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The Punishment of Lust, also known as The Punishment of Luxury, 1891, by Giovanni Segantini (1858-1899)


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About the artwork

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.

Segantini came from a country shaped by catholicism. Although in his private life he never conformed to catholic doctrine, for example he refused to marry his partner and mother of his four children, his work was strongly influenced by religious ideas. What may have attracted Segantini to religion may have been the hope for a life after death. Indeed in the Milan painting from the same series L'Angelo della Vita (the angel of life, 1894) the mother has the pose of the Madonna bending lovingly over the baby, while in the mountain landscape the snows have melted and the birch tree is bringing forth young shoots. The painting is connected with the Christian tradition of redemption. The poem Nirvana which inspired the painter also suggests the possibility of regeneration: the bad mother may eventually find her natural instincts blossoming again, just as an apparently dead wintry tree will bring forth leaves as the season moves towards spring.

Despite the tragic theme of the painting the overall effect and feeling achieved by the thread-like brushstrokes of Segantini is very atmospheric and dreamy. The mysterious atmosphere set by the painting is in line with the painter's metaphysical views about the connection between human and natural life.

The art critic and dealer Vittore Grubicy worked tirelessly to convince both the public and those in charge of government cultural policy that the artists practising the Divisionist technique were showing a new direction for art. Divisionism emerged at a time when Italian politics was characterised by an anxiety to promote a new national consciousness. The President of Italy Pasquale Villari, elected in 1896, stressed the importance of a national pride and warned against uncontrolled emigration. Yet the Divisionist technique was met with a degree of scepticism because it contradicted the traditional notions of the representation of the natural world. At the most extreme the paintings produced were considered the product of a diseased retina. The artists who painted in a Divisionist style were viewed as suffering from hysteria as well as diseases of the eye.

The Punishment of Lust was bought by the gallery from the Liverpool Autumn Exhibition in 1893, but the title of the painting was thought to be provocative and it was thus changed from The Punishment of Lust to The Punishment of Luxury.