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Segantini

Category: Artist and sculptor

Self-portrait (1893).

Giovanni Segantini (15 January 1858 – 28 September 1899) was an Italian painter known for his large pastoral landscapes of the Alps.

He was one of the most famous artists in Europe in the late 19th century, and his paintings were collected by major museums. He was active in Switzerland for most of his life.

 

Art historians variously call his paintings Symbolist and ‘Divisionist’, but his work cannot and should not be classified with labels.  His style was unique, which is what makes it so appealing. 

What makes him of especial interest to this site is that he was a deeply spiritual man – deeply spiritual.

 

Wassily Kandinsky - Concerning the Spiritual in Art
It is interesting to notice three practically contemporary and totally different groups in painting. They are
(1) Rossetti and his pupil Burne-Jones, with their foilowers;
(2) Bocklin and his school;
(3) Segantini, with his unworthy following of photographic artists.
... Rossetti sought to revive the non-materialism of the pre-Raphaelites. Bocklin busied himself with the mythological scenes, but was in contrast to Rossetti in that he gave strongly material form to his legendary figures.
Segantini, outwardly the most material of the three, selected the most ordinary objects (hills, stones, cattle, etc.) often painting them with the minutest realism, but he never failed to create a spiritual as well as a material value, so that really he is the most non-material of the trio.
These men sought for the "inner" by way of the "outer'".

Segantini’s paintings are only slightly imbued with Symbolic meaning.  Where it is used, it is very subtle and only used when he wants to add more meaning to a painting – to express his feelings rather than in the way many Symbolists used their paintings to capture and preserve spiritual ideas. 

Whereas Waterhouse, for example, devised all his paintings to be a vehicle for spiritual truths, even using the Tarot cards as a base, Segantini’s symbolism is often personal.  Around 1880 Segantini was discovered by the art dealer Vittore Grubicy de Dragon who sponsored his participation in local and international exhibitions.   It is thought that Grubicy introduced Symbolism to Segantini.  Grubicy had connections with artists in France, and would have known about the then recently published Symbolist Manifesto by Jean Moréas.

What is of greatest importance, however, is that through his spirituality, he painted Light.  Segantini's world was permanently transfigured and he captured it on canvas for us to see.

Walker Art Gallery
The primary concern of the Divisionist technique is the question of how the artist sees light.  The separation, juxtaposition and overlaying of colours on the canvas was aimed to reproduce the luminous vibrations of rays which make up light. Like other painters, Segantini used Divisionism to suggest certain mystical qualities and to intensify a spectator's emotional response by enhancing the luminous quality of the scene.  The art critic and dealer Vittore Grubicy worked tirelessly to convince both the public and those in charge of government cultural policy that the artists practising the Divisionist technique were showing a new direction for art. ... Yet the Divisionist technique was met with a degree of scepticism because it contradicted the traditional notions of the representation of the natural world. At the most extreme the paintings produced were considered the product of a diseased retina. The artists who painted in a Divisionist style were viewed as suffering from hysteria as well as diseases of the eye.

Giovanni Battista Emanuele Maria Segatini  was born at Arco in Trentino, which was then part of the Tyrol in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  His early years were marked by poverty, hunger and limited education due to his mother's inability to cope.  In the spring of 1865 his mother died. His father left Giovanni under the care of Irene, his second child from a previous marriage. He died a year later without returning home and leaving his family nothing. Without money from her father, Irene lived in extreme poverty. In an attempt to find work in Switzerland she applied for Swiss citizenship, but the application was mishandled and the end result left both her and Giovanni without any form of citizenship - Italian or Swiss. 

At age seven Segantini ran away and was later found living on the streets of Milan. The police committed him to the Marchiondi Reformatory. For much of his early life he could barely read or write; he finally learned both skills when he was in his mid-30s. Fortunately a chaplain at the reformatory noticed that he could draw quite well, and  encouraged this talent.

In 1873, Segantini's half-brother Napoleon claimed him from the reformatory, and for the next year Segantini lived with Napoleon, who ran a photography studio. The following year he returned to Milan and attended classes at the Brera Academy.  And from that point on he began to paint in earnest.

What was Segantini's inspiration?  This extract from a wonderful book by Juliet Heslewood helps to give us some clues

Lover - Portraits of 40 Great Artists - Juliet Heslewood
The life of the mountains, its scenery, its people and their work, its animals and flowers, can be found in Segantini's magnificent, fresh, light-filled paintings. His broad yet meticulous studies of glistening snow-covered peaks and grassy meadows place him in a unique position as the true painter of the Alps. .... his views show his pantheistic reverence for nature:
'I have God inside me. I don't need to go to church,' he said.
Despite a difficult childhood..., his early successes in Milan decided his future as an artist.  He chose a pointillist technique, being used by many artists at the time. It enabled him to convey the sparkling colour and clear air of his chosen, rural environment.
In 1880 he met Beatrice 'Bice' Bugatti who was to become his life-long lover and mother of his four children. Together they lived mostly in mountain villages. When away from Bice he wrote her love letters, sometimes perfumed with flowers he had picked.
'Take these unsightly flowers, these violets, as the symbol of my great love' he wrote after they had been together ten years, 'I picked them only thinking of you. When a spring once comes in which I fail to send you such violets, you will no longer find me among the living.'
His painting of Bice, like many of his other works, is composed of natural imagery yet is essentially symbolic. Beneath its surface was a picture entitled Phthisis (tuberculosis) for which Bice was also the model. .... and its success lies in his simple means of conveying the triumph of life over death.

So LOVE and Grief.

Segantini tried to marry Bice, but due to his stateless status he could not be granted the proper legal papers.  So they lived together as an unmarried couple. This arrangement led to frequent conflicts with the Catholic church, and they were forced to relocate every few years to avoid local condemnation.  Segantini was never able to attend international shows because he could not obtain a passport.

In 1880 Giovanni and Bice moved to Pusiano.  It was in this mountain scenery that Segantini began to paint en plein air, preferring to work in the outdoors than in a studio.  As his fame rose, Segantini entered into a formal agreement with the Grubicys to be the sole representatives of his work. While this allowed Segantini more freedom to pursue his artistry, the dealers were consistently slow in fulfilling their financial obligations to the artists. The family struggled for many years in relative poverty.

After creditors pursued him he moved his family to the Engadin valley.  There the high mountain passes and clear light become his chief subject matter for the next five years.  He began to study, reading the works of Maeterlinck, D'Annunzio,  Goethe and especially Nietzsche, becoming so fascinated with the latter that he drew an illustration for the first Italian translation of Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Segantini was a tireless worker, painting a great number of large canvases during his lifetime.  Eager to finish the third part of his large tryptich, Nature Segantini returned to the high altitude of the mountains near Schafberg. The pace of his work, coupled with the high altitude, affected his health, and in mid-September he became ill with acute peritonitis. Two weeks later he died, aged only 41. His son Mario and his partner Bice were with him at his death bed.

At the end of November a memorial exhibition of his works was put on display in Milan. Two years later the largest Segantini retrospective to date took place in Vienna. In 1908 the Segantini Museum was established in St. Moritz.

Observations

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