Cleveland Museum of Art's big Pompeii show smolders with excitement
Posted March 04, 2013 in Articles
Author: Steven Litt
Disrespectful as it may sound, the Cleveland Museum of Art’s big new exhibition on “The Last Days of Pompeii” is downright entertaining, sometimes outrageous and often loads of fun.
This may not seem like the appropriate response to a show packed with death and destruction. But what else can you say about an exhibition that combines scenes from schlocky Hollywood epics, a wall of snazzy prints by Andy Warhol, a roomful of somber abstractions by Mark Rothko and resin casts of ancient Pompeiians buried alive by hot ash?
Co-organized by the Cleveland museum and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the exhibition shows how the volcanic eruption that blanketed the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, near modern Naples, Italy, in A.D. 79 has fired artistic imaginations since excavations began at the site more than 300 years ago.
The exhibition is not, as the title might suggest, packed with the latest archaeological discoveries from the lost city. Instead, the show unearths the many ways in which Western art and culture have made Pompeii a fundamental metaphor for disaster.
It does so with a disconcerting dash of realism.
The show’s opening room combines vividly colorful Warhol prints of Mount Vesuvius blowing its top with resin casts of a pair of actual volcano victims intertwined in fetal positions. They’re part of a series produced by archaeologists who poured plaster into voids once occupied by the bodies where they fell.
Nearby in the same gallery lies a sculpture by contemporary British artist Anthony Gormley, who was inspired by a visit to Pompeii in 2002 to sculpt an exquisite corpse in gemlike blocks of shiny steel.
The head-spinning combination of contemporary art with ancient bodies makes it clear that this is not your usual Cleveland museum exhibition. It’s a cultural theme show of a type that’s growing in popularity as art museums try to spin visual narratives for their audiences that go beyond the predictable realm of art history.
Such exhibitions, when they’re well done, as this one is, reveal rich veins of cultural meaning through surprising visual connections across time and space. From a strictly local perspective, it’s also a surprise that the Cleveland museum collection contains a sizable number of works with Pompeiian themes. Who knew?
The show’s central point is that three centuries of artists and writers have used the great Vesuvian wipeout as a gigantic scrim on which to project anxieties over natural and man-made disasters of all kinds.
Pompeii has been viewed as a precursor of events such as the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.