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Segantini: capturing Alpine life: Switzerland today owes a lot to its 19th-century 'painter of everyday Alpine life; Giovanni Segantini, a 'state-less foreigner' whose paintbrush celebrated peasants performing farming chores. Swiss News recalls the painter 150 years after his birth.

An artist's lifestyle can ruffle the public's notion of right and wrong, at times overshadowing a great body of creative work achieved at the easel.

During his brief life, the sans papiers painter from the southern Tyrol, Giovanni Segantini (1858-1899), seemed to fit this description. The young and talented newcomer settled in Romansh-speaking Savognin during the late 1800s, soon establishing a reputation for glowing Symbolist outdoor scenes portraying hardworking mountaineers.

Yet the artist struggled with bill collectors as well as the foreigners' police. He, his family, and young Savognin housekeeper and model, Barbara 'Baba' Uffer, resettled in the Engadine, where he painted until his sudden death of peritonitis in 1899 at age 41.

The domed Segantini Museum in St. Moritz--designed by an admirer, architect Nicolaus Hartmann--is exhibiting a large centennial collection of the artist's best-known works through September 14. The tribute occurs some 150 years after his birth in the Trento town of Arco.

The premature death of Segantini's mother and abandonment by his father meant he had to fend for himself from an early age. As a young man he found refuge in drawing and eventually ended up in Milan, earning a modest living as an art teacher and portrait painter.

Art historians point out that Segantini landed in Switzerland on a horse-carriage tour headed for the Viamala Gorge near Thusis. Apparently he had no plans to stay. But the trip took him through Savognin--a spot he fell in love with as the natural outdoor location for his artistic vision. So the Italian-speaking visitor unpacked and resettled his family in the Romansh village, now a popular skiing venue.


Revealing the man

But what sort of man was this grim-faced father of four who never married but lived together with his children's mother, Bice Bugatti, in a blissful out-of-wedlock state until his death? Perhaps his love letters to her--at times perfumed with violets--reveal him most intimately.

"Take these unsightly flowers, these violets, as the symbol of my great love," the artist wrote to her in Italian one spring day in 1890. "I picked them only thinking of you. When a spring once comes in which I fail to send you such violets, you will no longer find me among the living."


These words reflect not only Segantini's fondness for nature and the great outdoors, but also a tender and touchingly sentimental side. As art historians point out, however, they also cast light on the symbolist painter's "obsession with death".

The blame may rest on his difficult childhood, but this dark vision recurs often as a nuance in his work. The Evil Mothers (1894), which is now hanging at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, is such a painting. Set before an Alpine background, it depicts a buxom vixen shrouded in a lifeless tree. Some say the scene symbolises Segantini's grief for a mother whose death left him as alone and adrift as the desolate figure in the painting.

Art experts place Segantini among the divisionists, a neo-impressionist school of painting that includes the French pointillist master Paul Signac. The style emphasises the viewer's impression of light and colour. It had a following at the Brera Academy in Milan where Segantini studied and taught before migrating to Canton Graubunden.

The painter who made the greatest impact on Segantini must have been the French Barbizon School master Jean-Francois Millet (1814-1875). Millet too focused sympathetically--almost reverentially--on devout peasants in the fields, planting or harvesting crops.

Though surely not an atheist, Segantini rarely, if ever, attended church in Savognin. Local critics held this against him, but Ruedi Brulisauer, who heads the Vereinigung Pro Segantini (Association for Segantini), recalls the foreigner's tart reply: "I have God inside me. I don't need to go to church."

Paying the milkman

Brulisauer explains that Segantini--despite his financial ups and downs--managed to cultivate patrons of the arts who would order paintings and pay for them in advance. They recognised his unique talents with brush and palette--and perhaps also the impact his Alpine peasant scenes might have in boosting tourism in Graubunden.

"Segantini's problem wasn't with his circle of fellow artists and art lovers," Brulisauer explains. "He got along with them very well. It was rather his habit of leaving bills from people like his local milkman unpaid. When he sold a painting, he would often throw a party for his friends in Savognin, forgetting all about the milkman. Naturally that didn't go over well with his creditors - or with the Swiss police."


Compounding Segantini's problems, as Dr. Beat Stutzer points out, was his alien status. Inability to produce passport documents made the painter a marked man, says Stutzer, a Chur-based art historian who recently published a biography of Segantini.

"He certainly had his problems with the authorities," Stutzer noted, and he never really solved them--even after he left Savognin and moved to the Engadine.

Yet Cornelia Pedretti, business manager of the St. Moritz-based Segantini Museum, says his run-ins with the police probably lessened in his new surroundings.

"I don't recall ever hearing about him having police problems here," Pedretti said. However, the artist remained sans papiers all his adult life--a situation leaving him vulnerable to the overzealous detectives of his day.

Model inspiration

On the 150th anniversary of his birth, Segantini's admirers also remember the painter's muse and model, Baba Uffer. She appears as a lone figure in many of his works, almost always as a peasant girl doing farm chores.

Only 13 or 14 when Segantini settled in Savognin, the local girl joined his family as a housekeeper, cook and governess for his four children. And when he roamed the Alpine setting in search of a scene to put on canvas, Baba toted his equipment and picnic provisions. She even remained with the family five years after his death.

A favourite close-up of Segantini's model appears in his Bundnerin at the Fountain (1887) now at home in the Kunstmuseum of St. Gallen. We see Baba sipping water from a tap in the fields-one of some 800 paintings completed in his brief career, many of which focus on scenes of Alpine farm life.

Yet critics usually rate Segantini's final effort--the Alpine triptych--as his masterwork.

The three scenes symbolise 'Life, Nature and Death', but he never quite finished the last scene before his own death, when his creative years had only just reached their peak.


Want to see more?

Segantini Museum

Via Somplatz 30

7500 St. Moritz

Telephone: 081 833 4454

The exhibition Segantini's Maid: Muse and Model

will run until September 14.

Opening hours: Tuesday through Sunday

10:00-12:00 and 14:00-18:00

Price: SFr 10 for adults, SFr 7 for students and SFr 2 for children
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Title Annotation:ART & CULTURE
Author:Shepard, Lyn
Publication:Swiss News
Date:Aug 1, 2008
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