Letter from NAPLES, BAROCK-ART, SCIENCE, FAITH, AND TECHNOLOGY IN THE CONTEMPORARY AGEby Gilbert Hsiao
Museo d’Arte contemporanea Donna Regina (MADRE) December 13, 2009 – April 4, 2010
Conceived on the premise that our life and culture in the early 21st century mirrors that of the Baroque Age, Barock - Art, Science, Faith, and Technology in Contemporary Age was organized by Museo d’Arte contemporanea Donna REgina (MADRE) in Naples as an unofficial companion exhibition to Ritorno al Barocco, a massive exhibition set in six different Neapolitan institutions, including the Museo di Capodimonte and the Certosa di San Martino. The 30 or so contemporary artists in Barock were chosen for their engagement with issues of our time that echo the Baroque period, including the move towards religious fundamentalism and its impact both globally and locally, advances in science and technology altering our worldview, and the changing role of the artist as intellectual.
The opening of the catalogue essay by Norman Rosenthal (who put together the Sensation exhibition some 12 years ago, which this show echoes) begins with a quote from art historian Heinrich Wölfflin’s Renaissance and Baroque, “the Baroque wants to carry us away with the force of its impact, immediate and overwhelming. It gives us not a generally enhanced vitality, but excitement, ecstasy, intoxication. Its impact on us is intended to be only momentary, whilst that of the Renaissance is slower and quieter, but more enduring, making us want to linger, forever in its presence. The momentary impact of the Baroque is powerful, but soon leaves us with a certain sense of desolation. It does not convey a sense of happiness, but of something yet to come, of dissatisfaction, of restlessness, rather than fulfillment.”
After hours at the Museo di Capodimonte exhibiton (entitled Sacred and Profane History from Caravaggio to Francesco Solimena, 1606-1747), looking at scores of 17th century Baroque portrayals of incest, flagellations, flayings, crucifixions, stonings, grillings, rapes, beheadings, plagues, etc., even the most casual viewer would notice parallels between then and now. Mona Hatoum’s “Daybed” is a particularly threatening cheese grater enlarged to the size, proportion, and shape of a bed. It is not difficult to imagine the grates chafing against the skin, conjuring up images of St. Lawrence on the grill. Damien Hirst’s sculpture of a flayed St. Bartholomew holding an extra large pair of scissors in one hand and a scalpel in the other, his skin draped over one arm, can be associated with the gruesome paintings of Apollo flaying Marsyas by Jusepe de Ribera and Luca Giordano on view in the Capodimonte. Jeff Wall’s photograph of two men straining to lift an automobile engine block using only a folded up tarp echoes Caravaggio’s famous portrayal of the deposition of Christ in Rome.
There are other, perhaps less obvious/sensational parallels as well. The Capodimonte show begins with Caravaggio’s “Flagellation,” one of the masterpieces painted during his first stay in Naples in 1607. It is brilliantly illuminated in an otherwise totally darkened room. As in any flagellation scene, there is a sense of impending pain. But the contrapposto pose, the twist in Christ’s luminous body, is as peaceful, light, and graceful as his captors are threatening. More than any other painting in this show, and there are a number of masterpieces, this piece invites extended, quiet contemplation. It makes us want to linger.
In Maurizio Cattelan’s untitled tribute to the American photographer Francesca Woodman, who committed suicide at 22, we have an unexpectedly fascinating comparison with the Caravaggio. Hanging in the beautiful deconsecrated church of Santa Maria Donnaregina (adjacent to and now part of MADRE), Cattelan has fabricated a realistic portrayal of a young woman in polyurethane and fiberglass, set inside what appears to be an art shipping crate. She is carefully packed like a delicate sculpture, with padding around wrists, ankle, and torso, and the padding is secured with wood and screws. She is in a cruciform pose nearly identical to one of Woodman’s self-portraits, head leaning to one side, hair neatly tied in a ponytail, arms extended and hanging from the top of a doorway by gripping the trim.
The symbolism of the crate is fascinating; it can be read as a coffin for the deceased, protection for a commodified artist, or a frame for the artwork. The piece is hung above the spot where the high altar would have stood, in the manner of a Cimabue crucifix. Renaissance-era church windows form the backdrop, and it is flanked by two well-preserved 15th century crucifixion frescoes on either side. It is roped off so that one cannot get closer than 30 or so feet to the piece, adding to its other worldliness. Her feet appear to be dirty, invoking the dirty-footed pilgrims famously decried by the church hierarchy in Caravaggio. This is the only piece in the church, and one gets the sense the church was made for it. Uniquely and surprisingly, it leaves us with a sense, to use Wöllflin’s words, of fulfillment.