside the realm of politics despite his aim to move painting “toward an organic, socialist reality.” A panoramic cortege of workers marches solemnly toward the rising sun, a symbol of the future associated with May Day celebrations — inaugurated in 1890 — and the Socialist International. Even in its day, the chromatic harmony and formal perfection drew comparison with French muralist Puvis de Chevannes.

Conversely, Longoni’s strident “The Orator of the Strike” (1891) is unresolved in its anatomy, foreshortening and background elements. But the stance and the raised fists of the crowd ratify “the politics of the masses” and illustrate what the catalog terms ”the ethical nature of the relationship between Divisionist technique and political revolution.” Longoni’s unsubtle “Reflections of a Starving Man” (1894) identifies the class enemy: two bourgeoisie glimpsed through a cafe window. The painting presages the tenor of art for which Mussolini’s propaganda apparatus established the Cremona prize in 1937.

Several works under Social Problems were completed in 1891, the year of Pope Leo XIII’s famous “Rerum Novarum,” his first encyclical on the situation of the working class strained by industrializaton. Leo’s renowned articulation of man’s natural right to “a living wage” and a voice in his own working conditions reverberated more profoundly than any painting. Yet the exhibition’s chronicle of the era’s politics omits the great labor pope. The omission miscolors fin-de-siècle Italy. But among vanguardists, art is the sole tenable stimulus to the habit of justice.


“Arcadia and Anarchy: Divisionism and Neo-Impressionism” the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1071 Fifth Avenue at 89th Street, 212-423-3840)

This review appeared first in The New York Sun, April 26, 2007.

Copyright 2007 Maureen Mullarkey

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