Omnia Vanitas

Alessandro Allemandi on “Riotous Baroque: From Cattelan to Zurbarán” at Guggenheim Bilbao, until 6 October

Juergen Teller, Paraíso XII (Paradis XII), 2009 Cortesía del artista y de la Lehmann Maupin Gallery

The exhibition presents a unique way of looking at art and art history by exploring the parallels between Baroque and contemporary art. The curator Bice Curiger presents around 100 works drawn from museums, galleries and private collections that are unrelated and displayed in a non-chronological way, as demonstrated in the subverted title “From Cattelan to Zurbarán”.

The curatorial thesis compares the exuberant driving forces of contemporary art with the great popular themes of the Baroque, inviting visitors to unravel the conceptual links between works that speak different artistic languages from across time. The exhibition avoids the usual stereotypes about the Baroque, and is based on the vibrant impulses of precarious vitality, in other words, the fragile condition of human nature, lived, lost, rediscovered and threatened by death.

The airy, shell-shaped galleries on the third floor of the Frank Gehry-designed museum play an important role in the exhibition experience. The layout brings to mind the techniques of cinematographic montage, the lighting is wonderful, and the works benefit from the spacious galleries. The 16th-century paintings are almost all medium and small-scale; the contemporary examples, in contrast, are almost all large-scale, a Babel of techniques and materials.

The first room is dedicated to the pastoral Baroque. Comic and gotesque scenes, awash with carnal temptations, intermingle with images of poverty, violence and filth. The boundaries between excess pleasure and unbridled indecency are blurred, while the moral lesson of the paintings is aimed at the ruling class of the time. Works by artists such as Jan Steen, José de Ribera and Adriaen Brouwer are shown alongside photography by Juergen Teller, (Paradis XII, 2009), Boris Mikhailov and Dana Schutz.

In a room devoted to mythology, works that reference classic maculinity (Francisco de Zurbarán) alternate with sexually violent stories that proved popular when they were made (Susanna and the Elders by the 18th-century Venetian artist Francesco Capella). The contemporary works, from Glenn Brown to Christiaen Van Couwenbergh and Urs Fischer, shift between the artistic representation of sexual relationships and the fragility of existence, another example of which is by Maurizio Cattelan showing some ephemeral stuffed dogs surveying a small chick (Untitled, 2007).

The Baroque taste for the abnormal and the ugly, in contrast to the harmony of classical art, is the theme of the room dedicated to grotesque and burlesque art. Overstatement and freakery give artists licence to present the most depraved actions of the soul through bodily gestures. The paintings of Faustino Bocchi and Bartolomeo Passarotti are displayed alongside a video installation by Lizzie Fitch (Temp stop, 2009-10), while the lascivious tongue of a white bull portrayed by Simon Vouet (The Rape of Europa, 1640) dovetails with an installation by Urs Fischer (Noisette, 2009) that shows an irreverent tongue emerging from a hole in the wall which appears empty at first sight.

The art of Caravaggio, and his hugely influential position in Europe, are explored in the room dedicated to religion and darkness. The realism inspired by the Caravaggesque use of light can be seen in the paintings of Dirk Van Baburen and José de Ribera, in the unsettling, nocturnal visions of Alessandro Magnasco peopled by spectral figures, and in the phantasmagorical architecture of Monsù Desiderio. The contemporary counterpoint in this section is a work by Glenn Brown depicting a gargantuan horse's head painted with broad brushstrokes in psychedelic colours, along with an iron sculpture by Oscar Tuazon, modelled on the smallest residential buildings, according to legal specifications, in the US.

The last room is dedicated to “vanitas”, a high popular theme during the Baroque. Portrait painters, allegorical diptychs and still-lifes, remind us of the decay in our true and ultimate fate, as seen in works by Jacob van Ruisdael and David de Coninck, juxtaposed with hyperrealist canvases by Marilyn Minter and a video installation by Diana Thater based on Chernobyl, which attempt to reflect excess and crude reality with delightful and disturbing images in equal measure.

The exhibition culminates in an educational and didactic area, a space carefully put together by the curatorial team at Guggenheim Bilbao, where a compilation of Baroque musical items selected by the art historian Michael Glassmeier, featuring modern renderings by the musician Frieder Butzmann, can be heard. Visitors can fill in words missing in an imaginary game by drawing on the exhibition content and its key words, such as vitality, excess, sense/sensuality, catastrophe, emotions, humour, amusement, theatricality and illusion.

«Riotous Baroque» is co-organised with the Kunsthaus Zurich. 

Published Tue, 09 Jul 2013 17:15:00 GMT

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