The exhibition “Pompei@Madre. Materia Archeologica: Le Collezioni”, organized by the Madre museum in collaboration with the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, explores the potential multiple relationships between archaeological heritage and modern and contemporary artistic research, creating a dialogue between extraordinary but rarely displayed material from Pompeii and the artworks of Madre museum site-specific collection.
The exhibition Pompei@Madre. Materia Archeologica (“Pompei@Madre. Archaeological Matter“) – curated by Massimo Osanna, Director of the Parco Archeologico di Pompei, and Andrea Viliani, Director of Madre · museo d’arte contemporanea Donnaregina of Naples, with the curatorial coordination for the modern section by Luigi Gallo – is based on a rigorous research activity resulting from unprecedented institutional collaboration between the Madre and the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, the most important archaeological Italian site and one of the most visited worldwide.
Based on a comparison and discussion of respective research methodologies, disciplinary fields and collections, Pompei@Madre. Materia Archeologica consists in studying the potential multiple relationships between archaeological heritage and artistic research, creating a dialogue between extraordinary but little-known and rarely displayed archaeological material from Pompeii and modern and contemporary artworks.
A contemporary domus
The dialogue with the materials and artefacts from Pompeii puts the artworks of the site-specific collection of the Madre museum back into perspective, transforming the museum into a real “contemporary domus”. The frescoed gallery decorated with majolica designed by Francesco Clemente becomes the hub of the domus, in other words the tablinum and triclinium: the reception room of the owner of the house (dominus) and the space for parties and banquets.
The extensive temporal perspective evoked by the pairing of archaeology and contemporaneity enables us to explore the materiality of the archeological artifact and, therefore, the intimate fragility, the ephemeral nature and the entropic destiny of every art work, of each civilization and culture, of the History itself.
Pompei is always contemporary
Pompeii represents an extraordinary laboratory in which time has stood still for centuries, giving back fragments of a long-lost civilization that still remains resilient. Pompeii is a veritable time machine, which, by providing us with the history of the materials immersed within the flow of time, blurs the difference between past and present, nature and culture, life and death, destruction and reconstruction.
Pompei@Madre. Materia Archeologica
The exhibition itinerary – which starts with Pompei@Madre. Materia Archeologica: The Collections in the atrium and on the first floor – continues on the third floor, with Pompei@Madre. Materia Archeologica, a circular exploration with works, artifacts, documents and tools linked to the history of the various excavation campaigns at Pompeii, beginning with the rediscovery of the site in 1748, displayed next to modern and contemporary works and documents. Coming from Italian and international collections, both public and private, each of these works and documents has continued to lay claim, over the last two and a half centuries, to the contemporary significance and inspiration of Pompeian “archeological matter”, acting as a vector between different spaces, times and cultures, continuing to compare them as an authentic space-time portal that has contributed to the definition and development of European modernity.
This explains the decision to combine in the exhibition, even if only by allusion, visual arts, literature, music, theatre, cinema, historiography, cartography, paleo-ethnology, anthropology, biology, botany, zoology, chemistry, physics and genetics, as well as the immense field of new technologies.
In an attempt to define hypothetical parallels running through ancient, modern and contemporary history, the exhibition recounts the history of “material” which, after the eruption of 24 August 79 AD, was initially forced into a period of dormancy lasting over a thousand years. However, after its rediscovery in 1748, it became the object of cyclical rediscoveries, such as the ones made by the many travellers on the Grand Tour. Although it endured new dramatic catastrophes – such as the damage caused by British and American bombing during the Second World War, beginning with the bombing carried out on 24 August 1943 – Pompeii also underwent further periods of regeneration and was therefore open to further exploration and narratives. A living matter.
Indeed, in what appears to be a response to Goethe who wrote in 1787 that “of all the catastrophes to have beset the world, none caused greater joy to subsequent generations”, another writer, Chateaubriand, described his visit to “a Roman town preserved in its entirety, as if the inhabitants had left a quarter of an hour before”. They were followed by many other artists and intellectuals, culminating in the present and the works of the many artists and intellectuals on display here. The story of this “archaeological matter”, which is both fragile yet combative, archetypal yet ephemeral, has enabled Pompeii to remain contemporary and this is the story told by this exhibition.
