Thursday, August 16, 2012

Getty to feature modern depictions of Pompeii catastrophe

Unlike many other 
exhibitions of archaeological material from Pompeii, The Getty Villa's new presentation,  The Last Days of Pompeii: Decadence, Apocalypse, Resurrection, scheduled to open September 12, 2012 and running until January 7, 2013, begins with modern representations of perceived Pompeian decadence.  

The prevailing idea that the cataclysmic eruption that destroyed the Vesuvian cities in A.D. 79 was a justly deserved punishment for sins has pervaded popular consciousness through art and literature up to the present day. This notion has inspired artists and provided a vehicle to present sensual scenes or subversive themes in an acceptable setting.  A highlight of this section is Francesco Netti’s most famous work, Gladiator Fight during a Meal at Pompeii (1880, Naples, Museo di Capodimonte), which depicts the aftermath of a mortal combat held at a Pompeian banquet for the entertainment of dissolute, drunken Romans, while ladies swoon after the victor.

Gladiator Fight at a Meal in Pompeii by Francesco Netti (1880)

But despite its seeming accuracy, achieved through the precise depiction of archaeological artifacts, this scene has little basis in ancient practice. Roman gladiators generally performed in public arenas and rarely fought to the death.  The painting, rather, can be viewed as a contemporary critique of mid-nineteenth-century Italian aristocrats. 
Also on display are photographs by Wilhelm von Gloeden and Gugliemo Plüschow, some from Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s personal archive, which record some of the best-known monuments at Pompeii populated by local youths staged in various states of undress. These photographs perpetuate a long-standing notion that Pompeii was a place of desire and erotic indulgence.

The second section examines the well-known apocalyptic event. Pompeii’s catastrophic demise has become the archetype for all subsequent disasters, whether natural or man-made. While eighteenth- and nineteenth-century artists often celebrated the terrifying yet beautiful power of nature, more recent artists have used the event to explore such issues as the aftermath of World War II and the angst of the Atomic Age.
 Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago
Flight From Pompeii by Giovanni
Maria Benzoni, Italian,  1873.
Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Sebastian William Thomas Pether’s Eruption of Vesuvius with Destruction of a Roman City (1824, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts) dramatically shows the volcano spewing lava onto the ancient city, but his depiction of Roman architecture and figures in early-nineteenth century dress cross temporal boundaries. Also, embedded in the gilt frame are pieces of what appears to be lava, but is actually trimmed wood burl. Thus, what was intended to add authenticity to the imaginary scene is itself false. Alternatively, Andy Warhol’s Mount Vesuvius (1985, Pittsburg, Warhol Museum), with its vibrant palette and cartoonish effects, demonstrates that serial reproductions and kitsch are not just hallmarks of Pop Art, but also relate to the proliferation of images of the famous volcano. 
The exhibition also explores the famous body casts of Vesuvius’s victims. Since the invention of the plaster casting technique in 1863, body casts of victims have captured the imagination of the public through photographs of such artists as Giorgio Sommer, whose image on view of the famous cast of a dog found in the House of Vesonius Primus at Pompeii has served as an iconic representation of the suffering of the victims.
Cast of an unfortunate animal victim of
the 79 CE Vesuvius eruption.  
Photographed at Boscoreale, Italy by
Mary Harrsch.

Widely reproduced, it has been featured in numerous modern and contemporary works of art including Robert Rauschenberg’s Small Rebus (1956, Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art) and Allan McCollum’s sculpture The Dog from Pompeii (1991, New York, Artist/Friedrich Petzel Gallery), which appear in the exhibition. The body casts on display in the exhibition are modern works, made from the now lost voids of disappeared bodies. Although we react to them emotionally, they are far removed from Vesuvius’s ancient victims. 
Another myth about Pompeii is its state of preservation. Few people realize that during World War II, the archaeological site was badly damaged by bombing carried out by American and British fighters seeking to disrupt German resupply routes nearby. After the war, many of the damaged structures were quickly rebuilt. Included in the exhibition are items from the Getty Research Institute’s special collections, which record the destruction caused by the bombing and detail the locations of the strikes. 
The exhibition concludes with an examination of archaeological fantasy and the attempts of artists to resurrect the ancient city. For over three hundred years, buildings and artifacts excavated at Vesuvian sites have advanced scientific reconstructions of daily life in the classical world. 
Reproduction of a bronze Faun found in the
House of the Faun in Pompeii.  Photographed
by Mary Harrsch at the Pompeii Archaeological
Park near Naples, Italy.

Simultaneously, they have underpinned more fanciful reincarnations, as artists have superimposed their contemporary values and ideas on antiquity with a variety of motivations, from the light-hearted to the serious. 
Inspired by a famous ancient figure of a dancing faun found in Pompeii, Hippolyte Alexandre Julien Moulin’s large bronze, A Lucky Find at Pompeii (1863, Paris, Musée d’Orsay), playfully depicts a nude Neapolitan youth rejoicing in the discovery of a fragmentary statuette of the hero Hercules, which he holds up in his right hand. The boy’s pleasure at his Pompeian find embodies the nineteenth-century European enthusiasm for both the artworks newly unearthed at Vesuvian sites and the process of their recovery, however idealized. The sculpture was much celebrated, winning a medal at the Paris Salon of 1864.
(Foreground) A Lucky Find in Pompeii by
Hippolyte Alexandre Julien Moulin, French
1863.  Photographed at the Mus
ée d'Orsay by Mary Harrsch.
 From the Vatican Museums comes an extraordinary loan of a cabinet containing objects excavated at Pompeii during the 1849 site visit by Pope Pius IX. There is much doubt about the extent to which these excavations were staged and whether artifacts were planted, since the objects found are strikingly diverse in type and material, including items of marble, glass, bronze, terracotta, local stone and lava, perhaps chosen in advance to emphasize the quality and variety of finds.
I sincerely hope I can make it down to the Getty Villa during this important exhibition.
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