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Divisionism

Divisionism meant “dividing” colours, setting them alongside one another on the canvas rather than mixing them on the palette; that is, supplanting a physical mixture with an “optical” mixing, realized by the eye of the viewer. As a tendency within Italian painting, Divisionism arose after 1885 and lasted for about three decades. Its leading figures were Giovanni Segantini, Gaetano Previati and Angelo Morbelli, whose joint exhibition of their works at the Milan Triennale in 1891officially launched the movement.
In formal terms, Italian Divisionism – influenced by the frayed, figure-dissolving light used by Daniele Ranzoni, Tranquillo Cremona and Luigi Conconi – differed from its somewhat earlier French counterpart of Pointillisme or neo-Impressionism. The difference was that the Italian Divisionists put colour on the canvas with streaked brushstrokes (Previati, Pellizza da Volpedo) or matrix clots (Segantini), while the Pointillists (led by Seurat and Signac) brought them together as points, small dabs of colour. The rigorous theory of the French artists formed a basis common to the two schools of Divisionism (both of which had scientific inclinations) drawn from the laws of colour developed by the chemist M.E. Chevreul and the writings of the art critic Charles Blanc. Blanc, whom Seurat knew before the work of Chevreul, had developed the theory of optical mixing, i.e. that separate dabs of pure pigments (not blended on the palette), when they are set one next to the other, form purer, more vibrant colours in the eye of the viewer. Chevreul’s laws were more detailed, dividing all colours into “primary” (blue, yellow, red) and “secondary” (all the others, consisting of various mixtures of the three primaries). The primary colour not serving as one of the ingredients of a secondary colour was termed the latter’s “complement” (e.g., green, which is created by a mixture of blue and yellow, is the complement of red). Every colour projects its complement on the colour on which it borders; two complements enhance one another.
In Paris, at the height of Positivism, there was a resurgence of belief in the power of science among the most celebrated modern literati, writers and philosophers. The most enthusiastic supporters of the new credo were such luminaries as Hyppolite Taine, the Goncourt brothers, and Zola. Flaubert issued his famous appeal for the integration of art and science: “Art and science, so long separated … must tend to a close union if not to merge into one another”.
On the Italian side, the theorist was Gaetano Previati, whose Principi scientifici del divisionismo (1906) maintained that the new technique “reproduces the additions of light through the methodically minute separation of complementary hues”. The most rigorous follower of the Divisionist principle was the Turin artist Pellizza da Volpedo. Other Divisionists were Grubicy de Dragon (who together with his brother provided precious support for the spread and acclaim of the movement), Baldassare Longoni, Carlo Fornara, Plinio Nomellini, Camillo Innocenti, Enrico Lionne and Arturo Noci, not to mention Giacomo Balla, whose free application of Divisionist principles and post-Impressionism in general influenced his students, Boccioni and Severini, whose Futurist painting brought out the logical consequences of Divisionism.


Augusta Monferini
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