The J. Paul Getty Museum’s current exhibition The Last Days of Pompeii: Decadence, Apocalypse, Resurrection has the “home” advantage. Shown at the museum’s original location in Malibu, there could no more perfect a setting than the Getty Villa itself, a recreation of one of the very estates—the Villa dei Papiri in nearby Herculaneum—destroyed in Mount Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 A.D. Just as the recently renovated building is now brilliantly presented as an “objet trouvé” at an archaeological site, so too the present exhibition unfolds like a “dig” of ideas.
For the past several years the Getty has embarked on a series of intelligent concept shows which have expanded our notions and understanding of Antiquity, ensuring a certain relevance. Exhibitions such as The Aztec Pantheon and the Art of Empire in 2010 demonstrated the interconnectivity between the Old and New Worlds through its shared mythologies and Modern Antiquity: Picasso, de Chirico, Léger and Picabia in the Presence of the Antique in 2011 illustrated the impact of classicism on certain artists of the early 20th century. Now we have The Last Days of Pompeii—the destruction of which in the 1st century A.D. seared itself into the popular imagination up to the present day—and it goes a long way to elucidate our enduring hold on us.
The Last Days of Pompeii is to some degree an exhibition about exhibitions, for while the title comes from the famed 19th-century British novel by Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton—a significant aspect of the exhibition catalogue discusses the transmission, indeed, the cultivation of this fascination with Pompeii via touring exhibitions. From the blockbuster to the scholarly, these exhibitions continue to proliferate, the first to come to our shores was Pompeii A.D. 79 in 1979. Seen recently at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2009 was the National Gallery of Art’s excellent Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture around the Bay of Naples. One of the contributors to that effort, Getty curator Kenneth Lapatin, also co-organized the present exhibition, which owes some inspiration to the former exhibition’s final section, “Rediscovery.”
The Getty Villa could not have accommodated an exhibition of the scale of the Pompeii and the Roman Villa. LACMA demonstrated a great sense of collegiality and enterprise in bringing the exhibition to Los Angeles. It was astounding to experience in the exhibition a magnificent recreation of a Pompeiian villa house garden, including original Villa Papiri bronze statuary, and then drive to the Westside to see the entire thing whipped up in Malibu, immersing us in a complete vision of Antiquity. It was a model of how museums can collaborate and complement each other’s programming.
The Last Days of Pompeii was the Getty Museum’s opportunity to organize with the Cleveland Museum and the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec its own effort and in so doing, it went to some lengths to differentiate it from these previous exhibitions. Whereas the LACMA show demonstrated Pompeii’s artistic impact on successive generations, the present exhibition analyzes more broadly themes and concepts that have influenced Western culture ever since. In the wide-ranging and interesting introductory essay co-curator Jon Seydl of the Cleveland Museum of Art develops three themes: decadence, apocalypse, and resurrection. In the first section Roman—and especially Pompeiian—excess is examined (the Bay of Naples was, after all, comparable to today’s luxury communities of Malibu or La Jolla).
Seydl illuminates the conflation of the Biblical Sodom and Gomorrah with the fate visited on Pompeii, and then segues into “Apocalypse,” by aptly connecting its epic disaster and its place in the popular imagination to the great disasters of more recent time—two world wars with both an actual holocaust and the threat of a nuclear one; the AIDs epidemic, and 9/11. Finally, “Resurrection” describes Pompeii’s Phoenix-like rise out of the ruins, its increasingly assiduous excavation beginning in the 18th century, leading to a greater understanding of the classical world while wresting from the earth magnificent treasures. Despite the burgeoning science of archaeology, less rigourous methods are blithely alluded to in Hippolyte Moulin’s monumental bronze boy holding aloft a unearthed treasure, entitled appropriately enough, Lucky Find at Pompeii (1863: Musée d’Orsay, Paris). More grandly, Pope Piux IX’s cabinet of antiquities excavated at Pompeii in his presence in 1849 (The Vatican Museums) surely comprises an early example of installation art, a compendium of items transformed into one great object.
Although there has been some criticism that there aren’t (enough) artists of the first rank in the exhibition, this is a bit too stern. To be sure, there are plenty of works by minor artists like Alfred Elmore, Joseph Franque, Giovanni Benzoni and Francesco Netti. But in fairness, this is an concept show, where works of art are there largely to convey ideas, and secondly to give aesthetic pleasure. While Bulwer-Lytton as a writer or Giovanni Pacini as a composer may not be critical to us, it does not mean that they weren’t highly regarded in their own time. A case in point is Lawrence Alma-Tadema, a Dutch-British artist of the 19th century, who remains today beloved for his archaeologically “correct” and meticulously painted views of ancient life. Although we might not regard him as central to the history of 19th-century art, he was immensely successful and popular in his own time. Alma-Tadema’s An Exedra (Vassar College, 1869-70) is a compelling evocation of a slice of ancient life, based on an actual site (the Tomb of Mamia), and as Seydl fascinating develops in his essay, a place loaded with both history and sexual assignation.
In point of fact there are highly important artists represented in the exhibition: J.A.D. Ingres, Henry Fuseli, Marcel Duchamp, Mark Rothko, and Robert Rauschenberg, for example. The case might have been stronger with an even greater selection of major figures, but the exhibition was edited to fit the Getty’s smaller exhibition space. Missing here are significant artists such as Joseph-Marie Vien, Élizabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Theodore Chassériau, Albert Bierstadt, Marino Marini, and Tacita Dean whose works will be seen in Cleveland and Québec.
