A New Look at Segantini’s “The Evil Mothers” Series / Anat Moberman, Ph.D ענת מוברמן by Anat Moberman, Ph.D. - Ourboox.com
Anat Moberman, Ph.D. in Art History and Education, Nicaragua University (2015). M.A. degree in Art Histoy, Tel Aviv University (2000). Italian Culture and Language (Specializatione), Siena University for Strangers (2002). B.A. in Art History, Tel-Aviv University (1991). Design, Art and Architecture Lecturer in HIT, Technological Institue Hulon, Israel ; Colledge of Management,…
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A New Look at Segantini’s “The Evil Mothers” Series / Anat Moberman, Ph.D ענת מוברמן

by Anat Moberman, Ph.D.

Between the years 1891-6 Giovanni Segantini painted a large series of Paintings dealing with the subject of mothers who rejecting their natural destiny – motherhood, either by refusing to conceive or through performing abortions. Most of the references see the paintings as an expression to the Decadent atmosphere of the Fèmme Fatale image of a sexual-motivated, free and murderous woman. It is already know, from Segantini’s letters, that he was inspired by Luigi Illica’s[1] (1857-1919) poem “Nirvana”[2].


[1]. Luigi Illica (9 May 1857 – 16 December 1919) was an Italian librettist who wrote for

Giacomo Puccini (usually with Giuseppe Giacosa), Alfredo Catalani, Umberto Giordano,

Baron Alberto Franchetti and other important Italian composers. His most famous opera

librettos are those for La bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly and Andrea Chénier. Illica was

born at Castell’Arquato. In: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luigi_Illica (21.2.14).

[2] . Illica claimed that the poem is a translation of an ancient Indian text written in the 12th

century by a monk named Panghiavahli. A study of Anni-Paul Quinsac on Segantini’s art,

exposed the fact that Illica himself wrote the poem. Quinsac, Annie Paule, “Segantini”, in:

Art Dossier, n. 179, (Firenze:  Giunti, 2002). P. 10


The role Nature plays in the poem’s verses gives a new look of the series, of Sin and Redemption, thus capturing the whole series as one piece of art.  According the poem’s title, Illica adopted the Buddhist concept of Nirvana, meaning “shutting down”, which refers to the Buddhist’s state of mind following the enlightenment he passes, a state of emptiness, nothingness, lack of joy, sadness, suffering and pain[3],  in order to refer to Nature itself: “Over there, within the infinite light blue space/ A glamorous Nirvana/ There, behind the rugged mountains and gray rocks/ Wonderful Nirvana”…[4]


[3]. Alistair Shearer, Buddha, The Intelligent Heart, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1996), p.


[4]. “Là su ne l’infinito spazio ceruleo,/ Nirvana irradia! / Là, dietro a li aspri e a  balze grigie,/

    splende Nirvana!/   […]”. Arcangeli, Gozzoli, 1973. p. 114.


Thus, the poem’s landscape description  becomes a metaphor for the Nirvana’s mental state. This is a lack of drama, eternal snowy, lifeless Nature, where trees are naked and not blooming. This silent Nature becomes an allegory to the Evil Mothers’ mental state, both in the poem and in Segantini’s series. The first painting of the series, The Punishment of Luxury, (fig. 1)[5] from 1891, presents an accordance with the poem’s lyrics.

The poem and the painting presents a description of a snowy landscape and denuded bushes, which in their branches entangled hairs topless women, hovering in the air.


[5]. Segantini, “Il castigo delle Lussuriose” (“Il nirvana delle lussuriose”; “Le madri snaturale”;),

1891, Oil on Canvas, 99 X 173 cm, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. In:

http:///idlespeculations-terryprest.blogspot.co.il/2007/12/giovanni-segantini.html  (22.2.14)


A New Look at Segantini’s “The Evil Mothers” Series / Anat Moberman, Ph.D ענת מוברמן by Anat Moberman, Ph.D. - Ourboox.com

The poem also makes a correlation between the frozen landscape and the emotional and physical state of the women: “Thus the Evil mother in a bluish-grayish Valley / Because of an eternal glaciers / Where no branch or flower is blooming / Circular is being pushed /  Does not give a smile, a hug, to her only son / Oh useless mother / A soul wasn’t blooming from your kisses /, Oh useless mother / So is the agony of silence / Being dragged and pushed / A frozen development with watery eyes / glaciated shapes / Look at her! Restless / as madness! … And she is tormented with silence…”[6].


[6]. “Cosi la Male Madre in vallea livida / per ghiacci eterni / dove non ramo inverda o fiore sboccia

    / gira sospinta. / Non ebbe  un riso, un sol bacio il suo figlio. / O invano madre? / Non diè

   germogli dei tuoi baci  l’anima. / O invano madre? / Cosi te la tormenta del silenzio. Arcangeli,

Gozzoli, 1973. p. 114.


