Tuesday, July 26, 2011

MAXXI in Rome

My trip included some days in Rome; I visited several contemporary art galleries, including the newest of them, MAXXI (Museo Nazionale delle Arti del XXI Secolo, or National Museum of the Arts of the 21st Century).  It is in a stunning building, designed by Zaha Hadid, based around sweeping parallel curves.  When it opened it attracted mixed reviews for its suitability as an art gallery, with one reviewer describing it as "tyrannical", and people I know who have visited it have described it as completely overpowering the art.  On my visit I didn't feel this, at least with respect to the main exhibition, a massive retrospective for Michelangelo Pistoletto, about whom I knew nothing.  Since there isn't a lot of 21st century art yet, the gallery condescends to show 20th century art, and the Pistoletto retrospective covered the years 1956-1974 (though I think Pistoletto is still active).

One of our lecturers at Prato commented that in Australia we tend to have an Anglo-American-centric view of art after World War 2, and my trip has borne this out: Pistoletto is one of four significant 20th century Italian artists whose work I have encountered in the time I have spent in Italy.  The others were Marino Marini in Pistoia and Giorgio Morandi in Bologna, both thanks to the Prato program, and Bice Lazzaro in Rome.  I should say that others in the group knew about at least some of these people - I shouldn't generalise too much from my own ignorance!

Pistoletto's work as shown in the MAXXI exhibition covered a wide range: his figurative paintings on mirrors were notable, but he also made works in the 1960s relating to both conceptual and minimal art, was a leader of the Arte Povera movement, made works using industrial materials such as Mylar film, and also had a performing group that held events both in galleries and in public spaces.  My favourite "conceptual" work in the show was "A Cubic Metre of Infinity", six mirrors lashed together to form a cube with the mirrored surfaces on the inside.  From the outside it is just a grey box, and of course you can't see the inside.

The exhibition contained an interesting timeline showing events in Pistoletto's career in parallel with events in Italian politics, ranging from postwar bitterness and reconstruction (Pistoletto was born in 1933), through to the student unrest in the 1960s and the sabotage and kidnappings carried out by the Red Brigades.  The work shown was not political in a sloganeering way, but was certainly related to the spirit of the times.  Another lecturer in Prato said that according to an Italian artist friend of his, Florence was the hardest city in the world to be a contemporary artist, and surely Italy must be one of the hardest countries.  Pistoletto, who lived in or around the industrial city of Turin rather than the history-of-art-laden tourist magnet of Florence, nonetheless found a way.

 No pictures of the works inside, unfortunately, but this is the entrance to MAXXI.

And this is MAXXI's foyer.  The building is pretty well unphotographable!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Leaving Prato

Today is the last day of the program at Monash's outpost in Prato, Italy.  There have been numerous highlights.  The Venice Biennale was certainly one.  I am not going to try to review it - I didn't see all of it, even in the three and a half days I spent looking at it, and there are plenty of reviews on-line.  My favourite work was the installation by James Turrell, one of his "Ganzfeld" series.  I also enjoyed the Greek pavilion very much, a beautifully quiet space.  The official Chinese exhibition was tasteful and restrained, but the less official Chinese work tended to be big and brash; maybe it is the successor in this respect to American art of the post-war era.

Not quite part of the Biennale, the exhibition in the Palazzo Fortuny had an eclectic mix of very interesting works in a wonderful setting.  We also visited the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, with numerous significant twentieth-century works.  I was interested to see some Italian Futurist work in a separate collection, including a painting by Giacomo Balla representing the transit of Mercury in front of the Sun, from 1914.

On the way to and from Venice we visited Ravenna, to see the Byzantine mosaics, and Padua to see the Giotto cycle in the Scrovegni Chapel.  Both of these visits were highlights for me as well.

I have also seen some more things connected with the history of science.  I visited the Palazzo Poggi in Bologna which in the 18th century housed a scientific institute and now contains an eclectic museum representing the diverse interests of this institute, ranging from optics to map-making to anatomy to fortifications; there is also a room with remarkable models of sailing ships.  Some of the material is from collections going back to the 16th century.

Detail of navigational map of the known world from 1556.

An unexpected find was the International Museum and Library of Music in Bologna, providing a connection between art and science in the form of Renaissance tuning theory.

Keyboard with 31 notes to the octave, from 1606

I also visited the Museo Galileo in Florence.  Not only do they have the only two telescopes ascribable with certainty to Galileo, they also have relics in the form of some of Galileo's fingerbones!  Both the Museo Galileo and the museum of the Palazzo Poggi brought out the connection between geometry and warfare; Galileo had a business making and selling "geometric and military compasses", a multi-purpose instrument designed by him and intended for aiming cannons, among other things.

I have seen one museum of present-day science, the Museum of Planetary Science here in Prato.  It is an active centre of research, and has the best collection of meteorites I am ever likely to see.

A Martian meteorite, ejected from Mars, and found in the Sahara desert in 1997.  It weighs two kilograms and is the largest specimen of a Martian meteorite on display in Europe.

My next stop is Rome.