Introducing The Last Days of Pompeii: Decadence, Apocalypse, Resurrection

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79 destroyed, yet paradoxically preserved the ancient city of Pompeii, providing a vivid glimpse into the daily lives of ancient Romans. Since the rediscovery of the site in the 1700s, centuries of leading artists—from Piranesi, Ingres, and Alma-Tadema to Duchamp, Rothko, Warhol, and Gormley — have been inspired to re-imagine it in paintings, sculpture, photographs, performance and film. While exhibitions dedicated to the archaeology of Pompeii have been numerous, this is the first time this ancient city and cataclysmic event is explored through the lens of modern creators and thinkers.

After a Gladiator Fight During a Meal in Pompeii, 1880. Francesco Netti (Italian, 1832–1894).
Oil on canvas; 115 x 208 cm. Museo di Capodimonte, Fototeca della Soprintendenza per il P.S.A.E. e per il Polo Museale della Città di Napoli.

Featuring nearly 100 works, The Last Days of Pompeii: Decadence, Apocalypse, Resurrection will be on view from February 24 through July 7, 2013. The international loan exhibition explores how an ancient catastrophe has become a modern muse for generations of artists.  Organized by the Cleveland Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum, the title of the exhibition, The Last Days of Pompeii: Decadence, Apocalypse, Resurrection, is inspired by Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Last Days of Pompeii, an incredibly popular 1834 novel (download here) that combined a Victorian love story with sensational subplots of pagan decadence, Christianity, and volcanic eruption. The book was presented as archaeologically accurate and helped transform Pompeii into a place to stage fiction. It captivated generations of readers, prompted tourists to visit the site and inspired many works of art in a wide variety of media.

 “Each generation creates a new Pompeii for themselves,” stated Jon Seydl, exhibition co-organizer and The Paul J. and Edith Ingalls Vignos, Jr. Curator of European Paintings and Sculpture (1500-1800) at the Cleveland Museum of Art. “It’s an astonishingly rich subject for artists, who have returned over and over again to Pompeii, remaking it to suit the preoccupations of their own time.” 

Mixing chronology and media, the exhibition breaks down according to three broad themes. Decadence looks at why we consider Pompeii as a place of luxury, sex, violence and excess. Apocalypse explores Pompeii as the archetype of disaster—the cataclysm to which all others are compared—from the American Civil War and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to 9/11. And Resurrection considers how Pompeii has become a place to re-create and recast the ancient past.

Glaucus and Nydia, 1867; reworked 1870. Lawrence Alma-Tadema (British 1838—1912).
Oil on wood; 39 x 64.3 cm.
The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Noah L. Butkin 1977.128

Tickets for The Last Days of Pompeii: Decadence, Apocalypse, are $15 for Adults, $13 for Students and Seniors, $7 for Children 6-17 (children 5 and under are free). The exhibition is free for museum members. Complementary exhibition programming includes lectures, tours and theatrical presentations by Theater Ninjas, a Cleveland-based performance art and theater group. Additional programming information may be found here.



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