In a letter to Vittore Grubicy De Dragon (1851-1920)[7],dated in 1891, Segantini has emphasized the role of Nature in the painting iconography: “… The lusty women I have punished in nirvana of snow and glaciers. These are the figures hovering in space without wings, surrender to pain, carried up to the setting sun, and this is the meaning of the painting, the color is a symphony of whites and blues, silver and gold.”[8]


[7]. Vittore Grubicy De Dragon was an Italian painter, dealer critic and collector of Hungarian

origin. Around 1870 he frequented the circle of Gli Scapiliati (the Italian impressionists)

and in 1870-71 Visited in London. Grubicy’s acquaintance with the art galleries there

inspired him to start his own gallery in Milan, specializing in the Scapigliati artists, and later

he has expanded his interest in the young Lombardian Divisionist and Symbolist artists,

primarily Giovanni Segantini and Gaetano Previati.

Grubicy De Dragon was largely responsible for introducing to Italy the optical theories that

led to Divisionism in Italian painting. His writings and artistic examples influenced an entire

generation of The late 19th century Italian painters.



In: http://www.wga.hu/bio_m/g/grubicy/biograph.html (22.4.2014).

[8]. “…le Lussuriose che io castigo a un nirvana di nevi e ghiacci. Sono figure lanciate nel’vuoto

   Senza alli dolorosamente rassegniate, ese sinnalzano verso  il sole che tramonta e questo e

   il senso della forma, il colore è una sinfonia di bianchi a azuri,argento e oro”. Lettera a Vittore

Grubicy, 21.5.1891, in: Quinsac, 1895. p. 346.


While this work from 1891 demonstrated Segantini’s attachment to the first part of the poem, in a later version of the same theme, which was given the name The Evil Mothers (fig. 2)[9], from 1894, he highlighted the end of the poem – woman’s surrender to the more powerful nature and her transformation to a mother. As described in the poem, so is in the painting, out of the bare tree branches she’s hang on, a baby face appears, described when he was “hungrily breast sucking / and kissing.”[10]


[9]. Segantini, Le cattive madri  (Il nirvana delle lussuriose ; “Le lussuriose ; Le infanticide”),

1894, 120 X 225 cm. Olio su tela. Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Neue Galerie in der


http://www.judgmentofparis.com/board/showpost.php?p=6773&postcount=1 (Apr. 2014).

[10]. Arcangeli, Gozzoli, 1973. p. 114.

A New Look at Segantini’s “The Evil Mothers” Series / Anat Moberman, Ph.D ענת מוברמן by Anat Moberman, Ph.D. - Ourboox.com

Similar to the previous picture, the snowy landscape contains femininity figures tied up to the tree branches as well. But whereas the flooding blue color characterize the earlier version, the second one is characterized with white snowy color. In his diaries, which recorded his thoughts on art and aesthetics, specified Segantini that while the white neutral snowy color symbolize death the color came to symbolize life.[11] Thus, in addition to the naturalistic character of the work and its focus on Engadina’s scenery, the colorful descriptions of the snowy landscape and the blossomed tree corresponding the poem’s comparison between landscape and woman, according to which the barren woman who surrender to her natural instincts and becomes a mother views as a bare winter tree sprouting leaves when it’s spring. One can therefore concludes that the tree,


[11]. ‘I neri, I bianchi ed I grigi’ , in: Bianca Segantini (cura di), Scriti e lettere di G. Segantini,

(Torino: Fratelli Bocca, Editore, 1910). p. 37.


which is a recurring and important theme in the poem and in the series of paintings of the Evil Mothers, becomes the Tree of Life.[12] Observing the woman’s face (fig. 3) [13]reveals that, despite the tension in her tilted back body, her face completely relaxed, free of pain and suffering. Thus it can be concluded that the term “Nirvana” does not refer only to the landscape, but rather defines the state of the woman herself, who, fulfilling her destiny as a mother, had stopped suffering and has reached the state of Nirvana.


[12]. The concept of a Tree of Life has been used in sciencereligion, philosophy, and mythology. A Tree of Life is a common motif in various world theologies, mythologies, and philosophies. It alludes to the interconnection of all life on our planet and serves as a metaphor for common descent in the evolutionary sense. The term Tree of Lfe may also be used as a synonym for sacred tree. In: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tree_of_life (Apr. 2014).

[13]. Segantini, Le cattive madri  (Il nirvana delle lussuriose ; “Le lussuriose ; Le infanticide”),detail. 1894, 120 X 225 cm. Oil on canvas. Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Neue Galerie in der stalburg.


A New Look at Segantini’s “The Evil Mothers” Series / Anat Moberman, Ph.D ענת מוברמן by Anat Moberman, Ph.D. - Ourboox.com

Evidence of this interpretation can also be found in the additional title given to the painting, The Nirvana of the Lustfuls, which so far was ignored by researchers of Segantini’s work, such as Quinsac and Damigella. This lack of address prevents a full understanding of the painting. This analysis of the painting reveals that the Nature accompanies the Evil Mothers series is not only a naturalistic description of Engadina’s landscape, Segantini’s residence in those years, but this is a symbolic nature which deals with the cyclical nature of life, the transition from infertility to fertility, sin and redemption, birth and renewal.


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