The Weird World of Giovanni Segantini

The Swiss are generally not considered to be particularly strange with respect to their personality traits. If we are to come up with something approaching an acceptable stereotype, it would likely be one of an industrious, methodical people, living in an environment where basic survival is not easy. With plenty of time on their hands due to long periods of winter, notwithstanding Harry Lime’s insult in “The Third Man”, over the centuries have managed to come up with some pretty remarkable things, including complex and beautiful watches, sophisticated banking methods, and rich chocolates and cheeses.

So it is something of a surprise that a man who can only be described as very, very strange indeed would have found himself at home in their environment. The 19th century painter Giovanni Segantini (1858-1899) has been claimed by many countries as a native son, though because of the shifting map of Europe even in his own lifetime and with subsequent redrawing of that map as a result of World War I and World War II, the best that we can do is say that ethnically he was an Italian. However Segantini was not an Italian from the sunny shores of the Mediterranean, but rather one from the Alps, where the Germanic influence held greater sway.

As an artist, Segantini found the climate and inspiration of the Swiss Alps to be where he and his increasingly bizarre but captivating art often seemed most at home. An exhibition presently underway at the Beyeler Foundation in Basel, which runs through April 25th, examines the artist in juxtaposition with the work of his contemporaries. For those of my readers who should happen to find themselves in Switzerland it would seem worth the trip to view the work of this fascinating figure.

Segantini’s work is just as difficult to categorize as his citizenship. We can see affinities in his work with artists as diverse as Millais, Seurat, Millet, Van Gogh, Gauguin, and even Klimt. Yet his work is none of these, and even art experts do not seem to agree on what to call his style of painting. Sometimes he is called a “Divisionist” painter, other times a “Pointillist”, and still others consider him a “Symbolist”. His later paintings often feature a truly peculiar iconography that set them apart. On this latter point in particular it would not be too much of a stretch to say that, in his later paintings, Segantini in his subject matter in some respect prefigured the work of Frida Kahlo.

As a result of his having grown up in a Catholic peasant environment, Catholicism continued to inform Segatini’s work throughout his life, although he himself was not a practicing Catholic. He had four children by his mistress, whom he never married, and studied the works of Nietzsche and Zola in a kind of awkward tandem with mystical monastic texts of the Middle Ages. His perpetually frail physical health, the death of his mother when he was a small child, and the subsequent problems he experienced with being shifted from household to household by his father and other relatives in what today we would probably consider some sort of child neglect, was a very recognizable formula for the creation of a clinical condition, perhaps an anxiety disorder or manic depression.

Not being a psychiatrist or psychologist, it is a bit unfair of me to try to diagnose Segantini of course, but even a basic understanding of psychology and family history will help us to understand some of his paintings which, without that context, would probably remain completely inscrutable. For example, towards the end of his life Segantini painted a series of works sometimes collectively referred to as the “Evil Mothers” series. One of these, “The Punishment of Lust” painted in 1891 and now in the Walker Gallery in Liverpool, shows dead women who either had abortions or neglected their children, being blown about by the wind in a frigid and barren Alpine landscape. Another, “Unnatural Mothers”, exists in several variations painted at different times, and shows women who again, have either directly or indirectly killed their children. The children have been turned into trees; the women are then forced to go out looking for their dead babies, are caught up by the trees, and forced to suckle their children since they neglected to do so in life. Not exactly light-hearted stuff.

Yet weirdness aside, Segantini was capable of truly beautiful images. His best pictures of peasants with their livestock, and the landscapes in which they lived and worked, are feasts of light and color for the eye. For example, his “Girl Knitting in Savognin” of 1888, now in the collection of the Kunsthaus Zürich, features jewel-like colors and a gorgeous pastoral-village landscape. His “Afternoon in the Alps” of 1892, presently in a private collection, is in a similar vein, with a young lady enjoying the warm sunshine and green grass, surrounded by her flock of very friendly sheep.

Even in a near-monochromatic painting like “Return from the Woods” shown below, there is a wonderful sense of light. The woman has no doubt had a long, hard afternoon cutting wood, but as she approaches her village with its pretty church spire, there is a golden glow of lights in the homes of her neighbors. The fact that the snow is very thin on the ground but the days are getting longer means that spring is arriving soon.

While he is perhaps not a household name today around the world, in his day Segantini was celebrated throughout Europe. Despite his increasing ill health and isolation higher and higher up in the Alps with his family, his work led to his being garlanded with praise and awards. At the time of his death, it is fitting that his final words were that “I want to see my mountains.” We are fortunate that he managed to preserve his view of those mountains in such a remarkable collection of works.

Return from the Woods by Giovanni Segantini (1890)
Segantini Museum, St. Mortiz
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