Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Pompeii & the Roman Villa at LACMA

I've just come from an informal presentation by Ken Lapatin, Associate Curator of Antiquities at the Getty Museum and guest curator of the LACMA show. Having now seen the exhibition & spoken to Lapatin a bit about it, I wanted to share my own thoughts about it as well as convey some of the curators' intentions. [NB: I've only seen the exhibition once, on opening night and I haven't even visited the gift shop yet!]

The exhibition has been been examined by a couple of LA Times writers, so be sure to check out that coverage as well as Michael Koortbojian's recent AJA review.

As many of you likely know, the exhibition at LACMA is a second iteration of the original at the National Gallery in Washington, DC.--a show which drew over 300,000 visitors. [It is, of course, only this version of the exhibition that Koortbojian saw.] Lapatin, as guest curator (along with Carol Mattusch), noted the benefit of being the second stop on the exhibition's tour--issues with the original version could be worked out, new things tried. Indeed Lapatin at LACMA seems to have toned down many of the modern "intrusions" on antiquity that so troubled Koortbojian. (I myself did not see the NGA show.)

The show that one sees now at LACMA is very different from the Pompeii shows of the past ten years or so--at least the ones that make it to American museums. Those have tended to focus on daily life, household objects and have frequently been set up at science museums. A big draw for such shows are the plaster casts of Vesuvius' human & animal victims. When I saw A Day in Pompeii at Discovery Place in Charlotte, NC, a half a dozen such casts were laid out on beds of dark, Hawaiian volcanic stone and spotlit from above. THE HORROR!!! is what these exhibitions have tried to convey, in much the same way that TV documentaries have repeated speculations about not only what it was like to live in Pompeii, but what it was like to die there as well.

As the subtitle (Art and Culture around the Bay of Naples) of the LACMA exhibition states, this show is meant to be about art (without, of course, attempting to figure out what the Romans considered art to be). And in fact, the overwhelming beauty of the objects in the show is what stays with me. The pieces are not entirely taken out of ancient context, but even as an archaeologist who works on materials from the Bay of Naples, I found it very, very easy to play connoisseur and enjoy this show for the aesthetic value of the pieces selected. There is a tremendous variety of materials represented--the usual marble and fresco, but also included are the more luxurious gilded bronze, glass, cameo, obsidian, silver, gold jewelry, etc. I was stunned by the amount of polychromy remaining on a lot of the marble sculpture, even on pieces that had been excavated in the 18th century. And I was also so thrilled to see pieces that I had never seen before "in real life"--like the bronze animals from the Casa del Citarista, whose gilding is still very evident.
There is a comprehensivity in the exhibition in terms of the sources for the works. Naturally, there are some pieces that come from early "excavations" whose provenance is unknown, but the show includes pieces from not only Pompeii & Herculaneum, but Stabiae and Oplontis, as well as an entire triclinium from the Moregine building. These latter frescoes--the room of Apollo & the Muses--are displayed in a room the size of the actual original setting, giving a much better sense of the space than when frescoes from the same building were on display in the Rosso Pompeiano show at the Palazzo Massimo in Rome last year.

There are five main sections in the exhibition: Patrons & Proprietors, Taste for the Antique, Gardens, Interiors, and Rediscovery & Reception. Lapatin stated that the rooms are laid out in an axial, roughly symmetrical way so as to suggest other examples of Roman architecture. I'm not so convinced... I'm also not so convinced about the first section--or at least I am not sure that it hangs seamlessly with the other parts of the exhibition. Although I was thrilled to see the basanite portrait of Livia, among other things, a room of both imperial and private portraits did not seem to add in any critical way to the theme of the exhibition. (This might be factor of my own, current, academic preoccupation: understanding what role patrons/homeowners really played in the decoration of their own houses and gardens.) This section was designed to add the "who" to the "what," "how," and "why" on the topic of life on the Bay of Naples.