On the third floor the subdivision of the exhibition into different galleries also follows the same pattern as the atrium and the first floor, abandoning chronological criteria, like a narrative in several chapters, in which each work, regardless of the dating, provenance or characteristics, alludes to the other works on display in the same gallery.
The itinerary begins with the presentation of several excavation daybooks (1780; 1853) and by the first of the diary-registers that record the destructions caused in 1943, surrounded by the everyday work tools of the archaeologists (shovels, pick axes, brushes, baskets, sieves, set squares, lanterns, signs and stretchers) as well as by a cartography, which shows an aerial view of Pompeii taken in 1910 using a hot-air balloon. The center of the gallery is dominated by several blocks of stone, on which several organic or inorganic elements grow or take shape, like excrescences: these are the works of Adrián Villar Rojas, which suggest – as a first short-circuit between the plausible and implausible – that we are faced by a contemporary work of art rather than an archaeological find.
After a glass display bookcase containing the bibliographic history of the interest in the “archaeological matter” of Pompeii over more than two and a half centuries, shown together a text-based work by Darren Bader and a drawing that records the fall of volcanic dust by Renato Leotta, the exhibition continues with galleries in which modern documents – water-coloured prints, photographs, furnishings, unique or multiplied artifacts (authentic vintage multiples) – are integrated with archaeological fragments and artifacts and contemporary works of art.
The aquatints in the series Vues pittoresques de Pompéi by Jakob Wilhelm Hüber, the pupil of the painter Jacob Philipp Hackert and a seminal figure in the development of the Posillipo School of Painting, proceed towards the salvaged prints by Roman Ondák, in which the artist includes, more than two centuries later, an impossible pencil self-portrait as the witness of these past events. In the series of photographs that record the excavation campaigns at Pompeii, the visitor is suddenly faced with Victor Burgin’s theory of the columns of Basilica I and Basilica II, whose theme is, in its turn, contradicted and simultaneously reaffirmed by the three-dimensional, spectral materialisations of the broken column by Maria Loboda, the white-gold base by Iman Issa and the architectural profile by Rita McBride, the sculptural profile by Mark Manders and a photograph by Luigi Ghirri.
The focus is on wall decorations and mosaics with various Pompeian styles of illusory representation, which are captured from the analogical point of view by Nan Goldin and Mimmo Jodice and from the digital point of view by the tapestry by Laure Provost, or from the perspective of the compendiario style in the ceramic bas relief by Betty Woodman, which seems to be shaped by the same curiosity that animates the modern copies, whether drawn in pencil or made in relief earthenware, of the large mosaic of the battle of Issus.
The sketches and the studies of architectural designs done by Claude-Ferdinand Gaillard, Pierre Gusman, Jules-Leon Chiffot between 1861 and 1927 are combined with fragments of original domus. The model theatre by Fausto Melotti, supported by the metallic structure decorated in Pompeian red by Thea Djordjadze, acts as a backdrop to the two biscuit porcelain vases produced by the Capodimonte porcelain factory (the Real Fabbrica di Porcellana di Capodimonte) and a work dating to the same period made using pietra dura inlay, which copies the Temple of Isis, the first complete temple to be found at Pompeii in 1764.
In the same room, Le Corbusier’s drawings explore the biodynamic features of the Pompeian domus – in its balance between interior and exterior, architectural components and the relationship with the surrounding environment, the architectural structure and wall decoration – expressing an architectural experience that contradicts the symbolic and anti-democratic rhetoric of ancient Roman monuments. While a wall with a fresco from the House of the Golden Bracelet is juxtaposed with a wall covered in silver paint sprayed with a fire hydrant and grooved with small works by Pádraig Timoney, the ethereal environmental installations of Haris Epaminonda seem to be echoed by the bowls with multi-coloured powder found at Pompeii or by one of their end products, a detached fresco with a female figure framed by two wreaths and carried in triumph by a group of elephants.
The central gallery of the exhibition contains a series of landscape paintings of the Vesuvian countryside showing the volcano erupting: it is an eruption which – as in a sequence that takes in the whole room in a circular panning shot – seems to continue uninterruptedly from the mid-eighteenth century, with landscapes and vedute of the neo-classical, romantic and naturalistic-verist eras (from Johan Christian Dahl, Joseph François Désiré Thierry, Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes and Pierre-Jacques Volaire to Gioacchino Toma), until the 1980s, with an example of Vesuvius by Warhol, only to stop temporarily at the same year as the exhibition, with the work Untitled by Wade Guyton.
