Divisionism/Neo-Impressionism: Arcadia & Anarchy, April 27-August 6, 2007
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  Jan Toorop, After the Strike (Na de werkstaking)Emilio Longoni, The Orator of the Strike (L'oratore dello sciopero)

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Social Problems

Many Divisionists and Neo-Impressionists correlated their empirical, progressive painting style with enlightened, progressive politics and subscribed to leftist views. They were spurred to paint socially conscious work in a time when economic and political crises were rampant through much of Europe. Industrial development swelled metropolitan centers, and the shift away from agricultural concerns prompted mass migration from rural areas to the cities. Poor living conditions and low wages led to strikes and the rise of left-wing parties that took highly visible actions on behalf of the working class. On May 1, 1890, when the socialists initiated May Day as an international celebration of labor, workers took to the streets in demonstrations. Emilio Longoni captured this momentous occasion in his first Divisionist effort, the 1890–91 painting The Orator of the Strike, a snapshot of the illegal May Day demonstration in Milan's Piazza Fontana, which is on public view for the first time in almost forty years. Forbidden strikes such as this one were not the only form of insurgence, and extreme anarchists instigated terrorist acts. Public places were bombed and European leaders assassinated over the course of the 1890s, culminating in 1900 when—to avenge the rioting workers killed in the 1898 Bava Beccaris massacre by the Milanese authorities—Umberto I, the king of Italy, was murdered.

In this time of financial malaise, revolt, and radical political groups—in addition to Longoni—Maximilien Luce, Angelo Morbelli, Plinio Nomellini, Giuseppe Pellizza, Camille Pissarro, Paul Signac, and Jan Toorop were committed to the philosophies of the left. Particularly through the first half of the 1890s, when such idealistic precepts were more pervasive, these painters denounced the abasement of the urban and rural poor and working class in their depictions of striking laborers, downtrodden workers, and the unemployed. By the latter part of the decade, after some artists had been arrested or otherwise intimidated, many rejected overt political imagery in favor of more utopian visions that transcended straightforward narrative representations to convey a complex elision of aesthetic objectives and ideological messages.

Jan Toorop, After the Strike (Na de werkstaking), ca. 1886-87. Oil on canvas, 65 x 76. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo. Photo: Tom Haarsten, Ouderkerk a/d Amstel, the Netherlands

Emilio Longoni, The Orator of the Strike (L'oratore dello sciopero), 1890–91. Oil on canvas, 193 x 134 cm. Private collection. Photo: Vittorio Calore