The Last Days of Pompeii – Cleveland Museum of Art exhibition review – A fresh eye on past tragedy

by on Monday, July 1st, 2013

I’ve only just gotten back into Cleveland about a week ago, and I’m still trying to recover from that hot sun. However, because “The Last Days of Pompeii” are in its last days at The Cleveland Museum of Art, I rushed out to view the exhibition that put me in the center of this heated tale. For those wondering, you still have 7 days left to go, yourself. Do I recommend it? Read on and see.

A banner for “The Last Days of Pompeii.” I dig the ombre. No photography was allowed inside the exhibit, however I have used some images of the artworks as they are found online. To see them all, get to the museum.

“The current exhibition The Last Days of Pompeii is a multi-faceted look at one of the most infamous natural disasters in human history.”

Another view. Another banner.  (Well, collection of banners.) Here you go! BTW, they say Decadence, Apocalypse, Resurrection.

There are a lot of words that can describe or explain this exhibit. There’s plenty of official copy that gives you dates and facts. But for me, this exhibit is all about feelings. So, let’s forget the historical data and talk about what it feels like to experience The Last Days of Pompeii.  Everywhere you go you will be assaulted by, feelings. As you walk through the rooms, you don’t sense any sort of “wild, happy electricity” from your fellow viewers. No, that’s not the vibe. The silent scuffles of feet and covered coughs may technically be the loudest noises in the area, but there’s something even louder. And that’s in the deep and heavy movement of your heart as you take in what it meant to suffer in Pompeii. As you see other’s in silent rumination you can’t help but read their body language to see how they are responding to these horrible truths. Meanwhile, your mind will try to comprehend the images around you.

As you are experiencing the art for yourself, you are experiencing how other’s are taking in the same art. Add onto that that the art is all about how these artists experienced and expressed their reactions to the idea of Pompeii. It’s a very layered experience.

Mount Vesuvius, 1985. Andy Warhol (American, 1928–1987). Screenprint on linen, hand-colored with acrylic; 72.4 x 81.3 cm. The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection, Contribution the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. © 2012 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

As a sensitive person, I was naturally affected by a sense of sadness and came away from the exhibition with waves of deep thought. To say you can breeze through untroubled would be a lie, and I wont’ say that. But I am glad that I saw this exhibit. There is no point in denying history. In fact, from this exhibit you’ll see that many artists over the years have used Pompeii as a great launching pad for their own deep thoughts and reactions about life. (Definitely give yourself between one to three hours to take in the exhibition.)

Now, here’s some of that well-written copy I was talking about earlier:

“Pompeii and the other ancient cities destroyed and paradoxically preserved by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in ad79 are usually considered the places where one can best and most directly experience the daily lives of ancient Romans. Rather than presenting these sites as windows to the past, this exhibition explores them as a modern obsession. Over the 300 years since their discovery in the early 1700s, the Vesuvian sites have functioned as mirrors of the present, inspiring artists—from Piranesi, Ingres, and Alma-Tadema to Duchamp, Rothko, and Warhol—to engage with contemporary concerns in diverse media. This international loan exhibition is co-organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Cleveland Museum of Art.”

Glaucus and Nydia, 1867. Lawrence Alma-Tadema (British, 1836-1912). Oil on wood panel; 39.00 x 64.30 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Noah L. Butkin 1977.128

The Cleveland Museum of Art is one of the first big galleries to really try and incorporate technology, such as they have with Gallery One. In this exhibition, there are at least two flat screen panels for viewing. I must admit that I find the intrusion of this technology unnecessary, and almost a distraction from the real stuff on display. This isn’t to say I don’t like audio guided tours or technology at times, but I come to the museum to get away from certain things. And, though I may be overreaching, I don’t think most of us need those touchstones of modern technology to make us feel connected to the art on display. However, if you do feel as I do then you can also do what I did…which was to look at the screens but move on from them fairly quickly.

The Dog from Pompei, 1991. Allan McCollum (American, b. 1944). Cast fiber-reinforced Hydrocal; 53 x 53 x 53 cm. Courtesy of the Artist and Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York. Photo: Lamay Photo.

There are many difficult moments that I experienced here, especially when confronted by the body casts. However, what was most difficult for me took place in two parts. First, I saw a photograph of an infamous dog cast, its body contorted and being ravaged by pain. Later, there was a room of just those dog casts. Well over 20 of them. And they were on pedestals, all turned in different ways so you can see each side. It takes it from a personal (“this dog”) response to thinking about many dogs of Pompeii, in general. They all suffered, in an unknown though doubtlessly great variety of ways. What’s important about it being a dog, is that like a child, we relate to this animal as a true innocent. A true innocent meeting a terrible demise from a natural disaster. But it’s not bad if you tear up at this…experiencing emotions like that are part of why visiting art museums are so great.

“The Last Days of Pompeii is broken down into three parts – decadence, apocalypse, and resurrection. Decadence illustrates Pompeii as an extravagant, gluttonous, highly sexualized society—a place that was doomed by fate because of its excesses. Apocalypse focuses on mankind’s intrigue with destruction and death. Resurrection explores the efforts to find and recreate this ancient city. These three themes cover centuries of different artists and styles, but here we focus on the room of Mark Rothko murals and how this artist and his abstract paintings are connected to Pompeii.”

One of my favorite pieces on display for this exhibition was a more modern photograph, which the two older artists with me did not respond to as much. But I love metaphors and symbolism, so it was right up my alley. Sadly, I cannot recall the artist name or the title of the piece.  So it’s just one more reason why you should check out this in person!

Question: I am not in Cleveland. How else can I experience all of this art?

Answer: That’s too bad! It’s a great city, and you should visit it at some point. (Don’t believe the bad rumors.) However, you can purchase this book on Amazon: the last days of pompeii decadence apocalypse resurrection

Adults: $15; college students (with valid student ID) and seniors (65+): $13; children (6–17 yrs.): $7; children 5 and under: free; members: free.

Remember: Exhibition ends on July 7th!

Disclosure: Tickets given in exchange for honest review and coverage.

The Last Days of Pompeii: Decadence, Apocalypse, Resurrection is organized by the Cleveland Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum. The exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

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