From Divisionism to Futurism. The Dawn of Modern Art in Italy

From Divisionism to Futurism. The Dawn of Modern Art in Italy

By In The exhibit On 12 March, 2015

Fundación MAPFRE presents the exhibit From Divisionism to Futurism. The Dawn of Modern Art in Italy, which examines the origins and the development of Divisionism through its principalexponents, who had such a strong influence on the renewal of Italian art between the late 19th century and the early 20th century, most particularly in the training of the artists who were to lead the Futurist movement.
From February 16 through June 5, 2016 in Fundación MAPFRE’s exhibition halls (Paseo de Recoletos 23, Madrid).

Del divisionismo al futurismo

1. Emilio Longoni. Ghiacciaio [Glacier]. 1905.

2. Giacomo Balla. Compenetrazione iridescente n. 4 [Iridescent Compenetration No. 4]. 1912-1913.

Scarcely heard of outside Italy, the movement arose in 1891 at the Triennale di Brera in Milan, with the first “public” appearance of a group of young artists supported by the critic and art dealer Vittore Grubicy de Dragon. Born out of the same basic notions which, in France, gave rise to Pointillism, Divisionism is distinguished from movements in other countries by the fact that it viewed new research into the decomposition of light and color as a means of expressing “modern” topics from a twofold perspective: “social” issues that reflect the difficulties of the poorest classes in the new united Italy and the more advanced international trends associated with Symbolism.

The revolutionary force of the Divisionist language was to lay the groundwork for the birth of Futurism, an avant-garde movement founded in 1909 by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti.

3. Angelo Morbelli. Alba [Dawn]. c. 1891.


The Divisionist principle of the decomposition of colors, advocated at the theoretical level by Vittore Grubicy, found a particularly effective application in the depiction of landscapes. Increasingly appreciated by the public, this pictorial genre was completely transformed, thanks to the new aesthetics and the new technical processes.

The common goal was to create a more direct relationship with nature, experienced en plein air with a view to capturing its light according to the weather conditions, the time of day and the mood of the painter. If Morbelli’s Alba represented a clear demonstration of the Divisionist school, the marvelous mountainous landscapes painted by Segantini reflect a Symbolist-style tension with overtones of investigating and representing the mysteries of nature.

4. Giovanni Segantini. Ritorno dal bosco [Return From the Wood]. 1890.


5. Emilio Longoni. Riflessioni di un affamato [Reflections of a Hungry Man]. 1893.

Center of the Italian economy and industry at the time, Milan was also at the heart of ongoing social tensions and workers’ struggles. While Segantini and Previati, increasingly devoted to a “painting of ideas”, escaped from life’s real problems, the remaining exponents of Divisionism paid greater attention to the conditions of the most disadvantaged classes and the truly marginalized.

The most representative example of this kind of social denunciation art, which revealed the contradictions and dramatic side of modern life, is Riflessioni di un affamato, by Longoni. Exhibited at the Triennale di Brera in 1894, it was published in the May 1st issue of the Lotta di Classe newspaper, which served as the Socialist Party’s mouthpiece, and was denounced by the authorities for “inciting hatred between the classes.”

6. Giovanni Sottocornola. Gioie materne [Maternal Joy]. 1894.

7. Giovanni Segantini. L’angelo della vita [The Angel of Life]. 1894-1895.


The protagonists of Divisionism were progressively drawing closer to the precepts of Symbolism, a movement that was spreading throughout Europe. As a result, they started focusing on the depiction of universal themes, the “ideas”, striving to delve into the mysteries of time, life, love and death.

One of Segantini’s favorite motifs was maternity; first depicted in Le due madri, he subsequently returned to it in L’angelo della vita, an evocative, allegorical transfiguration in which the mother and son, sitting in a large, twisted tree, form the focal point within a fantastic landscape, produced by mixing gold and silver powder with Divisionist brushstrokes. Beyond the real world, in a fascinating cosmic space that is the abode of “ideas” and the secrets of time, the dancing girls in Previati’s La danza delle ore are reminiscent of the magical, highly popular fragment of Ponchielli’s Gioconda with the same title.

