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Friday, September 6, 2019

Art for Tourists? and is that bad? Three exhibitions in Rome: Gallerias Corsini, Borghese and Nazionale.

Juxtaposing art works by a theme other than historical context seems to be the new-ish rage. A couple Rome examples.

First, the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition at Galleria Corsini. I'm sure the Popes, cardinals, and royals who established and contributed to this gallery would roll over in their graves had they seen (a bit hard to do from the grave) Robert Mapplethorpe's stunning black and white photographs of sadomasochism next to paintings of saints. That's what the Corsini did - the show has been extended until October 6. I was fascinated by it; Bill not so much.

Then I wondered if I was falling into the trap of simplistic viewing of art - art for tourists rather than art for those who know and appreciate art, to steal a distinction used by Christopher Knight recently in a screed against the new Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) new building design and curator goals. A nicer way to put it, per Knight, is that "Every art museum serves two publics - an art public and a general public." In his polemic, Knight says LACMA's current plan "puts a thumb on the scale for the latter."

The extension of the Mapplethorpe exhibition was justified, according to the gallery, because public viewing of the Corsini doubled - part way through the current show - compared to the same period last year. In our experience, the Corsini is generally not one of the most visited museums in Rome.

Here's one of the more audacious Mapplethorpe juxtapositions, as I reference above:
Mapplethorpe, Lisa Lyon, 1981. The three paintings are by Bolognese painter
Guido Reni (1575-1642) of Christ with the Crown of Thorns, the Sorrowful Virgin 
and St. John the Baptist. The sculpture is "Silenus Head," Roman, 2nd Century AD.
The curator places the photography of body-builder Lisa Lyon in sadomasochistic garb below the three Guido Reni paintings of pained saints. What is the viewer to think about these works? That depictions of sorrow and pain can have similarities and differences over centuries? That Mapplethorpe's work is rooted in the classical?  It seems to me these are worthy questions, and they don't make the works "homeless," a term Knight uses.

I recall a pamphlet on the exhibition (which I lost on the way back from Rome) that explained Mapplethorpe's deep ties to classical art. And the image below demonstrates that:
Mapplethorpe, "Black Bust" (1988) and "Apollo" (1988), The sculpture is by Luigi Bienalmé
(1795 -1878), "Dancer with Finger on her Chin," in Rome's Galleria Corsini. Another sculpture from the 17th century "framed" Mapplethorpe's photographs on the other side.

Another exhibition illustrating this 'trend' is one I didn't see - Lucio Fontana's work placed in the Galleria Borghese, apparently the first 20th-century artist to be so "honored." It closed August 25. This one, too, keeps the Renaissance works in their own context, and adds Fontana. I'll leave it up to you to decide if the interplay adds meaning (photo below right).
"Terra e Oro" (Earth and Gold), Fontana exhibition at the
Galleria Borghese in Rome.

A third exhibition - on view until November 3 - takes a similar approach.  "Joint Is Out of Time," a follow-on to 2016's "Time Is Out of Joint" (yes, from "Hamlet") uses works in the Galleria Nazionale's collection placed in a context with each other that is not related to their style or chronology,  This is more of the type of exhibition Knight complains about - it takes everything out of context.  Each room in the exhibition has a different theme or way of connecting the pieces in it.

I liked one room that I would call "war" (the Gallery's descriptions of the rooms were non-existent for the most part, and there was very little information about the art work and the artists), even though it takes very different types of works in different media from different periods and puts them together. On the other hand, is this just "art tourism"? Art for the general public?  What more can we say than that the theme is one of fighting? Does the juxtaposition make us understand or appreciate any of the works more than if they were in context with other artists/styles/periods that are similar?