The first gallery (“Decadence”) opens with a superb comparison of a motif that gained fame in the 18th century as Pompeii, Herculaneum and the other Vesuvian towns began to be excavated. The source piece—a fragment of ancient Pompeiian fresco—The Cupid Seller from the Villa di Arianna, Stabiae—is a scene from literature or the theatre showing a seller of little cupids—gods of love, Venus’ companions. This image of the capturing and selling of love from the 1st century A.D. was highly influential in the 18th century, most notably diffused in prints and then idealized in Vien’s masterpiece The Cupid Seller of 1763 (again, its absence at the Getty is notable). At least here there are the prints and then a magnificent drawing by the Swiss-British artist Henry Fuseli. His rendition turns the pleasant and slightly erotic pastime into a sinister and impenetrable event, the old crone proffering a corpse-like cupid to an elegant Roman matron who recoils in response (1775-76; Yale Center for British Art). Reflected here, the 18thcentury’s fashionable reaction to Antiquity through Pompeii’s prism alludes to the far more profound implications of Enlightenment ideals.
Moving into the 19th century, paintings and photographs are handsomely arranged in this smart installation on walls painted with ancient Roman architectural decoration, as would have been available in design books of the period. A rather decadent group of photographs by the German ex-pats Baron von Gloeden and cousin Guglielmo Plüschow show scenes of languid—often nude—youths set against real and fictive backdrops of ancient Pompeii. These both evoke the everyday life of ancient Rome and its sexual mores, as well as document 19th-century homoerotic yearnings. The fact that the Plüschow photographs come from Alma-Tadema’s own collection make them all the more interesting, as these very prints were tools in that artist’s arsenal in reviving Antiquity.
Turning to “Apocalypse,” within the landscape tradition there is a “sub-genre” of disaster or apocalyptic pictures, a tradition beginning in the 18th century as a part of the aesthetic notions of the Sublime and the Picturesque as practiced by such artists as Pierre Jacques Volaire, Joseph Wright of Derby, Philip de Loutherbourg and J.M.W. Turner. While no example by these painters is included here, the sub-genre is well represented by a major work by John Martin, the eccentric early 19th-century British painter of historical disasters, and another leading figure, Pierre Henri de Valenciennes. Martin’s Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum (c. 1822-26; Tabley House, UK) shows the cataclysmic moment swathed in pinks and yellows, ominous swirls of black ash and liquid hot rivulets of flowing lava in yellow white. The Valenciennes is a less sophisticated but still ferocious rendition of the classical account of Pliny the Elder dying on the shore of the Bay of Naples. Vesuvius explodes in the background and hot steam shoots up in the middle ground (1813; Musée des Augustins, Toulouse).
There is a strong current which runs throughout the exhibition of the idea of “multiples.” This is announced quite emphatically at the entrance to the galleries with three differently scaled versions of the 19th-century American Randolph Roger’s marble sculpture Nydia, The Blind Flower Girl of Pompeii (1860; National Gallery of Art). Based on a character developed in Bulwer-Lytton’s famous novel, it depicts the blind slave girl who died to save others; the poignant story was immensely popular in the Victorian era. The sculpture—while sentimental—is an excellent example of 19th-century artistic practice: popular subjects produced in multiple copies in various sizes by studio carvers. It also alludes to the rise of Industrialism with its attendant mass production.
More multiples are on display in the selection of modern and contemporary art, where perhaps surprisingly, the exhibition really gathers steam. These range from Duchamp’s witty Prière de Toucher (Please Touch, 1947; Getty Research Institute)—a foam rubber breast alluding to Gradiva, a imaginary woman of Pompeii—produced in an multiple edition to Andy Warhol’s painting of Mount Vesuvius of 1985 (Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh), a screen-print produced picture derived from mass produced images.
But it is in the juxtaposition of three works spanning the 19th through the 20th centuries that the exhibition rises to its greatest heights. Along with Von Gloeden and Plüschow, Giorgio Sommers produced photographs for the healthy tourist trade to Pompeii, particularly those picturing the plaster casts of the Pompeiian dead, taken from the cavities formed by their decayed bodies in the mud and ash (for a fascinating account of this, see co-curator Victoria Gardner Coates’ catalogue essay). This technique was developed in the 1860s—there are two body casts in the present show—and this most famous image of a dog writhing in agony—presumably at watch at his master’s gate until the end—was disseminated in countless photographs. Surely it was seen as a metaphor not only of fidelity but of sudden mortality.
The image’s after life continues into the 20th century in Robert Rauschenberg’s stupendous “combine” Small Rebus (1956; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles). While familiar to Angelenos, it surely has never looked better—or at least been more meaningfully displayed—than in this company. Nearby are the Sommers photograph (c. 1874) of which Rauschenberg glued a version to the combine’s surface, and then Allan McCollum’s 1991 installation The Dog from Pompeii (Fredrich Petzel Gallery, New York), itself an exercise in repetition, of recurring loss.
The Rauschenberg combine is a small but powerful masterpiece. It describes in ways both precise and opaque the passage, indeed, the nature of time. Attached opposite the dog’s photograph is a drawing of a clock face and above it photographs of gymnasts and a runner, captured Muybridge-like. But the clock has no hands, the runner no longer runs but remains transfixed in air, and the dog is dead. The artist captures here the paradox that time can seem both frozen and elusive, while in actuality it has run out.
Each age considers afresh Pompeii as a metaphor for tragedy on an epic scale—the loss of a whole community or culture—writ large, but then told in small snippets of everyday anecdote. Whether evoked by the plaster casts of those who died where they stood in 79 A.D. or quilts bearing the names of hundreds of thousands felled by a disease, or footage of bodies falling from twin towers, this exhibition eloquently examines our collective fears and fascinations.