8. Gaetano Previati. La danza delle ore [The Dance of the Hours]. 1899.

9. Gino Severini. Le marchand d’oublies [El vendedor de barquillos]. 1909.

9. Gino Severini. Le marchand d’oublies [The Candy Seller]. 1909.


In the early 20th century, the Divisionist theories went on to form part of the language common to all painters who were to become Futurists, basically due to the role of Giacomo Balla, whose pupils at that time included Umberto Boccioni and Gino Severini.

Balla had been drawn to French Pointillism on the occasion of his stay in Paris in 1900. He freely recreated the technique learned from the Post-Impressionists, while maintaining his interest in capturing natural light. This attention to light, developed on the basis of the contrast with backlit figures, can be seen in Artemisia (fanciulla), controluce, a painting in which the Divisionist technique is applied to pastel, with indoor scenes depicting domestic life.

Boccioni adopted Previati’s freedom in the use of color and the progressive disinterest in light as natural data, which was to result in a series of portraits whose favorite subject was his mother, Cecilia, in which the light was fragmented into blue, purple, pink and green strokes, as in Nudo di spalle. At the same time, he discovered Milan, a rapidly growing industrial city with outlying suburbs, which were to end up being one of his recurring themes. From the luminous visions of the suburbs dotted with chimneys that dominated Sera d’aprile, he later moved on to the frenetic city at night illuminated by electric light. Likewise, this compressed energy looms over the outskirts painted by Russolo, such as in Periferia-lavoro, while the Parisian panoramas painted by Severini using the Pointillist technique were to give way to works clearly influenced by the Cubists.

10. Umberto Boccioni. Nudo di spalle (Controluce) [Nude From Behind (Backlight)]. 1909.

11. Luigi Russolo. Periferia-lavoro [Suburb Work]. 1910.


“The magnificence of the world has been enriched with a new beauty: the beauty of speed. […] a roaring car that seems to run on shrapnel is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace”, proclaimed the Manifesto of Futurism published by Marinetti in Le Figaro on February 20, 1909. The call was answered by Boccioni, Carrà, Balla, Severini and Russolo who, in April the following year, signed the Futurist Painting Technical Manifesto, in which they stated that “painting cannot exist without Divisionism”, pointing to the Divisionists as the starting point of the movement.

Following his trip to Paris in 1911, where he discovered the Cubism of Picasso and Braque, Boccioni began working the pictorial space through the fragmentation of objects, which would enable him to achieve a balance between the dynamism of Futurism and Cubism’s decomposition of volume. The fundamental role of this updated form of Cubism had been developed by Severini, who had moved to Paris in 1906. The sensation of spatial dynamism produced by the movement of objects is the underlying feature of their works, where the search for luminosity and movement is translated into compositions such as Ritratto di Madame S.

13. Gino Severini. Ritratto di M. S. [Portrait of M. S.]. 1913-1915.

12. Carlo Carrà. Ciò che mi ha detto il tram [What the Streetcar Told Me]. 1911.

Balla, however, was already a consolidated artist when he signed up to Futurism. In 1913 he auctioned his passatiste paintings [“pastist”, as opposed to futuristi, “Futurist”], and went on to become “Futur-Balla”, as he started to sign his works. Balla investigated mechanical movement and the effect of bodies being dematerialized by speed, as represented in Velocità d’automobile.

