Saturday, 1 February 2014

Beautiful Boxes: A City of Two Tales

Things discussed: Mart; Rovereto; radial patterns; catching up; Antonello da Messina; L’altro ritratto; different ways of missing the same exhibition; dinosaurs; the things you never learn.

I’d been to Rovereto twice, with the same friend I now came to visit. Both then studying in Venice, we came here for the International Festival of Archaeological Film. That was eleven years ago. And a full six years have passed since I last saw her, in Rome, the day of my birthday, before I went back to Saudi Arabia and she took off to Spain.

So why are we here now? Rovereto is a rather sleepy, pretty small town in the Autonomous Province of Trentoitself a small town. 

Scattered in a valley enclosed by the Alps, Dante talked about it, dinosaurs used to walk here, and now there’s a Museum of Modern Art.

My friend is from around these valleys. After a lifetime of travelling, she settled here with boyfriend and daughter about a year after I saw her last.

A year before that, in 2006, when she was living in Rome, we both missed the grand and beautifulor so they all saidAntonello da Messina exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale. We got there the morning after it closed. She was confused, and I was pissed off.

When we learnt that, once again in her town, another massive Antonello exhibition was taking place, we decided that nothing and no one could stop us this time. We said it before it opened: we have all the time in the world. And that’s why I went to Rovereto the second-to-last day. A Saturday. Because, you know, you never learn.

We had a hell of a lot to catch up, but I was determined to go through it all later. When I got to the Mart’s central piazza at 10-something, though, it became evident that that day I was already too late. The line was stretching well beyond the designated area, and truckloads of elderly citizens, young students, organized tours, were pouring into the piazza by the hundreds.

As I waited, my iPhone and I looked around and took pictures of whatever caught our eyes.

I’d never been to the Mart before. It was a rainish dayit didn’t really rain, but that was the moodand I was looking at a flattened image of the building against the grey sky, and trying to guess what Mario Botta’s architecture was like. Until the sky cleared for a bit, and I understood.

The scenic web of steel wires that hold the dome together projected a marvelous shadow pattern on the side of the façade. If circular buildings even have façades. Or sides. The same thing happens in the British Museum. It’s common use by architects of enclosed public spaces all over the worldthe Sony Center in Berlin is another instance of this: the shadows are part of the structure. And they are a bit of a showing off. And they are an architectural cliché. All these things together, but one for certain: they work. Every single time.

In this particular grey day dotted by unexpected visits of the sun, the shadow play projected by the webbed dome on the stone slabs provided entertainment. And atmosphere.

I have a thing for buildings devised from geometric patterns or elementary geometric shapes. Gordon Bunshaft comes to mind as designer of my favourite building of all: the National Commercial Bank in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, based entirely on the triangle, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., based entirely on the circle. And no one loves the circle more than Mario Botta.

Partly due to his ideal apprenticeship under Louis I Kahn, partly because it gives order and polish without being boring (the circle is always interesting); partly because it has an eternality to it, a sacrality of sorts, without referencing any given religion or spiritual practice; and partly because he can: Archistars don’t usually work in constrained spaces.

When my friend arrived, it was evident at a first glance that we were not going to make it. At least not in the morning. We went to have lunch. We caught up.

Early afternoon was even worse. But we had to. You have to understand: we had to.

The line was so long it was impossible to get in: the guard at the door stopped anyone who tried to skip the line. We went to him: “We’re only going to the bookshop”, we said. “Oh – said he - the bookshop”. And let us in.

We stayed there long enough, I went to the bathroom, waited a bit more, then infiltrated in the line and bought the tickets. Sense of guilt played a part and I didn't even check if I had discounts. I could have gotten one with my train ticket. Very well.

Her little girl was with us. And the little girl decided she didn’t like Early Renaissance paintings that particular afternoon. Understandable: the gadgets at the bookshop were far more interesting. We took shifts. I gave it a shot first. Saying I didn’t see anything is an understatement. My friend went second: same thing. “I’m coming back tomorrow”, I said. “What?” “We have to see it. I’m coming back tomorrow. Earlier. I’ll be the first in line”.

