Sep 2008 Journal

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Art notes (review)

Light falling in a grid over rice paddy fields, anarchist marchers, angelic mothers and wild, wicked women – the Italian Divisionists say it all at the National Gallery’s Radical Light exhibition. Linking the discovery of optical science and the physics of light to the technique of dividing thin lines of colour, they also politicised their subject matter.

Divisionism dawned at the end of the nineteenth century with the unification of Italy and the promise of social change. Artists like Vittore Grubicy de Dragon, Giovanni Segantini, Gaetano Previati, Angelo Morbelli and Emilio Longoni led the movement whose aim to was to fuse art with idealism. By the early twentieth century, as thousands of rural workers migrated to the countryside, artists responded with such bucolic masterpieces as Grubicy’s eight-canvas Winter in the Mountains. The new working class helped the Divisionists shape their ideas of modernism. But the early work is limpid and pastoral: a shepherd sleeps amid his flock in Segantini’s Alpine Meadow. There are omens too: a pink cloud implies death to Morbello’s young girl in a deckchair. Both he and Segantini drift towards Symbolism, with soft light emanating an ethereal quality in their painting. The latter artist - who once virtually painted every single blade of grass – devoted himself totally to Symbolism, with work like The Vanities and Narcissus.

Longoni’s Alone, in which a black-clad young woman lies beside a coffin bearing lilies, has an unforgettable, morbid beauty. The work, so evocative of pre-Raphaelite doom, was inspired by the loss of his nine-year-old niece.

A different light illumines the sombre, Nordic vision of another Symbolist, Vilhelm Hammershoi, in his first UK retrospective, The Poetry of Silence, at the Royal Academy. Hammershoi’s Copenhagen home - with wife, table, window, piano, china tureen - are domestic metaphors for an interior landscape as beautiful as it is gloomy. His subtle portraits of his wife capture her deep introspection too, as we watch her gracefully age. Seen from the back, the soft and wispy tendrils on the nape of her neck have a tender eloquence.

Hammershoi decorated his home starkly in white and grey, from which a furtive light throws up minute dust motes, so we can guess the time of day and the seasons of the year. He has been compared to James McNeill Whistler for his limited palette and formal simplification. When he finally has to move from his house, he paints its sombre exterior; he paints the clouds edged with darkness, and it is in these that you sense the violation of his lonely spirit.

Rainer Maria Rilke and Emil Nolde both remarked on Hammershoi’s mysterious melancholy, at odds with the avant-garde of his time. But his domestic paintings of women strikingly echo Vermeer. Outstanding among them is his portrait of his younger sister, Anna. Here is the missing vitality, for not even the girl’s simple, black dress can diminish the youthful energy and charm of this portrait, so full of natural beauty, promise and intelligence.


 


previous article:My beloved Quaker school
next article:The Jews of Linz (review)