Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Review on "Pompeii and the Roman Villa" Exhibit

This is my very first exhibit review, so please be gentle! :)

: "Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture Around the Bay of Naples"
Where: National Gallery (Washington D.C.)
When: Until March 22, 2009
Website: Pompeii Exhibit
Next At: Los Angeles County Museum of Art: May 3–October 4, 2009
Online Brochure: PDF file

Bronze archaicizing statues with their original bone/stone eyes still intact...
Marble sculptures of the emperors who vacationed around the Bay of Naples...
Colorful frescoes of still lifes revealing the food and drink Romans enjoyed...
Mosaics with carefully modeled hair and skin tones and exquisite detail...

This exhibit was absolutely breath-taking. I drove 4.5 hours from NJ to D.C. to see it and it was well worth the trip. The crowds, although a bit overwhelming, did not really detract from the beauty of the pieces or the extremely well-crafted set-up of the exhibit.

The exhibit was split into 2 sections:
1. Vesuvian-region art, most dating from around 1st C. BCE - 1st C. CE
2. Later art inspired by Pompeii and the eruption of Vesuvius

I'd like to share my choice of "highlights" from the exhibit... if you've seen it, please comment and share your favorite pieces!

1. Plato and his Followers - Mosaic (No. 95)

Date: 1st C. BCE -1st C. CE
Original Location: Villa of Siminius Stephanus, Pompeii
Medium: Mosaic

Seven bearded men consider a sphere in front of them, as two of them stand while the others recline under a shady tree. The scene is framed by lush vegetation and eight comedy masks. Scholars believe that Plato is the man beneath the olive tree, slipping off his sandals. The figures appear to be engaged in conversation, and one man strokes his beard thoughtfully.

What strikes me as so amazing about this particular piece is the fine detail in such a relatively small mosaic. The men's hair, drapery, and skin tones are all modeled with a gradient effect, revealing highlights and shadows. The figures' faces are all individualized and express some level of emotion. All of this, in my opinion, equals an impressive feat when you consider how small the work is (approx. 33" by 33") and how incredibly small the tesserae are.

2. Apollo with the Muses - Wall Frescoes (No. 111-113)

Date: 1st C. CE
Original Location: Triclinium A; Moregine
Medium: Wall fresco, Fourth style

These three impressively well-preserved walls give you a sense of what all of these wall paintings would have looked like in situ: there wouldn't have been an inch of wall left uncovered in many of these rooms. This is certainly what you find here in the walls of Triclinium A: a blindingly red room punctuated by architectural elements and the figures of Apollo and the Muses, many of whom levitate in the air with a supernatural aura about them.

The writers of the catalog argue that Apollo represents Nero here, as Nero was much in love with the arts and often referred to himself as being like the god. He also was a frequent visitor to the area. Scholars suggest that the viewer is meant to see the Muses as the Imperial family and that the patron would have pointed out the visual metaphor to his guests as they dined there. I'm not sure if I buy either argument - as the author of the catalog points out, the facial features on this Apollo have no resemblance to the portraits of Nero. And even if Apollo IS meant to represent Nero, I think it's a pretty big stretch to say that the Muses represent his female family members. If this Apollo is meant to be Nero, then I believe that the presence of the Muses simply glorifies Nero's fascination with and aptitude for the arts and sciences.

3. Female Artist - Wall Fresco (No. 56)

Date: 1st C. BCE - 1st C. CE
Original Location: House of the Surgeon, Pompeii
Medium: Wall fresco - Third style

In this wall fresco, a female artist dips a brush into paint with one hand and holds a palette in the other, while staring intently at her subject (a hip herm representing Priapus). Two women stand behind her, watching her as she works. This piece is particularly interesting to me because it depicts a female painter and also because it, like several other Roman wall frescoes, proves the existence of Roman panel paintings - an art form that has not survived the ravages of time.

Pliny the Elder states, "Among artists, glory is given only to those who paint panel paintings" - his reasoning being that panel paintings can be saved during a catastrophe, while wall paintings will undoubtedly be destroyed if there is a fire, flood, etc. The irony of this statement is not lost on the writers of the catalog, as they include the quote in their catalog, right above the fact that no panel paintings survive from antiquity. And yet this wall fresco, with its vibrant colors, remains.

Can you tell I'm a wall fresco girl?

It's really hard to choose only 3, but these are the ones that really stood out in my mind.

So basically if you're near Washington D.C. before the 22nd of March or in L.A. when the exhibit opens there, and you're interested in Pompeii.... I highly recommend going to see it!

1 comment:

  1. WAHHHHHHHHHHH! I hate learning about something seconds before it ends! Sorry to have missed it, though I'm thrilled to read your review. I'm totally jealous!!