More information

Información sobre las imágenes:

  1. Oil on canvas. Private collection.
  2. Oil on canvas. Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona.
  3. Oil on canvas. Otto Fischbacher / Giovanni Segantini Foundation. On permanent loan in the Segantini Museum, St. Moritz.
  4. Oil on canvas. Museo del Territorio Biellese, Biella.
  5. Oil on canvas. Collection of the Palazzo Foresti, Carpi.
  6. Watercolor, gold and silver powder, charcoal and oil on paper. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.
  7. Oil and tempera on canvas. Fondazione Cariplo, Gallerie d’Italia-Piazza Scala, Milan.
  8. Oil on canvas. Private collection, Milan.
  9. Oil on canvas. Mart. Museo di Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto, Rovereto.

L. F. Collection

  1. Oil on canvas. Private collection, Erba.
  2. Oil on canvas. Mart. Museo di Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto, Rovereto.

VAF-Stiftung collection.

  1. Pastel on cardboard glued to canvas. Mart. Museo di Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto, Rovereto. L. F. Collection

Italy on the road to “modernity”


Curators of the exhibition

Fernando Mazzocca, Professor of Art History at the University of Milan, is one of the leading experts in Italian art of the 18th and 19th centuries. He has published numerous books and curated important exhibitions. His comprehensive scientific production also extends to the history of collecting, literature or music.

Beatrice Avanzi, a graduate in Contemporary Art History from the Catholic University of Milan, specializes in Italian art of the 19th and 20th centuries. She has curated several exhibitions in the Mart and, since April 2012, she has been a curator at the Musée d’Orsay and Musée l’Orangerie.

Following the exhibition dedicated to the “macchiaioli” Tuscan painters who revolutionized the 19th century Italian artistic language while fighting for the unity of the country, it was our wish was to present the next stages of Italy’s journey on the road to “modernity”.

Proclaimed a unified state in 1861, Italy moved into a fruitful, yet complex period. Divisionism, the fashionable movement in the last decade of the 19th century, not only helped to overcome the reigning academic tradition, but also laid the groundwork for the profound revolution to come, namely Futurism.

However, Divisionism is still not well known outside Italy. Thanks to an univocal critical interpretation, it is often associated with French Pointillism, when, in reality, it has its own origins and specific intentions which reflect well the cultural and social situation of late 19th-century Italy.

Studies on the decomposition of light and color, introduced into Italy by Vittore Grubicy de Dragon, became the means of expressing the two “souls” of Divisionism, dedicated respectively to affirming the identity of the country and its desire to catch up with the latest European trends. Firstly, there exists the concern for the “social question” and the living conditions of the most underprivileged, expressed forcefully and poetically in the series of old men by Angelo Morbelli or of girls (piscinine en Lombardo) by Emilio Longoni, or in the paintings with a strong humanitarian message by Pellizza da Volpedo. Secondly, in the Symbolist studies of Gaetano Previati and Giovanni Segantini, light transmuted using the Divisionist technique becomes the means of expressing the divine presence in nature (Segantini) or the very subject of evocative allegorical images (Previati).

In numerous works, the two trends coexist in a singular balancing act, typical of the Italian Divisionists and unique on the European scene, instilling life into a transcription of a reality suspended between the authentic and the symbolic. Examples of this in the exhibition are the works of Pellizza, Morbelli, Mentessi and Fornara.

All these proposals inspire young artists eager to let out “a cry of brazen, open rebellion to the gray artistic landscape of our country” (Carrà). They will know how to transform these premises into a profoundly revolutionary language, thus reaffirming the proposals expressed by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in his Manifesto of Futurism, published in Le Figaro in 1909. Giacomo Balla, Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo and Gino Severini signed up to it in 1910, thus becoming the founders of Futurist painting.

For the young Futurists, the study of the sensation of light and movement helps to liberate painting from figurative restrictions, with styles close to abstraction. Severini converted his own study of movement, analyzed in the Parisian café-chantants and nightclubs, into a fusion of pure forms of color and light. Boccioni studied the “single dynamic form, which is a synthesis of universal dynamism” through the fusion of the figures with the environment, dissolving the form into splashes of color lit by pure, divided tones.

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