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LONGONI, Emilio /ARTISTS 1650-1899/ ART MAIN

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b. 1859, Barlassina, d. 1938,

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Emilio Longoni was born in Barlassina, Lombardy, Italy. He attended painting classes at the Accademia di Brera in Milan from 1876 to 1880 while working in various trades, including toymaking and poster decoration.

His breakthroughs as an artist came in 1880 when he was signed up by gallery owner Vittore Grubicy, and in 1890 when he was introduced to the socialist writings of Marx and Nietzche. At one stage in his career he was under police surveillance for being an "anarchist painter" of themes of social deprivation.

A complex relationship between Italian Divisionism and the emerging Futurist movement existed in the early years of the 20th century.

Centred in Milan, Divisionism was arguably the most significant art movement to emerge in Italy during the last decades of the 19th century.

Dissatisfaction with modern civilization led Divisionist painters to explore Symbolism. Their aim was to represent political concerns and make their art into an instrument for social change.

The movement also sprang from research into optics and the physics of light. Inspired by French developments with pointillism, and fuelled by a desire to increase the luminosity and brilliance of their paintings, artists developed new techniques applying paint in a variety of dots and strokes.

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Futurist Cookbook


Radical Light (National Gallery – 2009)

Reflections of a Hungry Man or Social Contrasts 1894
© Museo del territorio Biellese, Biella

By the end of the 19th century, the fledgling Italian state faced economic crisis, political uncertainty and widespread social unrest. The unification of Italy, largely accomplished by 1871, had promised the Italian people an idealised vision of democracy and national progress. The reality left many feeling alienated and disillusioned. Artists, moreover, feared that contemporary Italian painting was lagging far behind that of other European nations. History and art had come to a crucial turning point.

In northern Italy, a loosely knit group of avant-garde artists, who would come to be known as Divisionists, began in the final decades of the century to mount a radical artistic response to contemporary conditions. What they achieved came to define their age.

Through ‘the investigation of colour in light’ (Giovanni Segantini), the Divisionists sought to challenge the paradoxes of the modern world. Influenced by the study of optical science, they believed unmixed threads of ‘divided’ colour would fuse for the viewer at a distance and bring maximum luminosity to their paintings. This technical innovation accounts for the singular intensity of their paintings.

Many of the key Divisionists were also politically motivated. From the early 1890s, Giovanni Segantini, Angelo Morbelli and Emilio Longoni, among others, adopted Socialist ideas and strove for ’an art not for art’s sake but for humanity’s sake’.

As thousands of workers migrated from the fields to the cities, many Divisionists abandoned the bleak modernity of Milan and Turin for the countryside. Segantini escaped to the Swiss Alps where the solitude of the mountains inspired some of his greatest works, including the exultant ‘Spring in the Alps’, 1897 (Private collection) and ‘The Punishment of Lust’, 1896/7 (Kunsthaus, Zurich).

Giuseppe Pellizza returned to his rural birthplace, Volpedo, where he became an agent for social change, championing the cause of the workers on his estate. In ‘The Living Torrent’, 1895-6 (Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan), Pellizza depicts the unstoppable progress of the proletariat – employing his own workers as models for the crowd – advancing towards the light of social justice. Nearby, Angelo Morbelli returned to the rice fields of Piedmont, where he took up the cause of the oppressed women rice workers in ‘For Eighty Cents!’, 1893-5 (Museo Borgogna). In Milan, he also chronicled the lives of the urban poor and elderly.

Working high above Lake Maggiore, the art dealer, painter and critic, Vittore Grubicy, achieved a series of masterful bucolic landscapes, including his eight-canvas polyptych ‘Winter in the Mountains’, 1894-1911, (Milan, Civiche Raccolte d’Arte), seen by many as the manifesto of Divisionism. Grubicy is credited as being the first apostle and most influential propagandist of the movement. After discovering Giovanni Segantini in the early 1880s, he acted as mentor and patron to several key Divisionists, including Longoni, Morbelli and Previati.

Despite this considerable artistic exchange, the Divisionists failed to achieve the cohesion necessary to enter the broad international consciousness. Yet the plurality of their vision is equally what makes the movement so distinctive and dynamic.



Natura morta con frutta candita e caramelle, 1887

All text copyright The National Gallery, London