Perhaps most interesting for me was the second section on Taste for the Antique, for it attempts an analysis of the many ways in which Romans collected, adapted, copied, and displayed Greek culture (visual and otherwise) for their own purposes. The exhibition includes a variety of sculpture, inspired by Greek precedents, but with an eye to demonstrating the stylistic eclecticism common in Roman art. Works which combine Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic stylistic elements suggest an interest on the Romans' part for being comprehensive in their use of Greek visual culture. Then there are examples of Hellenizing statues that have been repurposed in the Roman setting--bronze figures based on a kouros or "Polykleitan" type, but put to use as lampstands or supports for trays/small tables (like that from the Casa di C. Julius Polybius). Naturally the mythological paintings and mosaics in the exhibition speak to the Romans' embracing of the Greek pantheon and literature, as does the bronze gladiator helmet with repousse' scenes of the Trojan War. The helmet was chosen for this section of the exhibition in part because it shows a use of a Greek story that likely would have been antithetical to how the Greeks employed their own myths and imagery. Portraits like the Homer from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston continue the theme suggested in this section that Romans used images of famous Greek poets and scenes from Greek plays (e.g.) in their domestic decor for purposes of pretension--that displaying such imagery suggested to houses' visitors that the owner was well-read & cultured.

The section on gardens attempts to suggest garden space, but I still had that feeling of being in a box. (This seems to be a great departure from the Washington version of the show, decorated as it was with potted plants.) Nevertheless, some excellent examples of "garden art" are included in the show; among them are a section of the garden painting from the Casa del Bracciale d'Oro, marble pinakes from the Casa degli Amorini Dorati, the satyr & hermaphrodite group from Villa A at Oplontis, one of the marble herm heads of Dionysos from the Casa di Octavius Quartio, a piece from LACMA's own modest collection of antiquities: a bronze herm terminal with the heads of a male and a female satyr. And as I mentioned above, this was an amazing chance to see the bronze animals from the Casa del Citarista not only up close, but even not sequestered in a vitrine! They are displayed in a wing of one room and surrounded by wall-sized photos of a garden space, but oddly not the garden of the Casa del Citarista (which arguably isn't all that picturesque). One change Lapatin made from the installation of the satyr & hermaphrodite group at the National Gallery was putting it in a spot where it could be observed from all sides. In Washington, there was a plant placed behind it, preventing viewers from walking around and really getting a sense for the "gotcha" moment in the symplegma. I had the pleasure of coming upon this piece in the exhibition with my colleague Adrian Staehli, who wrote his dissertation on such erotic groups. (And of course I was thrilled to see the piece from the Casa di Octavius Quartio, which I had also studied in my own dissertation, but with the awareness that its nowhere near as cool as the symplegma!)

The Getty loaned a number of pieces to the exhibition, mostly to the section on Interiors. There are 19 objects made of glass from the Villa collection in the show, most of which are unfortunately without known findspots, but which do represent the gamut of glassmaking techniques--blown, mold-made, mosaic, etc.--and are shapes/types found in Vesuvian contexts. In the same room are other vessels of luxurious materials, like silver kantharoi and the famous obsidian bowl with egyptianizing decoration from Stabiae. In this room there is also a vitrine, built into a wall with architectural framing to suggest a lararium, containing bronze statuettes of gods (most of them unprovenanced pieces from the Walters Art Museum) and a small silver bull from the Getty Villa.

The last section of the exhibition focuses on reception of Pompeii after the rediscovery. There are early engravings and photographs of objects found in the region and of the excavations, as well as early editions of Bulwer-Lytton's The Last Days of Pompeii. The Getty Research Institute loaned nine books for this part of the show. The printed works are joined by the nostalgic, weird, and fascinating Victorian-era works like Alma-Tadema's A Sculpture Gallery and Rogers' Nydia, the Blind Flower Girl of Pompeii. The Alma-Tadema painting is accompanied in a small room by the works of sculpture actually represented in the canvas, as a means to underscore 19th century fascination with the classical antiquity and the learned, if flawed, attitude towards it. Some might quibble--as Koortbojian did--that this section is not entirely relevant to the predominant theme of the exhibition, despite the inherent historical and intellectual significance of the later works.

So what I have hoped to have made clear is that the exhibition is visually stunning, laid out in a coherent way, and chock-full of truly excellent works of art from a variety of sources from around the Bay of Naples. This is a wonderful opportunity to see pieces that are rarely put on display in Naples or other Italian museums; some works have never visited North America. Moreover, the exhibition directly engages with some current issues in the study of Roman domestic decoration and Roman attitudes toward Greek culture. Since it is a museum exhibition, designed with the general public in mind, the wall text in the show naturally does not dig deep into those thorny topics; this is a job for the exhibition catalogue, recently reviewed in BMCR by John Clarke. A symposium in June to be held at the Getty Villa will also give very scholarly attention to the subjects raised in the exhibition. I believe it is unclear at this point if the show will travel beyond Washington and Los Angeles, so I strongly encourage those of you who can to see the show before it closes October 4.

[all photos courtesy of LACMA]

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