Heaps of “archaeological matter” from Pompeii, made from both stone and pottery, are placed in the centre of the room – in a silent juxtaposition with the works in marble and stone by Trisha Donnelly and Christodoulos Panayiotou, from which hints of a hypothetical figuration begin to emerge – illustrating the flow of this material between different but coexisting eras, media, styles and sensibilities. The adjacent room contains, on a terracotta floor by Petra Feriancová, materials that are undergoing transformation, ranging from the assemblage by Robert Rauschenberg Pompeii Gourmet to the tyre-leaf by Mike Nelson.
After a gallery devoted to a conjectural and imaginative museography – featuring a peep-show and Hamilton-like display cases made by Mark Dion, mixed with real finds and modern objects and framed by the “fire painter” by Ernesto Tatafiore – the following rooms unfold like a funeral ode (epicedium) devoted to the theme of death: the death of everything, of every human being, animal and vegetable beneath the shower of lapilli, ash and pumice of 79 AD.
In a diachrony that appears to level everything, from the fossilized office by Jimmie Durham to the documents of Operazione Vesuvio – with which in 1972 the critic and curator Pierre Restany encouraged several artists to transform the area around Vesuvius into a “culture park”, a gigantic work of Land Art – culminating in the identification between earth and sky in the rough canvas painted by Salvatore Emblema on the slopes of Vesuvius, which embrace both.
From an ossurary chest from the storerooms of Pompeii, the visitor come to the distinct gigantic profiles standing on immaculate skulls in Terrae Motus by Nino Longobardi, to the black and white skulls/loaves by Antonio Biasiucci, the white bomber bas relief by Seth Price, and the chairs-imprints of body parts by Nairy Baghramian.
The plaster cast of the “Pompeian dog” – a technique developed and published between 1863 and 1868 by Giuseppe Fiorelli, the then director of the Pompeii excavations – is followed by its serial multiplication by Allan McCollum, culminating in the glass display cases with birds in a gradual state of decay by Roberto Cuoghi. However, it is at this point that a taxonomy of organic materials appears in a climatised display case: they represent the remains of life which, at Pompeii, remained buried, carbonised, fragmented, but not annihilated: seeds, bushes, fruit, shells, bones, eggs, bread and fabrics.
These forms of life, which have been patiently collected and carefully studied by archaeologists, agronomists and botanists, anthropologists and zoologists, chemists and physicists, may enable life at Pompeii to be reborn… from its own ashes. As seems to be suggested by the zoomorphic vases and anthropomorphic masks also found at Pompeii, which appears to have inspired, through the hypothetical mediation of Ettore Sottsass’ vase-ruin, Goshka Macuga in going over the history of the “short twentieth century”, which has just finished, entrusting it to its more revolutionary intellectual icons from whose heads flowers germinate.
Lastly (although the looped itinerary actually links back to its starting point), Maria Thereza Alves is entrusted with the task of taking several seeds from a real garden growing in the last gallery of the exhibition – according to a pattern that can also be found in the collage by Bill Beckley – which will not only create new plants but, by tracing the history of these seeds and their mixed-race multicultural background, will give rise to new stories. In order to allow Pompeii to always stay… as a contemporary matter.
Madre – Donnaregina Contemporary Art Museum
The Madre · museo d’arte contemporanea Donnaregina is located in the heart of old Naples, on what is known as the “Via dei Musei,” just a stone’s throw away from the Duomo, the Museo Archeologico Nazionale and the Accademia di Belle Arti, where the ancient San Lorenzo district is situated.
The Museum takes its name from the building that hosts it, the Palazzo Donnaregina, which like all the surrounding area owes its name to the Monastery of Santa Maria Donnaregina, founded by the Swabians (13th century) and then expanded and rebuilt in 1325 by Queen Mary of Hungary, wife to Charles II of Anjou. All that remains of the ancient monastic complex is the church of the same name, which overlooks Piazza Donnaregina, built in the Baroque period, and the “old” 14th-century Gothic-style church of Donnaregina, which has previously hosted exhibitions and special events organized by the Museum.
Madre Museum is the witness of a story that made Campania region a crossroads of contemporary arts, oriented to studying and documenting the past through contemporary sensitivity and languages and so able of acting in the present and outlining the future.