Gaetano Previati: How Art and Science Create Masterpieces
Both Romantic and Symbolist, the work of Gaetano Previati (1852-1920) is part of that last Italian attempt to create an art of an aesthetic and ecstatic evasion from reality.
Both Romantic and Symbolist, the work of Gaetano Previati (1852-1920) is part of the last Italian attempt to create art that is an aesthetic and ecstatic evasion from reality.
Throughout the 19th century, Italian art became Realist, primarily inspired by the French artist Gustave Courbet. Gaetano Previati was born in Ferrara, where he studied painting at the Scuola di Belle Arti. He then continued his studies in Florence and Milan, where his style was mainly influenced by the Italian artistic current of Scapigliatura and by Historical Romanticism. In Paris, he reinforced his decadent and mystic artistic tendencies.
Previati adopted the artistic technique of divisionism. This allowed him to obtain a magical rendering of light and to give shape to his platonizing ideas on art. In other words, divisionism allowed Previati to both experiment painting’s possibilities and give a transcendental significance to his art. This pictorial technique took shape from 19th century scientific discoveries within the field of optics, and was based upon the separation of color into individual dotted or lined brushstrokes. In his paintings, Previati juxtaposed thin filaments of primary colors, making light dissolve across the surface, and the painting acquired a vibrant atmosphere. When direct light hits the painting, the thin white brushstrokes are highlighted against the rest of the colors. This visual effect is similar to that occurring under the weak light of a trembling flame of a candle.
In Previati’s artwork La Danza delle Ore (1899), we can see the thin, light brushstrokes following a circular path. They act like the lines of force in a magnetic field. The circular path of the lines leads the eye toward the source of the light. Light is treated like something material. Unconsciously, yet intuitively, Previati literally painted the corpuscular nature of light, whose theory would be officially formulated by Einstein in 1905. Sometimes, art seems to intuitively illustrate what scientific theory will eventually discover and explain.
Previati’s paintings explore the poetic relationship between light and the sense of disappearance. This inevitably leads to reflect upon the fragility of beauty, the ephemerality of form, and the very temporary nature of art. Therefore, on one hand Previati’s intention of producing gigantic works emphasizes the eternal status of art; and on the other hand, the light and dream-like atmosphere of each painting relate this concept of eternity with those of disappearance and illusion. Art, like humans, is destined to disappear, together with its beauty. And this is a very Romantic concept.
However, what is not Romantic in Previati’s works is their sense of inner quietness, whilst what is masterly about the Italian artist is the combination of sublime and the sense of dream-like lightness.
During the last years of his life, his style began to gradually approach the modernity of Futurism. However, in spite of his return to landscape painting after the Futurist experience, Previati continued to be famous for his anti-naturalism and tendency toward artistic research.