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Radical Light: Italy’s Divisionist Painters

Lucy Riall explores the social and political issues in Italy following the country’s unification. She shows how these issues became the focus for a dynamic new artistic movement of the 1890s, Divisionism, a forerunner to Futurism and the subject of a current exhibition at the National Gallery.

Enthusiasm for Italian art is nothing new but until quite recently the art of the ‘Ottocento’ (1800s) was either ignored or forgotten: seen as a symptom of Italy’s cultural decline since the glories of the Renaissance or as merely derivative of the artistic innovations taking place elsewhere.

Like so much else about the nineteenth century, this dismissive attitude now seems outdated. A re-evaluation of Italian art in the decades following the Risorgimento has led to the rediscovery of a whole series of avant-garde movements – the Macchiaioli (‘sketchers’), the Scapigliatura (‘dishevelled’) and last, but by no means least, from the 1890s, the Divisionisti or Divisionists.

All these movements influenced each other and some artists used more than one of their techniques. The word ‘divisionism’ refers to a technique in painting which aimed to portray light by the application of individual strokes of pure colour on to the canvas. As a movement, however, Divisionism involved a commitment to radical politics and social themes, and these concerns are clearly expressed in their choice of subject matter. The Divisionists, in particular, can be seen as the precursors of the much more famous Futurist movement, which in a manifesto of 1909  proclaimed its ‘hate of the past’, challenging it with a dynamic, aggressive and mass-orientated embrace of the future. ‘I wish to paint the new, the fruits of our industrial age’, wrote the twenty-five-year-old Divisionist painter Umberto Boccioni in 1907: ‘I am nauseated by old walls and old palaces, and by old motifs, by reminiscences.’ Instead of being relegated to the cultural periphery, then, these Italian artistic movements of the late nineteenth-century can be seen as an important harbinger of, and contributor to, European modernism.

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