Giuseppe Cominetti's Conquerors of the Sun, a hymn to work and hope

It is titled "The Conquerors of the Sun" the most famous work by Giuseppe Cominetti, an original pointillist from Vercelli. A hymn to work, May Day, and hope for the future.

“That madman of a Cominetti whom in his youth no sage would have wanted for a friend” That artist “who dispersed in the obscure pages of little newspapers of the time, which no art magazine has handed down.” This is how Giovanni Carandente, compiling the entry on Giuseppe Cominetti in the 1959 Rome Quadrennial catalog, recalled the poor fortune that the Vercelli artist would experience especially after his untimely death. An artist who is still little known today, Cominetti: his short life (he died at the age of forty-eight) and the fact that he spent most of his existence outside Italy, in Paris, where he enjoyed the greatest successes, did not help him. Yet one cannot fail to attribute to him, as Carandente himself recalled, the role of “avant-garde proponent in the Genoa milieu of the early twentieth century,” which he held along with another forgotten great, that older Rubaldo Merello, who like Cominetti has recently been rediscovered, and had the honor of a monograph dedicated to him, which was held at the Palazzo Ducale in Genoa between 2017 and 2018. Cominetti had his own exhibition in 2010: a small show at the Borgogna Museum in Vercelli that had set itself the goal of repositioning his figure among those preeminent figures who characterized the period between Divisionism and Futurism.

On that occasion, the Burgundy was able to acquire one of the artist’s seminal works, Le Forgeron, which together with three pendants, namely L’Electricité preserved at the same museum, L’Edilité from the Museo dell’Accademia Ligustica in Genoa and a fourth panel on the work of the earth, the location of which is unknown today, went to make up a kind of polyptych on work, a theme that was always dear to the great Piedmontese artist. His best-known painting, The Conquerors of the Sun, a 1907 work also kept at the Burgundy Museum, where it came directly from the painter’s heirs, is also about work. It is a masterpiece that takes the achievements of Divisionist painting to extremes: above an earth scorched by a sun that burns the sky and invests it with its unnaturally red light, three workers, solitary and titanic, almost heroic in their immense effort, bend down to scratch the ground with the claws of their bladed hoes. On closer inspection, however, the farmer is only one: he is caught by Cominetti in three different moments of his action, in a kind of anticipation of Futurist dynamism.

Giuseppe Cominetti, I conquistatori del sole (1907; olio su tela, 291 x 290 cm; Vercelli, Museo Francesco Borgogna)
Giuseppe Cominetti, The Conquerors of the Sun (1907; oil on canvas, 291 x 290 cm; Vercelli, Museo Francesco Borgogna)

It was, in essence, a new image, both because such a strong pointillist painting, capable of pushing to the limits the research of a Nomellini, to whom Cominetti would look to for much of his career (the Vercellian, younger younger by sixteen years than the Tuscan, had approached him shortly after moving to Genoa in 1902), had never been seen, and also because the idea of wanting to paint the peasant in an almost cinematic sequence was also innovative. Natural, then, that in 1909 came the invitation to exhibit the work, created precisely in Genoa, at the Salon d’Automne in Paris, where it was appreciated. And Cominetti himself fell in love with Paris, to the point of deciding to set up residence there. In his Conquerors of the Sun coexist the innovative modernity of the image, which is also nourished by Previati’s luministic experiments (from 1901 the Ferrara-born artist stayed in Liguria on several occasions, and Cominetti got to know his works well and closely) and the social inspiration, in which it is likewise possible to see against the light a further sign of his closeness to Nomellini, who at the end of the nineteenth century had engaged in paintings of strong social denunciation and was also politically active (he was even arrested, in 1894, for attending meetings of the Genoese anarchist movement). Nomellini would later abandon his socially inspired painting. Cominetti would instead insist, breaking through “the drama of the immanent toil of modern man,” as the painter Gianfranco Bruno had written, “in the vitality of the new time, in the coruscating flexing of the human image on the tensions of life.” These are the instances of which his Conquerors of the Sun are the bearers.

In his Storia dell’arte italiana, Giorgio Di Genova pointed out that the work owes its title “to the vespertine light that illuminates it,” even as a “homage to pointillist pointillism.” To reduce the title and scope of this work to a purely technical matter, however, is to miss a far from minor part of its content. At the time Cominetti was painting his work, the works of Giovanni Cena, who had already given to print three collections of poems in which the theme of labor was addressed on several occasions, sometimes with a somber outlook (“eternally slaves and blind go / for an unknown and infinite heath”), at other times with a less disillusioned outlook, especially in the poems where the theme of working the land enters (“the mondaiole go and with sanguine / poppies flourish their braid: / singing the song villereccia / svelgon dal grano i cespiti maligni”). That land which is seen by Cena as a mother offering man “the daily bread,” that same land on which the dusky sun shines under which Cominetti’s peasants work. It will also be interesting to recall that shortly before Cominetti painted The Conquerors of the Sun, Cena, in 1903, had published his first and only novel, The Warners. It is the story of a printer who, dismissed after a strike, comes face to face with a varied and derelict humanity moving through the working-class houses of Turin, and decides to try to redeem his condition by writing his autobiography and then goes so far as to plan to commit suicide by throwing himself under theking’s car, in a gesture that is meant to be the beginning of a new life for many, the fulfillment of the desire to “live within others, within humanity, within universal being,” the will to offer with one’s death “a testimony in favor of life.” The image of the sun recurs often in the novel. The sun that illuminates a Sunday rest after a week of work, and is therefore greeted with joy. The sun that enters through the window on a winter day and warms the protagonist’s soul. The sun that lights the air with its warmth, gives life to the currents of the sea and lifts it up, the sun that fertilizes the earth. “The sun is our true good, for now there is no greater one,” says in the novel Crastino, the poet friend of Martino Stanga, that is, the printer who tells his story up to the ultimate decision to take his own life.

The sun is more than a pretext for attempting experiments in pointillist light. The sun is a saving presence. It is the purest and brightest symbol of hope. Cominetti’s peasants know this well. And that is why they set out for the difficult conquest: from the fields they will ask for a respite from the sweat, remembering Pietro Gori’s hymn, waiting for May to come and shine for them to the glory of the sun.

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