The Punishment of Lust card

The Punishment of Lust

WAG 2127

Currently not on display


In a frozen, silent, hallucinatory Alpine landscape float the souls of four women. The artist Giovanni Segantini's 1891 title is 'The Punishment of Lust' - not the mistranslation on the frame. This is his response to the emancipation of women - seen by many at the time as a threat to society. The women are being punished for abortion - for rejecting their natural role as mothers. It was through lust they conceived, and it's so they can continue to indulge their lust that they've killed their unborn children. Their flushed faces and nipples hint at this selfish excess - while twisting, spiky barren twigs reach out like fingers to entangle their snaking hair, suggesting this earthly trap and its consequences. Segantini's views were shaped by Catholicism, poverty and being orphaned young - but most of all by his belief in nature and a 'natural order'. Here the women have gone against nature - so it's nature who punishes them. But there's hope - offered by the light and the tree, symbol of renewal. Segantini's inspiration was a contemporary poem, 'Nirvana', based on an Indian Buddhist saga. The women are not condemned to eternal hell but are in purgatory, working their way towards redemption - the horizontal bands evoking the different levels. Once they've expressed remorse and received forgiveness they'll reach Nirvana - release from desire and suffering - suggested by the distant peaks. To be at one with nature Segantini himself lived in the Swiss mountains. He moved higher and higher as he got older - bizarrely reaching his own Nirvana when he died from an altitude sickness. Look closely and you'll see a mass of short, mostly horizontal brushstrokes, like embroidery or tapestry. Segantini conveys a single colour not by mixing pigments in the paint itself, but by placing tiny patches of contrasting pigment together so the eye does the mixing. This is his unique brand of a technique known as Divisionism. We don't know exactly how he produced the shimmering central dark band - possibly with different browns, or by adding gold.