The man on the top of the mountain

Notebook Entry: Miami 2010

We all at some point desire to seek out the wise man that is sitting on top of the mountain listening to our burning questions. Lets say I have found such a man. I would brace the acid cold and climb over steep plateaus to reach him.

Here is Giovanni Segantini (1858 – 1899) on what is art:

“Art should lead us up to that spiritual sustenance which is as yet unknown to the mass of mankind, and which will constitute at once the delight and the torment of future generations. Art without an ideal is but nature without life. . . there are two ways to see art, that may serve as a starting point, although they are entirely opposed to each other. First that truth which is outside ourselves is not art, it has not and cannot have any value as art ; it is but a blind imitation of nature, and could not be anything else ; hence it is a purely material representation. Matter should be elaborated by mind if it is to rise to the form of art which endures.

The second is that the lasting value to a work of art is the blind imitation of nature : All that the painter has added of his own, the so-called personal interpretation, the arbitrary variations, and the comments on nature, die ; while what he has reproduced sincerely and truthfully, exactly as he saw it in nature, lives for ever, and the furthest ages will joyfully welcome it as a work of art, as a good old friend, as never-changing nature.

It is indeed true that an ideal which is outside nature cannot last, but a reality without ideals is realism without life. Those works of art in which the artist has ‘reproduced’ the soul in the living and perceptible form, not the artist’s own soul, but that of his subject, of him or of her whom he was reproducing. This form of art, although impersonal, is nevertheless highly spiritual, and not a mere material reproduction : matter was but a means to the end. We almost invariably find this form of art in portraits painted by the great masters of all ages, and it is here that they have attained their greatest power, a portrait being a work which combines the highest simplicity of means with the greatest effectiveness in the art of expressing the living and perceptible form.Thus a work of art can only be expressed in a living form, either by expressing the personal feeling of him who created it, or the living sense of nature. . . .Tell me what else is art, beautiful, true, noble art, but the photographic image, the measure that marks the degrees of the perfection of the human soul ?

It is not merely by means of the beauty of nature in the abstract that we can create a work of art. This creation is possible only through an impulse of the spirit or human soul. When we feel the idea of art quickening within us, and we give to it all our faculties until it be ripe, it will be as if a flame suddenly warmed and illumined our soul : the power of this flame is irresistible, and the work of art is born and full of vitality this we deduce that beauty exists in nature because we see it and feel it, and the manner and measure of our feeling are in proportion to our spiritual capabilities. Thus a work of art being an interpretation of nature, the more spiritual elements it contains and reproduces with sentiment and dignity of form, the further is it removed from the perception of the common herd. It cannot be appreciated save by those who by means of long and patient study have succeeded in raising their spirit to the perception and assimilation of those spiritual elements.

These two definitions of art has led to the following results. When the artist wished to render universal an idea of his own, he had to take into account the intelligence of the masses, and consequently adapt himself to the tastes of others, that is to say, to the taste of his day. An universal feeling or an idea of one’s own by means of an artistic presentation, or to reproduce artistically a universal feeling or idea, by which the artist’s soul was impressed.’If, on the other hand, the artist was impressed by an idea or a feeling that was universal, and he wished to consolidate it in an artistic form, he could neither follow the free impulse of his genius, nor see the idea which had inspired his work sublime and glittering in its own full brilliancy. Freedom of form and of personal sentiment disappear, the ideal impulse of the artist having been quenched,corrected, and adapted to ideas determined by others..In art it is absolutely necessary to blend realism with idealism.


Art should reveal sensations that are new to the spirit of the initiated : the art which leaves the spectator indifferent has no reason to exist. The suggestiveness of a work of art is in proportion to the intensity with which it was felt by the artist in conceiving it, and this is in proportion to the refinement, the purity, as we may call it, of his feelings. In this way the lightest and most fleeting impressions are rendered more intense and become fixed in the brain, moving the higher spirit that synthetises them, and making it fruitful ; hence comes that elaboration which translates the artistic ideal into a living form. To preserve this ideal vision while executing his work, the artist must summon up all his powers, so that the initial energy may continue active; it is a vibration of his nerves which are intent on feeding the flame, on keeping alive the vision by constantly recalling it, lest the idea should dissolve or fade, that idea which should become alive on the canvas, creating the work that will be spiritually personal and materially true. Not true in the external, superficial, conventional sense, which is the stamp of common art, but true in the sense of that truth, which goes beyond the barriers of superficial lines and tones, and gives life to form and light and colour.

This, then, is realism. It enters into the soul and becomes part of the idea. The brush sweeps across the canvas and obeys ; it shows the quivering of the fingers in which all the nervous vibrations are concentrated ; the different objects, the beasts, the birds, the human beings are born, and take shape, light, and life in all their smallest details. The flame of art is in the artist, and by means of the tension of his soul it maintains in him the emotion which he communicates to his work. Through this emotion the mechanical, toilsome effort of the artist disappears, and the complete work of art is created, all of one piece, living, perceptible ; it is the incarnation of the spirit in matter, it is a creation. Thus by creating a work of art we render our own soul more noble and perfect, and sometimes that of others as well.

From: *Luigi Villari, Giovanni Segantini. London, T.Fisher Unwin, 1901, pp105-119. All images details from Segantini’s paintings.
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