The sculpture of the fighting dogs, which is disturbingly real and well-placed in the gallery, is by Italian sculptor Davide Rivalta. It was in the 2016 exhibition as well. I don't recall the artist of the painting on the wall (one of our readers might). At the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna in Rome.
Unlike the pamphlet for the Mapplethorpe exhibition, the limited material available for the Galleria Nazionale exhibition was, frankly, close to unintelligible curator high b.s. And there was no attempt to tie the works together in the different rooms of the museum. You were on your own.  Or, if you were like these teenagers at right, in the room on "war," you were bored (whatever was on their phones was more interesting, apparently).

Below is an example from the Mapplethorpe exhibit that seemed to me too simplistic.  Each is a portrait of a dandy, from different periods. Each artist selected a similar profile; each subject has a high forehead and trimmed beard. Should we appreciate the similarities, or are the similarities simply superficial?
Left, Simone Cantarini, "Self-Portrait" (1612-1648);
Right, Mapplethorpe, "Harry Lunn," 1976. Galleria Corsini, Rome.

Another benefit from this type of exhibition is that it uses primarily the works already in the gallery. It doesn't require the loan of an entire show worth of works (in the case of Galleria Nazionale). It doesn't require rehanging an entire gallery (in the case of the Corsini and Borghese museums). In other words, it's economical compared to travelling or entirely new shows, at a time when galleries are underfunded.

Jason Farago, in a recent article in the New York Times on an exhibition at the Pompidou Center entitled “Préhistoire” ("Prehistory"), made a similar distinction in reviewing a show he says demonstrates - in detail - how "prehistory" influenced modern artists. He states, "This show doesn’t merely juxtapose hand axes and fossils with superficially concordant modern art, but grounds these juxtapositions with the artists’ notebooks, interviews, and other primary sources."  He is critical of some works in the show, noting "the curators' engagement with modernity and thickened time gives way to a few too many wink-nudge sendups of old rocks and fertility goddesses."  It's these "wink-nudge" comparisons that trouble me.

A contrast to the Rome exhibitions highlighted above is the Galleria Moderna d'Arte's (the city of  Rome's modern art gallery - once the Mussolini gallery (!)),exhibition on the depiction of women in art in the 20th century (a specific theme, a chronological approach, but also using its own collection) and the Palazzo Merulana (the private gallery about which I wrote a year ago) exhibition on the works of Giacomo Balla - a specific artist, again of the 20th century. (Photos below.) More traditional shows, not likely to draw as many visitors perhaps, but, to me, giving the viewer more opportunity to learn about the art.

Balla, "Autocaffè" 1928, in the show:
"Giacomo Balla. Dal Futurismo astratto
 al Futurismo iconico" (Giacomo Balla:
 From abstract Futurism to iconic Futurism)
 at Palazzo Merulana.
Photograph in Rome's Galleria Moderna d'Arte from its
show "Donne. Corpo e immagine tra simbolo e rivoluzione"
 ("Women: Body and image in symbol and revolution").

A respected gallery curator with whom I was speaking recently (who knew the three shows I highlighted above only from my descriptions) said these types of placement of works could encourage people who have previously seen the works to look at them in new ways, or could cause viewers who don't normally relate to one period or style to come to see it and possibly appreciate it because they came to see a style with which they are familiar. In either case, one is expanding the art public or the public's sense of art or both. Or are these shows just encouraging simplistic conclusions?

My ambivalence remains.


A PS to those who read my screed on private galleries, highlighting Palazzo Merulana and Los Angeles's Marciano Art Foundation: Palazzo Merulana recently won the "Best Practice - Public Patrimony" prize for 2019 ("Premio Best Practice Patrimoni Pubblici 2019"). So much for my opinion!

1 comment:

Kelly Medford said...

Interesting blog post! Of course Rome has very little curatorial resources (i.e. money) and so exhibitions really suffer, which one notices when going to a museum or exhibition elsewhere. The MADRE exhibition this past winter of Mapplethorpe's work was outstanding I thought.

The painting in GNAM is entitled "Scontro di Situzaioni n.4" by the artist Emilio Vedova (1959) and can be found on the GNAM website.