The Cleveland Museum of Art's The Last Days of Pompeii: Decadence, Apocalypse, Resurrection could easily be the subject of a semester of art history. I mean that in a good way.
The exhibit gathers together hundreds of objects produced over three centuries by artists fascinated with the ruin of Pompeii, the Roman city buried alive in the ash of erupting Mt. Vesuvius in 79 C.E.
Though united by the broad subject of the doomed city, the assembled artists are informed by their era's styles and preoccupations—to say nothing of personal quirks— making for a fascinating walk through the history of art and ideas, viewed through one multi-faceted symbol.
Besides a few select artifacts from the ruins themselves, the oldest objects displayed are from after 1748, when the site of Pompeii was rediscovered.
"Mt. Vesuvius at Midnight" by the American Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) embodies the 19th century reverence for the immensity of nature. The oil painting positions the viewer at the foot of the volcano, whose tip shrinks into the distance—but whose flames still outshine the moon.
Many of Bierstadt's contemporaries used pre-eruption Pompeii as a place to present otherwise taboo images. The vices portrayed could be projected onto the pagans who called divine punishment down on themselves. "Gladiator Fight During a Meal at Pompeii," an oil painting by Francesco Netti (1832–1894), is a "moralizing" work calling on viewers to be scandalized by Roman decadence. It also happens to be very titillating.
Two slaves drag away a third killed in bloodsport, leaving a gray-red track in golden sand. The victorious gladiator is now left to fend against no less than five finely dressed ladies. Behind them, other revelers lounge with such slackness they are close to dripping out of their clothes.
The 20th century brought more freedom for both the form and content of artworks.
Andre Masson's (1896-1987) painting "Gradiva" reimagines archetypal figures for the Freudian age. The doomed heroine of a Pompeii-centered novel is represented by a pile of statue pieces, draped fabric, a steak, a conch shell and stray human limbs. It's attractive and repulsive at once, asserting both its fleshiness and the tendency to unraveling decay that comes with it.
Andy Warhol (1928-1987) based a series of painted prints off a Naples postcard. The outline of a distant mountain shooting a column in flame is filled in with a few of the bold colors favored by Pop artists: red, purple, yellow, black.
As the series progresses, the picture becomes simpler and simpler, and the artist allows himself freer play with the toys in his mechanical process. By the time Warhol reached "Vesuvius (#365)," the scene is almost an abstraction. The pyramidal mountain is stamped on the paper both vertically and horizontally, making it all but unrecognizable as a landscape, and more interesting as a repetition of an image in different orientations.
For the first time ever, the exhibition brings together ten paintings of Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko's (1903-1970) incomplete commission for the Seagram Building in New York. The mural-sized canvases are rose red and red so deep it is almost black, and look almost like they have been branded to the wall. Their presence is just as powerful as any Bierstadt-like realistic painting of volcanic flame, if not more so.
If you can, devote a whole morning or afternoon to seeing this show. Anything less sells it short.
The show runs through July 7 at 11150 East Blvd. Adults get in for $15; college students and seniors pay $13 and kids aged six to 17 are $7 apiece. For more information, call 216-421-7350 or go to clevelandart.org.