'...one thing was very obvious: here was an image of smouldering erotic power, the more so because it was so baffling.'
The Punishment of Lust, 1891, by Giovanni Segantini (1858–99), 66in by 36in, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. Credit: Bridgeman Images.
Stephen Bayley says:
Growing up in Liverpool, when the pop and the poets were only memories, I was avid to inhabit a bohemian culture of my own. Helped by a sympathetic art master (with a corduroy jacket and a van Dyck beard), I put the Walker Art Gallery on my beat. There, I found this painting. The symbolism was impossible to interpret, but a beautiful, distressed woman floating mysteriously in mountains spoke directly to a youth ambitiously exploring romantic and artistic possibilities beyond the limitations of Merseyside. At the time, I had no idea that the iconography was inspired by Hinduism nor that Segantini was bedding Bugatti’s sister, but one thing was very obvious: here was an image of smouldering erotic power, the more so because it was so baffling.
Stephen Bayley helped change the way people think about design with his Boilerhouse Project at the V&A. His latest book, Taste, was published this month
John McEwen comments on The Punishment of Lust:
For Segantini, ‘modern art’ was ‘the investigation of colour in light’. He was not alone. In France, this movement was Pointillism; in Italy, Divisionism. Pointillist painters juxtaposed dots of pure colour, Segantini thin threads. Luminosity was the aim. Divisionism, following Italian unification, was also philosophical, political and spiritual. Segantini notably escaped Industrialism by living in the Alps. His museum is in St Moritz.
An impoverished childhood fitted his empathy with the poor and outcast and his redemptive ascent to success. Entrusted as an orphan to a young step-sister, he had a chaotic upbringing that rendered him permanently stateless. Briefly, he was a Milanese waif and he only learned to read and write in his mid-thirties.
Police committed him to a reformatory, where a chaplain set him on the right path by noting his artistic talent. He subsequently trained at Milan’s Brera Academy, where he became friends with Carlo Bugatti, father of the car maker, and fell in love with Carlo’s sister Bice. His statelessness meant they could not marry. They had four children, but were condemned to a peripatetic existence. Despite international success, Segantini’s temperament, sensibility and civil exile made him increasingly dependent on Alpine seclusion.
There, his Divisionism blended with anti-materialist Symbolism. Segantini was a cradle Catholic and, bolstered by Bice’s devotion, believed motherhood a woman’s sacred calling. This picture is from a series on ‘bad mothers’ (cattive madri). It needs explaining that the floating women are in a glacial limbo because they committed the mortal sin of abortion. Nonetheless, melting snows and flourishing trees promise redemption. Victorian political correctness meant ‘Lust’ was changed to ‘Luxury’ for many years; imagination and mastery remained inviolate.
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