While this blog is mostly about my theater visits, I mix in some ballet and opera, but I have other interests. I’ve had a few gardening posts: today I’m going to write about art. The inspiration: a trip to the Palazzo Madama in Turin, where I discovered an exhibit by Robert Wilson tucked amidst the Medieval sculpture and Baroque gew gaws. This makes 2012 the Year of Bob for me, since I’ve been to both his Walking exhibit and seen Einstein on the Beach.
Now, Bob wasn’t what drew me to the Palazzo: frankly, it’s a bit hard to ignore, what with it sitting smack dab in a huge open space in the middle of the historic center of Turin. And it’s a fascinating hodge podge, all medieval-looking from the back, but with a frothy white front that matches the rest of the public facing buildings. The mixed history of this building is what drew me to it, as I am frequently turned off by Baroque architecture – sometimes I can get lost in all of the curly wurly hurly burly, but more frequently I just find it all as indigestible as an all-icing cake. I saw it and went, “Hey, now that is cool looking building, nice and ancient looking in back, yet curiously modernized! What in the world is going on here?”
As it turns out, the building not only has its own fascinating history (I’ll let you read up on it on your own, it goes back to Roman times) but is an icon of Turin’s glory days. Inside it is housed a museum of art as well as the semi-preserved apartments of “Madames” Christine Marie and Marie Jeanne (which I was much less interested in than the art). I had actually planned on blowing through the upstairs altogether (baroque furnishings, bleh), but downstairs, amidst all of the fantastic gothicky wooden carvings and lovely paintings of the saints, there were all sorts of little reminders that there was an exhibit of portraiture upstairs which was in some way responding to the art in the (very old feeling) basement.
Let me talk a little bit about the art in the basement. The first room was a painted altarpiece, a ceiling moved from a demolished building, and the most amazing choir stalls, carved with the freakish creatures (mermen, chimera, something that was mostly a head) that bubbled out of the imagination of a team of 16th century French sculptors. The amount of detail was amazing – even some of the seat backs had little scenes in them. I had a hard time leaving the room.
The next room, the largest in the basement, was divided into several areas, each filled almost to bursting with excellent examples of medieval and renaissance art. The most celebrated painting was Portrait of a Man by Antonello da Messina; but I was entranced by the many lovely things, including a bone casket with Limoges medallions, a sculpted “life of Mary Magdalene” where every personage was grinning like a loon, and a fascinating Renaissance allegory painting (called, I believe, “The Game”) in which Venus appeared to be playing chess with Mars. I could barely leave.
When I finally ascended the stairs (after a long visit with a coffin featuring the adventures of Perseus carved in alabaster), I made it into a room that was white to the point of glowing, with sculptures of pairs of women curled on a ledge under the ceiling. They seemed wise and a bit amused, and while they were, apparently, representations of the various provinces of Savoy (if I recall correctly), I read them as an older woman’s assertion of confidence and sense of self. These statues were lit, in turn, by the glow from the numerous video screens in the room, which were somewhat muted by an unusual arrangement: in the center of the (white) room, there was a roofless box (of white), pierced by four entryways, each gap partially blocked by a (white) panel. On exploration, the panels held video screens that faced toward the cube; they were best seen by entering the cube itself, which was covered by numerous glowing panels with polka-dotted backgrounds and a snowy owl. The effect was, looking up, COLOR COLOR OWL CHAOS smiling female statue. Fascinating! Each of the panels had a video screen of a different animal, chosen (seemingly) for their own color (or lack thereof): a black panther; a pile of skunks; a porcupine; a clearly manipulated (so as to be rainbow colored) frog. The effect of the mostly black and white palate made the occasional motion of the animals even more heightened – and with the women looking over us, it felt like somehow we were having a joke played on us. It was, to be sure, playful, and gorgeous, and very fun.
The next room I went in was full of the kind of gewgaws and trinkets that, while the height of baroque artisanship, are so overwrought that, when clustered together, I tend to tune them out. Cabinets with beautiful inlaid marquetry/stonework; statues; silver salt cellars; ridiculous clocks. I would have normally blown by them, but now they fought against the slightly moving and equally vibrant modern video portraits scattered among them. The effect was to make the regular collections more digestible, to convince me to spend a bit more time with them just as I was needing to spend more time looking at the Wilson pieces to see them evolve through their storylines (each of them had a bit of motion in them).
The next two rooms were large and mostly empty, and the pixelated pictures stood as equals (yet leaning towards having more energy what with occasional music) amongst other portraits. The rooms led to a pretty circular room covered with tiny portraits, vying with a large picture of Brad Pitt being rained on (which seemed to attract rather a lot of attention, what with his being in his boxer shorts). I got the feeling that I was in Hogwarts, with the old portraits on the walls all but talking to me. It was very striking, the effect being of the world of art gone by standing up to greet its newest incarnation. Delightfully, from this corner (where I spent rather a while, waiting to see just what he was going to do with his gun) I was able to sneak down a hall to a lovely, naturally-lit room and enjoy a lovely hot chocolate. All pleasures were being catered to at the Palazzo Madama!
While there was even more palace and even more art to be seen, I’ll end my review here. I was impressed at the way the portraits – which in a different environment I might have considered banal, celebrity-focused, unnecessarily obsessed with technology, and forgettable – actually engaged strikingly with their environment in a way that enhanced both the form and contents of the Palazzo and Robert Wilson’s otherwise gimmicky product. They added light, sound, and motion to a dusty static world, and the effect was positive for both of them. I’m really pleased I had a chance to see this installation, and I have to applaud the forward thinking museum directors who made this exhibit happen.
(This review is for an exhibit I saw on Sunday, October 28th, 2012. It continues through January 6th, 2012.)