The Galleria dell’Accademia has invited into its galleries artworks by 32 eminent modern and contemporary figures, from Francis Bacon to Andy Warhol. Thousands visit the museum daily to see Michelangelo’s David and these new interventions are intended as reminders that today’s paintings, sculpture and artists’ films emerge from similar practical and aesthetic circumstances that produced the masterworks of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Whereas the individual status of the artist and demands of patronage have changed, the urgent need to express tangibly the mystery and sensation of existence crosses centuries.
As if to emphasise an uncertain legacy, the Renaissance figure of David reappears among the modern exhibits visiting the Accademia. Michelangelo’s sculpture, always a symbol, has become globally familiar with constant reproduction. Consequently, the political, intellectual and cultural qualities it once embodied have become submerged by superficial iconic status. Nowadays, it is the logo for ‘art’ itself.
Two artists, Florence-based Ketty La Rocca in the 1970s and German Hans Peter Feldmann, attempt reclamation, shocking viewers back into seeing the original by altering its appearance.
Feldmann’s solution is a radical facelift: provocative bright colours saturate a full-sized plaster replica in comic-book gawdiness. The more subtle La Rocca used words and drawing to re-establish David’s famous contours in the mind.
By contrast, Luigi Ghirri’s photograph accepts the statue’s fate as contemporary reality. In this image, cigarette butts fill an ashtray that is itself a photograph, encased in plastic and depicting David in his museum apse. But the figure is only partly obscured by ash, suggesting that it is too ingrained in cultural memory to eradicate.
Each artist, however, is alert to the past. The title of this exhibition, Arte torna Arte, defies easy translation into English. It implies continuity in art between past and present, challenging the popular perception that after Cubism art lost its commitment to harmony and beauty.
The focus did shift but the line was not broken. Artists still acknowledge a debt to previous traditions they have no intention of evading. The past offers principles that future generations can take up, put aside or move against. No practitioner is ignorant of this heritage; only levels of awareness vary. After all, the prime purpose of the Accademia, ahead of entertaining visitors, is to inform artists.
This ambitious show’s title quotes Luciano Fabro. The Italian artist, teacher and writer, who died five years ago, is represented by a sculpture comprising four simple, almost featureless, terracotta objects. These sealed vessels stand thigh-high on the floor and, with their craft sensibility, a link with the era of Michelangelo seems unlikely. In fact, by reaching back into classical antiquity, affiliations run very deep indeed.
Called The Judgement of Paris, this group may represent the myth in which a Trojan mortal had to choose the supreme beauty among three goddesses. The theme recurs throughout art history, acquiring significance from each epoch.
Fabro’s approach is not literary but philosophical and sensual. The essence of his work lies in the paradox of invoking the richness of myth and history with the everyday material of baked clay instead of precious stone or metal. This tension vies with the settled dignity of form. The aesthetic conundrum of beauty and value lies at the heart of our encounter, as it must have done for Paris.
At first sight, Giulio Paolini’s two classical sculptures on plinths, one facing the other and made around 1980, present a direct connection with traditions of the ideal, sensual figure found throughout the Accademia’s collection. Yet questions quickly emerge to complicate that initial impression.
The identical plaster casts accentuate reproduction over authenticity; today copies supersede originals and we can hardly distinguish between the two. Beyond that, Paolini’s typically restrained work has no definite meaning, another contemporary reality. Instead, it unites artist and viewer in thought. The myth that fascinates this artist is not legend but man’s continuing need to make art.
So the link between old and new is not straightforward. British artist Martin Creed dispenses with conventional media so when he ‘depicts’ the athlete (a subject that predates antiquity), he employs a living runner to race through the galleries among visitors and artworks. Like Paolini, Creed makes ‘art’ an instrument of perception. In this case, his real gesture makes the entire space we occupy the artwork and, with it, our awareness of the moment.
Of course, there are historical precedents for this existential dimension; artists may not express more now than 400 years ago but their preoccupations have changed. Thus the T-shaped painting conceived by Florentine Renato Ranaldi in 1989 resonates with memories of numerous Gothic crosses. Ranaldi has grown up as an artist surrounded by the symbols and strategies of the past.
The eccentric location of his work is inspired. Placed horizontally above a doorway to project from the wall, its black outline points like a finger towards a crucifixion by Cimabue across the gallery. Is the gesture in irony, accusation or respect? The individual is left to decide.
Attempts at showing similar subjects across the centuries recur in this show. Although several juxtapositions of old and new are unconvincing, others inevitably reveal a conceptual chasm as well as emotional proximity. Three ink drawings made by Sol LeWitt in 1958 of frescoes by Piero della Francesca touch at the roots of the American minimalist’s interest in perspective and his own practice of painting straight onto a wall.
Similarly, a monochrome canvas hung in a room devoted to elaborately decorated Trecento masterpieces reminds us that French artist Yves Klein was fascinated by the large areas of blue in Giotto’s frescoes at Assisi. Saturated with pure blue pigment, Klein’s painting appears as immaterial as sky and air.
Yet the exhibition more often makes uncomfortable partners of the newer work on loan to the main galleries. By and large, the permanent collection cedes little space to them. As a result, the likes of Louise Bourgeois and Jannis Kounellis resemble intruders at the seniors’ party. Moreover, fewer than half of the recent artworks are installed in the galleries themselves. The remainder―single examples by Duchamp, Bacon, Picasso and more―are crowded into their own rooms. Unaccompanied by elders, the threads between them slacken.
The show’s shortcoming, however, must be the under-representation of women. Although the scale of contribution by female artists is the greatest contrast today with Michelangelo’s times, only four women were selected.
Nonetheless, possibly the most revealing exhibit is by Fiona Tan. LCD monitors project video sequences of people at work and home surrounded by possessions that describe them. Based in Amsterdam, Tan evokes historic Dutch portraiture, not by imitation but with images that express confidently the vital spirit of continuity between art’s generations.
ARTE TORNA ARTE
Until November 4, 2012
Via Ricasoli 58, Florence