Giovanni Segantini (1858-1899) is known as an outstanding painter of the Alps and the lives of farmers and their animals there. Born in Arco on Lake Garda and destined to remain stateless throughout his life, the artist was relentlessly driven higher and higher into the mountains. An unusual life led him from Milan and the Brianza region to Switzerland, from Savognin to Maloja in Engadine. His artistic activity was guided by reverence for the Alpine realm and nature: Art is love clothed in beauty, was his motto.
The Fondation Beyeler
exhibition shows Segantini to have been a pathfinder of modernism. In proximity with works from the collection by van Gogh, Cézanne and Monet, his art can be viewed through twenty-first century eyes and our visual experiences of modern art, and his position in finde-siècle painting can be reconsidered. Celebrated as a prince of painting during his lifetime, Segantini was represented in all the Secessions, from Vienna though Munich to Berlin, as well as at the 1889 Paris World Fair and the first Venice Biennale in 1895. After a retrospective at Kunsthaus Zurich (1990) and a presentation to mark the 100th anniversary of his death in St. Gallen (1999), a fresh look at the Alpine painter is in order to define his contribution to the development of modern art.
The exhibition comprises about 45 paintings and 30 drawings from all phases of Segantinis career. These include many works rarely or never before on public view. The presentation reflects the breadth of Segantinis motifs, genres and techniques, from the masterful drawings and huge panoramic depictions to a series of highly expressive self-portraits.
The open, light-flooded museum spaces with their views of the park, designed by Renzo Piano, do justice to Segantinis reverence for nature, which in many respects corresponds to the contemporary yearning for an experience of an unspoiled environment.
The exhibition opens with the two groups of works from Segantinis adolescence, the urban scenes and portraits done during his training at the Brera Academy in Milan. From 1881 to 1886 Segantini lived with his companion Bice Bugatti the sister of his fellow student and friend, the furniture designer Carlo Bugatti in the northern Italian lake district of Brianza. It was there that he created his first masterworks, schooled on the realism of a Jean-François Millet, including the renowned Ave Maria a trasbordo (Ave Maria on the lake, 1886), in which religious faith and everyday life are brought into a unity.
The next stage in their lives led the family and their four childen from the plains into the mountains, to Savognin (1886-94), where Segantinis concern with farmlife and its culture deepened. It was there that the first large-format paintings of the Swiss Alps done in the Divisionist technique emerged. This decisive geographic and artistic change is represented in the exhibition by several works, including the canvases Ritorno dal bosco (Return from the Woods, 1890) and Mezzogiorno sulle Alpi (Midday in the Alps, 1891). In Savognin, Segantini advanced from his dark-hued early work to a celebration of color, dividing his palette into pure, generally horizontally layered bands of complementary colors to produce an incredibly intense luminosity.
In 1894 he moved on with his family to a village at an even higher altitude, Maloja in Engadine. Fascinated by the unbroken light of the high mountains and their magnificent landscapes, in his late work Segantini arrived at new ways in which to express the essence of things and his reverence for natural creation. Among the most important canvases of this period is Primavera sulle Alpi (Raffigurazione della Primavera) (Springtime in the Alps [Allegory of Spring], 1897). While working on his enormous canvases (up to 235 x 402 cm in size) Segantini was frequently accompanied by his ten-year-younger friend and pupil Giovanni Giacometti.
The apex of Segantinis oeuvre is formed by the famous Alpine Triptych (1896-99), which under the programmatic titles Life Nature Death depicts human beings and animals embedded in the harmonious cycle of nature. The exhibition also includes spectacular drawing versions of the triptych. Towards the end of his life, Segantinis international fame was further bolstered by Symbolist works, such as La Vanità (Vanity, 1897).
Again and again, the painter experienced the Alpine realm as an Eden on earth, and his canvases grew increasingly more light-flooded and abstract. A compelling example of this in the exhibition is Paesaggio alpino (Alpine Landscape, 1898-99). Segantini died at age 41 in 1899, at the zenith of his fame, while working on the Alpine Triptych on the 2731-meter-high, snow-covered Schafberg above Pontresina in Engadine. His last words were voglio vedere le mie montagne (I want to see my mountains).