The Last Days of Pompeii: Decadence, Apocalypse, Resurrection explores how artists over time have explored and interpreted Pompeii and the other ancient cities destroyed and paradoxically preserved by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD79. In this curator conversation, Jon Seydl, The Paul J. and Edith Ingalls Vignos, Jr., Curator of European Paintings and Sculpture (1500-1800), gives us more insights into the exhibition.
Q1: How did this exhibition come together?
A: I’ve been working on this exhibition for about seven years. I started thinking about it when I was working at The Getty, and I even talked about it as an exhibition idea in my job interview there. During grad school, I did a continuing education lecture about The Grand Tour and I talked about rediscovering Pompeii. Victoria Coates – one of the co-curators of this show – realized that this idea had some legs and that led to a small show at the campus gallery at Penn, then a conference, then volume of edited essays, and now a major exhibition. So this show really comes out of a long collaboration and a lot of thinking and research over time.
Q2: What is the best thing about the seeing the exhibition come to life in the exhibition space during the first week?
A: To see all of the works of art is amazing...Jim Engelmann’s design is incredible...What we’ve learned through our visitor surveys that while the topic can be a little difficult to grasp in the abstract, when people get into the show and realize how it works, they really like the surprise.
Q3: What’s different about the Cleveland run of the exhibition?
A: We have double the space and we have a lot more modern and contemporary art. We have more objects over all – five Warhols instead of the one at the Getty, and several artists not seen in the Getty venue, such as the photographer Michael Huey and the muralist Lucy McKenzie. We also have a gallery dedicated to the archaeology of the site, which helps our visitors understand the basics about Pompeii.
Q4: The exhibition explores a pretty hard topic. How do we connect to it in modern times?
A: What I find so fascinating is that it’s the go-to metaphor for cataclysm. 9/11, The Holocaust, Superstorm Sandy…they’ve all been compared to Pompeii.
Q5: What are some of the most interesting objects in the exhibition to you?
A: The Rothko room is an staggering thing to have here. We are so grateful to The National Gallery for those loans.
Seated Nude, Pompeii, a 1954 welded iron sculpture by the French artist César came from a Swiss private collection and has not been on view since 1972. This is the first time it’s ever been seen in America.
André Masson’s Gradiva, from 1939, lent by the Pompidou, is a painting that is impossible to understand without the larger context of Pompeii. This exhibition really helps that painting make sense.
Q6: You’ve said in the exhibition catalogue introduction that Pompeii is a “mirror not a window”. Can you tell us more?
A: You often hear Pompeii described as this time tunnel that takes you back to the way that life was during that time. In a way Pompeii does everything but that. It reflects back what you want to see.
Q7: There is a pretty interesting “conversation” between this exhibition and the one directly across the hall from it, The Carporali Missal: A Masterpiece of Renaissance Illumination?
A: I think the two shows show how many different things an exhibition can do. Caporali is an incredibly refined show focused on one spectacular object. Pompeii is a brash, wide-ranging, multimedia treatment of a big theme. Yet they are both very much about context and place. And, they are both very much focused on original scholarship as well.