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Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Divine Beauty: From Van Gogh to Chagall and Fontana

Divine Beauty: From Van Gogh to Chagall and Fontana is an exhibition at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence. This exhibition with over one hundred works by important Italian artists as Domenico Morelli, Gaetano Previati, Felice Casorati, Lorenzo Viani, Gino Severini, Renato Guttuso, Lucio Fontana and Emilio Vedova, together with international masters like Vincent van Gogh, Jean-François Millet, Edvard Munch, Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, Georges Rouault and Henri Matisse, sets out to explore the relationship between art and the sacred from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century.

The curators argue that, while sacred art is traditionally linked with the period stretching from the Middle Ages to the seventeenth century, in reality, it has never completely vanished, and this exhibition retraces its history in the years between the 1880s and 1950, both in Italy and abroad. Divine Beauty investigates the relationship between art and the Church, a connection that had been unbreakable in previous centuries and that seemed to have been lost in the modern era. 

As a result, Divine Beauty investigates much of the ground that I have explored on this blog through my Airbrushed from Art History series and my Sabbatical Art Pilgrimage. This blog has also tried to regularly highlight places where discussion about faith and art has been occurring (see, for example,here, here, here, herehere and here).

Divine Beauty provides visitors with a unique opportunity to compare and contrast a number of famous works of art, observed in a new and different light, alongside pieces by artists whose work is perhaps less well-known today but who, in their own way, have helped to forge the rich and complex panorama of modern art as a whole, not simply in a religious environment. Religious art is presented here as a "genre" in its own right, as an art form that came down from the altar to play a direct role in the artistic debate between the 19th and 20th centuries while at the same time reviving the great themes on which religion and spirituality have been focusing from time immemorial. 

Curated by Lucia Mannini, Anna Mazzanti, Ludovica Sebregondi and Carlo Sisi, the exhibition, which is the product of a joint venture between the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, the former Soprintendenza Speciale per il Patrimonio Storico, Artistico ed Etnoantropologico e per il Polo Museale della città di Firenze, the Archdiocese of Florence and the Vatican Museums, is part of a programme of events devised to run concurrently with the Fifth National Bishops Conference, scheduled to be held in Florence from 9 to 13 November and in the course of which Pope Francis himself will be visiting the city. 

Divine Beauty analyses and sets in context almost a century of modern religious art stretching from the 1850s – when the Roman Catholic Church of Pope Pius IX actively encouraged the most innovative forms of artistic expression – to the 1950s, in a display hosting the best examples of that art to have been produced either in Italy or abroad, highlighting the dialogue, the ties, and at times even the clashes in the relationship between art and religious sentiment. This "divine beauty" takes on the significance of a grace that injects aesthetic substance into the form of works of art, each one of which emanates a different and unique kind of spirituality. 

After a period during which Christian art was associated with "historicism", an attempt began to be made in the late 19th century to identify an artistic vocabulary suited to modern times. This led in the course of the 20th century to the existence of multiple parallel yet different styles governing the representation of the sacred. This variety of expression is broadly illustrated by the works on display in the exhibition, which range from naturalism and the narrative style echoing the way history was depicted in the late 19th century to the Symbolist research of the early 20th century, and from the exploration of realism in the 19th and 20th centuries to interpretations bordering on the abstract and the downright controversial, as exemplified by the startling work of the Futurists or of Edvard Munch whose Madonna triggered such a storm of controversy that it represents one of the most provocative images of Mary to have emerged at any time in the course of the 19th century. 

The key pieces include masterpieces such as: Jean-François Millet's Angelus on exceptional loan from the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, a work that emanates an ancestral spirituality, a universal sense of the sacred that transcends all barriers; Vincent van Gogh's Pietà from the Vatican Museums, a crucial work because, despite his religious and mystic calling, Vincent rarely addressed the sacred in his art, and even when he did so, he took his cue from other artists' work; Renato Guttuso's Crucifixion from the collections of the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna in Rome, an emblematic work with an intense political connotation which, like Picasso's Guernica, embodies a cry of pain and grief; and Marc Chagall's White Crucifixion from the Art Institute Museum in Chicago, one of Pope Francis's favourite works of art. 

The exhibition is divided into seven sections. In the introductory section (From Salon to Altar), large paintings of the highest quality testify to the eclecticism in the styles and approaches to the theme of the sacred in the second half of the 19th century, with such works as Antonio Ciseri's The Maccabees and William-Adolphe Bouguereau's Flagellation of Jesus Christ. At the turn of the century, the theme of the Virgin (Rosa Mystica) acquired special significance as the Symbolist aesthetic began to take hold, with artists imbuing the image with their strong desire for the ascetic – a trend effectively illustrated, for example, by Domenico Morelli's Mater Purissima. The exhibits in the very extensive central section are arranged to echo the narrative of the Gospels. The Annunciation to the Virgin Mary is followed by Nativity and Childhood of Christ, Miracles and Parables, The Passion, The Last Supper, The Way of the Cross and The Crucifixion, Deposition and Resurrection (with works by, among others, Glyn Warren Philpot, Maurice Denis, Giuseppe Capogrossi, Odilon Redon, Arturo Martini, Stanley Spencer, Georges Rouault, Otto Dix, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Renato Guttuso, Lucio Fontana and Emilio Vedova). 

The works are arranged throughout the exhibition in chronological order, comparing modes of artistic expression which are frequently very distant from one another and which, on occasion, address the theme of the sacred with significant and sweeping new takes on modernity, thus highlighting the different trends and clashes of expression in the relationship between art and religious sentiment. In this context, a special section is devoted to Gino Severini: Mural Decoration from Spirituality to Poetry, which uses a selection of Severini's works to clarify the artist's philosophical dialogue with Maritain. This is followed by a video-installation entitled Architecture, illustrating the multiple solutions adopted between the 19th and 20th centuries in the construction and decoration of Catholic places of worship, also underscoring the close link between architecture and ritual. The penultimate section in the exhibition analyses the depiction of The Church (illustrated in the work of Adolfo Wildt, Scipione and Henri Matisse) with a reflection on the public side of religion; while the final section explores the private and intimate dimension of Prayer (with paintings ranging from Millet's extremely well-known Angelus to Felice Casorati's extraordinarily elegant Virgin).

Several major works of art have been specially restored to mark this exhibition. They are Antonio Ciseri's The Maccabees, Giuseppe Catani-Chiti's The Saviour, Vittorio Corcos' Annunciation, Arturo Martini's Prodigal Son and Primo Conti's Crucifixion


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