I went back the next day. Earlier. I was the first in line.

Being early to a place like this and being greeted, for once, by a clear beautiful day, has two outcomes: it’s empty when you get there, and you have to wait a long, long time before going in. In my experience the two merged into a fruitful observation of Mario Botta’s work.

I have said about the circle, and circular is the fountain/pond at the center of the piazza. It has elements of both Carlo Scarpa and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, designed by Louis I Kahn. Later in the day I noticed that it might have been quoting also from a fountain-trough in Rovereto’s central Piazza Malfatti.

The circular plan is evident, but another motif that keeps popping up is a keyhole shape. The steel tube dome is divided in twenty ideal slicesideal, because two are open, giving it a keyhole outline. Apart from the radial patterns that are always fun, the keyhole motif is reprised by the piazza itself, that looks like a reverse of Bernini's colonnade embracing Saint Peter's basilica in Rome.

Another staple of Mario Botta’s buildings are the thin, tall windows, always stacked very tightly to give a continuous and yet almost musical pattern.

For the long wait, the rhythm of Botta's slender windows becomes almost hypnotic: always even at the top, they slightly zigzag at the bottom - one up, one down - gradually getting longer. If we stretched the circular line we would obtain a Cheshire Cat Grin.

Anyway: at 10am sharp they let us in.

There are few experiences more fulfilling than a visit face to face with Antonello da Messina's portraits. I had missed it last time, six years ago. I didn’t know. There are few experiences more distressing than having to share this ideal intimacy with screaming kids, herds of elderly people with earpieces and insufferable know-all guides with loud squeaky voices.

But not this time: this time my friend and I were among the first to get in. And it was all so quiet. So quiet the works could finally breathe.

In Rome, curator Mauro Lucco stressed the influence on Antonello by the Spanish painters in Southern Italy and the Provençal ones during his travels. And the Flemish, of course. This one, organized by Federico de Melis, disagrees and gives more credit to the long shadow of Piero della Francesca. Obvious as it is that the double take has a common ground, here we look at Antonello through Piero’s lens.

Antonello was born and died in Messina aged 49 in 1479. In between, he traveled a lot. Had his apprenticeship in Naples under Niccolò Colantonio, spent years in Venice and was deeply influenced by Giovanni Bellini, the champion of Venetian art at the time. In each voyage, he would pick up something: the Spanish, Provençal and Piero della Francesca in Sicily and Naples, the Flemish and Bellini in Venice. All around him, the mediaeval cities, Gothic and Romanic architectures, were being transformed beyond recognition. Coming from a land of syncretism, like a sponge he moved through history in the making. Cities were planned anew, spaces opened, new military structures arose, public buildings got a heavy hand of makeup. 

And the design of the exhibition spaces at the Mart cleverly reflects this: arches of different shapes and styles and sizes, some flying and some interred, like the ones you could find in cities were the street level has risen, or sometimes in Venice where a canal has been filled with dirt and turned into an alley.

If you've been exposed long enough to reproductions of a worka work that is possible to represent visually, photographically, like paintings, sculptures and so onwhen you see the original you always have that strange sensation of déjà-vu. 

I mean yeah of course Walter Benjamin already wrote about this, but what I mean here is not a broad cultural critique, it's a psychological trick, that also happens with famous people you've been seeing on TV or in the movies. Your first reaction is: “There you are!” - Like meeting an old friend.

For those who've been exposed for far too long to any given reproduction of a work of art, the reaction may occasionally be: "You again?". Which incidentally is what the mat at my friend's doorstep says.

That was not so with Antonello da Messina. The moment I saw the 1476 Annunciata of Palermo the “there you are” died in my mouth, and the “you again” never even surfaced.

Having seen it in catalogues, online and on paper, for years, and on the gigantic posters on the way to the Mart, seeing it there on the wall was a first time. And it felt as fresh as a first time should be. Suddenly, I didn’t know anything about it. It was as if I’d mistaken it for someone else.

