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Trouble in Paradise
The Deutsche Guggenheim presents Divisionism/ Neoimpressionism: Arcadia & Anarchy

Using shimmering colors to address social themes, the Divisionists revolutionized Italian painting at the end of the 19th century. Now the Deutsche Guggenheim is illuminated by their paintings. The exhibition Divisionism/ Neoimpressionism: Arcadia and Anarchy is the first to relate the paintings of these Italian avant-gardists with those of their contemporaries in France.

Vittore Grubicy de Dragon
Nebelmeer (Mare di nebbia), 1895
© Private collection

A bricklayer addresses striking workers from construction scaffolding. His balled fist waves high above the masses assembled on the large square. The agitator's revolutionary vigor sweeps the men along and the a few fists are raised towards him. Emilio Longoni's painting The Strike Speaker was created in 1891 and captures the events of May 1 the previous year as vividly as if the artist had experienced them first-hand: demonstrators waving red flags, soldiers aiming their bayonets at the striking workers, the tram carriage that serves as a barricade. The composition could be straight out of a film from the Russian Revolution.

The topic of workers' strikes was a novelty for Italian art. And the painting style used by this working-class artist was positively progressive: Divisionism, the separation of color into spots applied next to each other. This technique lent its name to a group of Italian artists who tried to connect their work with the progressive developments in European art. The Divisionists were long considered mere imitators of the French Neo-Impressionists, and have been largely ignored outside of Italy because of that. But now it is possible to rediscover these pioneers or Italian modernism in an opulent exhibition in Berlin. With Divisionism/ Neo-Impressionism: Arcadia & Anarchy, Deutsche Guggenheim allows both painting styles to engage in a dialogue for the first time.

Camille Pissarro, Apples Picking at Éragny, 1888
Dallas Museum of Art
Photo/© Dallas Museum of Art, Munger Fund

The paintings of both of these artistic currents reflect the cultural changes of the late, pre-modern 19th century, in which social and scientific upheavals revolutionized the world's perception. "The dark object is given life by the sun. But these light waves that enfold it, permeate it, allow it to emanate into the world, are bolt of lightning glowing in constant eddies, a mist of light, storms of brightness. What becomes of the model under this furor of living atoms, through which it becomes transparent, visible for us, awakened to existence? One must understand that today, one must express that through painting, they eye must dismantle it and the hand put it back together." What French journalist and politician Georges Clemenceau wrote about the paintings of Monet seems to apply to the Divisionists as well. They too studied precisely the effects of light, dissolved their motifs in tiny fragments of color, in order to reassemble them. The atomization of light, color and gaze corresponded to the era. Rapidly progressing industrialization, urbanization, political upheavals, technical advancements – all that could no longer be captured in traditional ways of painting. And important scientific discoveries also radically challenged the static view of the world that had been handed down: 1820 saw the discovery of Brownian motion; in 1864, James Clerk Maxwell published his theory on the electromagnetic nature of light; and in 1897, Joseph Thomson proved the existence of electrons.

Georges Seurat, Abend, Honfleur (Soir, Honfleur), 1886
Museum of Modern Art, New York,
©The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY

The painting technique of the Divisionists developed from the confrontation with new scientific discoveries. One of its foundations was the writings of French chemist Eugène Chevreul, who, was director of the royal Manufacture des gobelins in Paris, systematically investigated the effects of the interaction of colors. In his work De la loi du contrast simultané des couleurs, published in 1839, he describes that the brilliancy of colors is increased when they are set next to each other unmixed, rather than mixed together. That led the Divisionists, like the Neo-Impressionists, to cover their canvases with countless points and lines of pure color. The tones are not mixed on the palette or the canvas; rather the impression of the colors is first visible to the eye of the beholder from a certain distance. The division (in French: division; in Italian: divisione) of the motif into tiny brushstrokes is what gave the movement its name.

