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. Featuring nearly 100 works, The Last Days of Pompeii: Decadence, Apocalypse, Resurrection will be on view from February 24 through July 7, 2013.
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 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.
The Last Days of Pompeii: Decadence, Apocalypse, Resurrection contains six galleries of remarkable works of art exploring these ideas from more than fifty public and private collections in Europe and the United States, including the Louvre, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. Appearing only in Cleveland is a suite of ten large paintings by Mark Rothko, preliminary studies for the Seagram Building commission in the late 1950s. Rothko eventually withdrew from the project, and this is the first time these ten works have been exhibited in the same space. Also appearing in the Cleveland show is a 1991 installation called The Dog from Pompei by American artist, Allan McCollum, which brings together 16 replicas of perhaps the best-known of all the body casts from Pompeii, a startling work that has a powerful impact on the visitor.
“The scale of the disaster and the remarkable archaeological record have inspired some of the most interesting and important artists of the last three centuries,” stated Seydl. “All these artists used Pompeii to create entirely new stories that tell us much more about their own time than about antiquity.”