It’s impossible to describe the pale blue color of the drapery and the roundness of the expression on the Virgin’s face; the composition, so geometric and yet vibrant; and the hands; and the eyes. Those eyes.

Antonello da Messina, Annunciata (Virgin Annunciate), Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo
via Wikimedia Commons
The physicality of the painting should be hidden here. Early Renaissance painters used the velatura method long practiced in tempera painting: ultra thin layers upon layers of paint to create transparencies and light effects and subtle traits in the expression of the eyes - and at the same time hiding the extreme quality of the technique, so much so that the painter disappears under his own work. This is stunning in Antonello’s case. But, somehow, you can see his hand. Made by someone who never settled in his research, his experimentations may seem rather silent to us, but they were never at rest.

This Annunciata was one of the first ever paintings to show the Virgin Mary as a real woman. It was one of the first ever Italian portraits to show a three-quarters figure; it was the fruit of an immensely talented italian painter studying and absorbing the then new lesson of masters Petrus Christus and Jan van Eyck. It was many things, new things, revolutionary things. Yet, it doesn’t matter now.

The academics do their painstaking job of attributing, collocating, understanding, interpreting, but this is not why we look at it. We look at it because it’s beautiful. And fresh. And we look at it with such ease because there is one very important thing this picture is not: it is not remote.

Antonello was one of the first painters in the western tradition to speak our language. And it was a language so needed that immediately became a staple of the whole painterly world: the profile was all but abandoned in favor of the rounder, more “illusionistic" three-quarters; the psychological depth substituted the typified images that had until then dominated; oil made tempera obsolete. And so on. It caught up with such momentum that we can only understand it by comparing it to something closer to us: the Impressionists.

Impressionists are pretty. Everybody loves the impressionists. People even like Renoir. That’s because it’s so easy to like. What’s not to like? It’s colorful, it’s vibrant, it’s illusionistic. We can’t even begin to think how people could have not liked the impressionists when they first came out. Art after them had them as a new standard.

Now that’s what happened with the Early Renaissance, more or less. But on a far larger scale.

Of course they had predecessors, everybody has predecessors. But when the completion of those tensions that had been around for decades finally occurred, it took the art world - the only world that produced images at the time - by storm. And Antonello da Messina was one of the absolute protagonists of that.

Here at the Mart today, Antonello is obviously the main attraction, but it’s only half of an ideal two-parter. And the portrait being Antonello’s calling card, it’s not surprising that the companion show - also closing today - is called L'altro ritratto.

Very clever title: "The Other Portrait" would be a plain translation, and the one reported on the website. But the Italian is ambiguous here: it also means "The Other Portrayed". And the Other is the real protagonist, in all the possible shades of otherness. A visit to this show made it clear how anyone who gets portrayed - even oneself - becomes an "Other". And that's the third layer of meaning of the title.

What do we find here? Once again the curatorial choice was very much to the point, without frills - but with very few thrills too.

Shown in a semitransparent enclosure made of paper or cloth, reminiscent of the Japanese fusuma – sliding wood and paper panels – the works were displayed at a reasonable distance from each other. Under most of them, at cat-eye level, a strip of musings about the Other flowed without clogging the visual space. An example among many: “in attesa dell'altro, io sono qui, voi ci siete?” (“Waiting for the other, I am here, are you too?”)

Among the highlightsat least to my tasteThomas Schütte and a series of portraits, or studies, of his melted sculptures of faces (a double level otherness here); two beautiful, impactful and hypnotizing oversized Till Freiwald watercolors that seemed in a constant confrontation with Thomas Ruff’s polaroids; six vertical black&white videos by Fiona Tan (Provenance, 2008), deservedly in a room all of their own:

There also were Óscar Muñoz’s existential disappearing portraits, and an existential 1979 shadow-portrait by Claudio Parmiggiani; and Lucian Freud, portraying Lucian Freud.

Otherness galore.

These twin exhibitions at the Mart were part of the first crop of the new director Cristiana Collu’s plan (*) to give this beautiful space justice: quality seems to be her main stand. And this is not so obvious given what other museums are doing.

(*this youtube video may not have English subtitles yet, but she sums up her vision here.


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