Monday, 3 February 2014

Beautiful Boxes: A Boxful of Impressions

Things discussed: Ara Pacis; Impressionism; boxes; captions; collectors; red hair; wag artists.

written by e

I happened to be in Rome during the last Christmas holidays, and I visited Gems of Impressionism at the Ara Pacis exhibition space (December 23, 2013 to February 2, 2014). The exhibition was organized in collaboration with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and presented a collection of 68 Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works.

courtesy: Museo dell'Ara Pacis © 2013

Right. Done with the institutional info. The reason why this is the subject of this post is not much the need or desire to speak about the content.

We are all pretty familiar with Impressionism. I will make some considerations about the box that contains the exhibitionand the way this box is lined and padded, as the venue can influence greatly the final perception of a visit, in a way or the opposite. And this goes from how far the ticket desk is from the entrance door (you will notice the importance in a rainy winter day) to the dimension of the font in which the details of the works are written under them.
The Ara Pacis Museum, designed by Richard Meier, is a beautiful box, discreetly - far from being without characterenshrining the Ara Pacis monument in such a way that it is visible from the outside, with a wide view so that the monument is almost fully visible in its outer space.

via Wikimedia Commons

The architectural structure is neat and light, interacting in a gracious way with the outside. Yet, when you arrive to visit just the temporary exhibition, you start queuing in the main entrance linemost of it, even when not crowdedcompelled to unfold outside. Only to discover that that is the entrance to the Ara Pacis Museum itself, and that the temporary exhibition ticket counter is at a downstairs entrance, to be accessed from the outside. There, probably, another queue awaits you. The good news is that the counter is far enough from the door to keep enough people away from the cold rain that is pouring outside in a late December day. The bad news is that the same counter serves aspiring visitors and bookshop customers. It is good to be in the middle of the small bookshop, so that you can peek into the art books while waiting, but there is no order at the counter whatsoever, which is quite annoying.

But once you are in, you are all ready to start this new journey inside Impressionism. The exhibition displays works never shown in Italy before and is divided in five sections: ‘En plain air painting’, ‘Portraits and Self-portraits’, ‘Women Friends and Models’, ‘Still Life’, ‘Vuillard and Bonnard’, and ‘The Heritage of Impressionism’. The partition deserves mention as the number of works for each section is in overall well balanced, together with the size and juxtaposition or works. Each section is - not originally but still effectively - marked by a different wall color, sober, but distinctive. Works emerge well lit in a generally suffused low light. These are all aspects that are not obvious, and more often that not, are not ideally planned.


I am generally a bit fussy when it comes to the captions. Often too small or too far away from the work to be easily read, here they are written on wide gray panels, rather beneath the work, so as not to encumber the wall space around the work with extra visual material, but still written in white characters just big enough to be read comfortably. The ensemble is sober, effective, functional, in a word, successful.

via La Nouvelle Vague 
via 06blog
The choice of works also deserves a word. You won’t find the most famous works representative of the movement. Still, the quality is so refined, that you won’t have a word of complaint. Of course the names of Impressionism are there, Manet, Monet, Cezanne, Corot, Van Gogh, Degas, Gauguin, Renoir, Pissarro, Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Sysley. But the relevance of the selection of works is also that it presents the point of view of a private art collection, grown out of a personal and refined taste, that of Andrew W. Mellon, a wealthy businessman who started the collection in the 20’s, and whose work was carried on by his heirs.

As said, this is not a review on the works exhibited, yet I would like to mention one work which made me stop and gaze at it, and then come back to it at the end of the tour. A portrait of Carmen Gaudin by Toulouse-Lautrec.

It is a small work, so powerful that calls your attention even if you are walking thoughtlessly towards it. A seated woman is seen from the side. She wears a dark dress, and the background is also darkish with leaves and plants, yet looking like an indoor place. A light from the right, the direction where her glance is drawn to, sets to fire her somewhat disheveled red hair, shedding some flames on her neck and profile too. She is intense, and her intensity is emphasized by and resonates with the color of her dress and the background. Her eyes speak, even if you don’t see her eyes. The painting is enshrined in a wooden elaborate frame, which unexpectedly (for me) suits the works very well, acting like an extension of the vibration aroused from the figure.

Then you move on to the next work, and meet another pair of eyes, in a portrait by Renoir, and you cannot help liking the former work even more. Yet, some people still like Renoir.

I finally walked out quite satisfied. It was still raining, and it had got dark, but I could still see the Ara Pacis inside the Museum all lit and shedding its light on the wet street where a contemporary wag artist sat on a chair on the side of the building, and had set up a small installation of funny/thoughtful remarks on art in general and the city on the gate on the other side of the street. Much as I can appreciate street artistic initiative, there is often a huge gap from what some people think can present as art today and what art really is and makes you feel like. The exhibition I had just come out of stressed even more this feeling of mine.


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