Giovanni Segantini, The Punishment of Lust

Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Date: 1891
Technique: Oil on canvas, 990 x 1728 mm

The Italian painter Giovanni Segantini was orphaned when he was only eight years old and spent the rest of his childhood with relatives in Milan. As a young man Segantini lived on the proceedings of his decorative work while taking evening class in ornamental and decorative painting. Around 1880 he was discovered by the art dealer Vittore Grubicy de Dragon who sponsored his participation in local and international exhibitions. Segantini became particularly well known in Germany and in 1896 had a one-man show in Munich. He was much admired by artists such as Munch, Van Gogh and Ensor. The famous abstract artist Kandinsky characterised Segantini as one of the forerunners of spirituality in art.

Segantini's early work comprised of idyllic rural scenes painted outdoors. Later on Segantini was encouraged by Vittore Grubicy to paint with the Divisionist technique. The primary concern of this technique was the question of how the eyes saw light; the separation, juxtaposition and overlaying of colours on the canvas was aimed to reproduce the luminous vibrations of rays which make up light. Like other painters, Segantini used Divisionism to suggest certain mystical qualities and to intensify a spectator's emotional response by enhancing the luminous quality of the scene.

The Punishment of Lust belongs to a series of paintings produced between 1891-96 on the theme of bad mothers (cattive madri). Segantini was inspired by Nirvana, a poem written by the 12th century monk Luigi Illica in imitation of the Indian text Panghiavahli. Illica's poem contained the phrase 'la Mala Madre' (the bad or wicked mother with an echo similar to 'la mala femmina' or prostitute) to describe those women who refused the responsibilities of motherhood.

The souls of the women are depicted floating against a snowy background based on the Swiss Alps where Segantini spent much of his life. The grandeur and spirituality of the Alps must have been a constant inspiration to Segantini whose last words before he died are recorded to have been: "I want to see my mountains". In the painting the spirits of the women are punished for having committed the sin of abortion consciously or by neglect. Segantini had lost his mother when he was seven years old and was probably passionate to represent the trauma of the mother for the loss of her child. Segantini believed that a woman's role in life was motherhood and that a woman who objects to this role was mean, bad or selfish. His beliefs drew from both religious and metaphysical ideas: the sanctity and motherhood of the Virgin Mary combined with the fertility of nature. The tree in this series of paintings is a religious symbol of the tree of life which, although bare and dead in the winter, will be reborn and blossom in the spring.

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