Angelo Morbelli, Für Achzig Cents! (Per ottanta centesimi!)), 1895
Fondazione Museo Francesco Borgogna
Photo: G. Gallarate
©Fondazione Museo Francesco Borgogna

This new way of painting initially met massive resistance in Italy. "The system that makes the surface of a painting look like skin that is infected or afflicted by scarlet fever has its roots in science, and it is a foreign discovery that can be seen in the exhibitions of the Salon des Refusés in Paris" was the polemical assessment of influential conservative critic Luigi Chirtani. It was common for anti-modernists of the Fin de Siècle to villainize progressive art as sick – and of course that stance was especially popular when it came to art that adopted "foreign influences". Particularly in this young country – the Kingdom of Italy had only become a unified nation in 1861 – the dismissal of painting traditions met with bitter opposition.

In view of the rural scenes – one of the Divisionists' favorite subjects, with which they tied in to themes that were then current – this vehement rejection is difficult to understand today. Some of the glorifications of village idylls, bordering on kitsch, have forfeited all of their provocative power from back then. This is not the case, however, with Angelo Morbelli's depiction of backbreaking labor in the rice paddies of the Po Valley. Standing in a row, seasonal workers plant seedlings in the flooded fields, which extend to the horizon. The seemingly endless rows of rice plants, the shimmering colors, the lighting effects, the reflections of the women, deliquescing in the rippling water – here, the Divisionist painting style and the subject enter into perfect symbiosis. In addition, the title of the painting, For Eighty Cents! makes clear the artist's socio-critical intentions.

Henri-Edmond Cross, Nocturne with Cypresses (Nocturnee aux cyprès), 1896
Association des Amis du Petit-Palais, Genève
Photo: Studio Monique Bernaz, Genève
©Association des Amis du Petit-Palais, Genève

In Applepickers in Éragny (1888) Camille Pissarro also presents a pastoral scene. Fruit is gathered in a leisurely manner under the glittering sunshine of a late summer day in Normandy. Although this pioneer of Neo-Impressionism shows an idealized scene, with his almost garish colors and abstract composition, he stays far away from the much more naturalistic, sweeter depictions of many Italians. A life in harmony with nature, which stands in stark contrast to the world of metropolises and industrialization, is a popular theme among the Neo-Impressionists. Many of these artists, especially Paul Signac, sympathized with anarchist ideas. But for them, these ideas were not connected with any violent upheavals, bur rather with the concept of a self-determined existence, a kind of "golden age of anarchy". Signac was concerned with combining a "harmony of composition" with a "harmony of morals" in his paintings.

Signac was not impressed by the work of his Italian counterparts. Upon viewing an exhibition of Divisionist paintings in a Paris gallery, he wrote in his diary: "Two or three canny lads and a couple of incompetents. Shading, points, bubbles, all without contrast and harmony. Not a painter among them." And he complained that the Italians had stolen the name "Divisionists" from them. But the developments in France and Italy took place more or less separately from one another, since the Italian painters had no opportunities to study the original compositions of the Neo-Impressionists. They knew them only from reproductions in newspapers. At Deutsche Guggenheim, one can recognize how independent the Divisionists' themes and ways of painting are: Morbelli places shadings of parallel brushstrokes next to each other, while with Pellizza, very fine lines, points and brushstrokes alternate, and in Previati's decorative allegories, the canvases are covered with flowing, organic lines.

Gaetano Previati, The Dance of the Hours (La danza delle ore),ca. 1899
Fondazione CARIPLO, Milan
Foto:Sandro R. Scarioni fotografo milano
©Fondazione CARIPLO, Milan

That this once progressive way of painting gradually lost its appeal was lamented by a progressive critic at the Venice Biennial in 1905. But the next revolution in Italian art was imminent. Divisionist painters like Giacomo Balla or Umberto Bocchoni were already searching for a new style with which to better reflect the dynamism of their time. They soon found it by combining the technique of separating color with Cubism's language of forms and simultaneous presentation. With Futurism, they created the avant-garde movement with which Italy would provide a deciding impulse for the further development of modernism. Pastoral idylls were passé; instead, the Futurists celebrated the intoxication of speed and the beauty of machines. When Italy went to war in 1915, the Futurists willing waved the flag as supporters of a war that, in accordance with their founding manifesto, represented the "only hygiene in the world". Shortly after the dawn of modernism the utopian ideal of an anarchist, harmonious Arcadia ended on the battlefields of Europe.
Achim Drucks

Divisionism/ Neoimpressionism: Arcadia & Anarchy
Jan. 27 – Apr 15 2007
Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin