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

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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Like so much else about the nineteenth century, this dismissive attitude now seems outdated.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 Risorgimeuto 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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The importance of these movements within Italy itself also merits reassessment. Italy was a recent nation, united only in 1860, and it was not until 1870 that the Italian state captured Rome from the Pope and made it the capital city (acquiring the enduring enmity of the Catholic Church in the process). The Risorgimento, the mid-century movement of national 'resurrection' or 'revival' associated with the process of national unification, was never fully successful. Yet it was a vibrant cultural moment all the same. Indeed, the part played by culture--the role of novels, poetry, history, music and painting--in encouraging and defining a new sense of italianitdz ('Italian-ness') seems undeniable. Many historians now argue that it is in culture, for example in the poetry of Ugo Foscolo (1778-1827), in the operas of Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), and in Italian painting from Francesco Hayez (1791-1882) to Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916), that we can locate the origins and motivations of political change in modern Italy.

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Men like Hayez and Verdi were not especially interested in politics, and they were still less concerned with the social problems of their time. By contrast, their successors in the Macchiaioli, Scapigliatura and Divisionist movements, some of whom had fought as volunteers in the wars of the Risorgimento and after, were passionately engaged with social questions and with political activity.

Most of all, perhaps, the Divisionists reflect the changes taking place in Italian society and their difficult, often contradictory, impact. The movement was centred in Milan, the modern and dynamic power-house of the Italian economy, and around one gallery in particular, the Galleria Fratelli Grubicy, which from the early 1880s took on young Lombard artists such as Giovanni Segantini, Angelo Morbelli, Gaetano Previati and Emilio Longoni. However, they were never a single, uniform group. From the outset, and thanks to the work of avant-garde art critics like Vittore Grubicy, the artists were alive to what was happening outside Italy; at the same time, many of them chose not to live in Milan and had studios in the Alps or the Piedmontese countryside. …