Modern American Art in the Heart of Rome’s Historic Centre
I visited the joint Warhol and Pollock exhibitions on a sunny Sunday in Rome. The Vittoriano, the lofty, conspicuous monument built in honour of unified Italy’s first king, Vittorio Emmanuele II, doubles as a museum of Italian unification and host to rotating exhibitions on art and history. These two exhibitions in particular are adjacent to one another, and for a reasonable price, you can conveniently visit both.
Upon entering the Warhol exhibit, I immediately noticed the vibrancy of colour, both from the pieces themselves and the elements of the layout. A series of brash Marilyns graced the entrance. The neon signposts that followed along the way were consistent with the artist’s own vision and style, as were the music and light projections accompanying some of the rooms, creating a textured, multi-layered experience.
Multicoloured, kaleidoscopic flowers form part of the immersive Andy Warhol exhibition
The Pollock exhibition was likewise remarkably immersive. A brief film ran in a small, darkened hall, describing the artist’s famous ‘drip’ technique, in which Pollock seems to dance around his canvas, dipping his brushes in copious paint and letting the colour drip onto the surface. Animated panels demonstrating Pollock’s signature technique lined a narrow corridor leading up to the main exhibition halls. The black walls lit up with bright yellow, red, and white splatters. Quotes from various artists of the New York School and commentators on their work punctuated the pieces. “I have no fear of making changes, destroying the image,” says Pollock, “because the painting has a life of its own.” Indeed, his work evokes movement, spontaneity, and extemporisation, much like the jazz improvisation, or ‘free’ jazz, that was also emerging at the time.
“Animated panels demonstrating Pollock’s signature technique lined a narrow corridor leading up to the main exhibition halls.”
“I have no fear of making changes, destroying the image,” says Pollock, “because the painting has a life of its own.”
Another video showed Pollock at work on his famous Number 27. I could almost smell the paint. I learned an interesting fact from the famous Life magazine article of 1949: Pollock numbered his paintings, rather than naming them, so that viewers would not observe them with “any preconceived notion of what they are.” At another stage in the exhibit was a yellow couch, on which I lied down and looked up at a screen also illustrating the drip technique. It was as though Pollock were standing over me, executing his masterpieces. Upstairs, works by Hans Hofmann, Al Held, Grace Hartigan, Helen Frankenthaler, and William de Kooning graced the walls. The pieces gave off the impression of impulsivity and rapidness, but their production often took weeks and months to conclude, each drop of colour, each brushstroke a studied measure, their combination offering a compelling result. On an interactive screen, I created my own Pollock-esque work with just a wave of the hand.
Pollock’s famous Number 27
The time period that brought to light artists like Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, and those of the New York School–and that also birthed the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Miles Davis–was fertile for radical change. It saw a risky departure from the Old Continent as the standard of influence and a desire to carve out a place for uniquely American art, which, while ruffling the feathers of conservative gatekeepers, eventually succeeded in catapulting the painters to fame. The tension between contemporary artists and the establishment reached its apogee when the Metropolitan Museum announced a new exhibition, one from which artists like Jackson Pollock were excluded. The artists protested, and their legendary open letter to the president of the Metropolitan was published on the front page of the New York Times. “18 Painters Accuse Metropolitan of Being ‘Hostile to Advanced Art’ ” read the headline. The group of abstract expressionist artists was dubbed ‘The Irascibles’. Interestingly, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, backed by the CIA, eventually supported Pollock’s work, seeing it as the ultimate freedom of expression in a global reality coloured by the Cold War. At the opposite pole of this polarised world, in fact, was the social realism of Soviet art, which was to be avoided at all costs.
Andy Warhol was another revolutionary, a provocative artist on a post-war stage that was ripe for experimentation, irreverent innovation, upheaval and the assertion of new values onto the artistic scene. With the advent of new forms of mass communication and mass production, the commodity and its advertisement became pervasive and were peddled to the consumer on levels hitherto unseen. This new, rather aggressive form of capitalism, along with its extreme counterpart, communism, served as inspiration for the artist Warhol to explore the meaning of art, objectification, violence, and value. Warhol took the mundane, elevating it to the height of art, and brought art down to the ordinary, rendering it accessible, imitable, commodifiable, to be displayed on T-shirts, in the metro, in alleyways, and under scaffolding. Perhaps best illustrating this is Warhol’s reproduction of the instantly recognisable Joconda, or Mona Lisa–an unapologetic elimination of the hierarchy of fine art.
At the heart of much of his work is the relationship between art and consumption. The repetition of many of his most famous pieces, like the Marilyns, are reminiscent of advertising campaigns, identical posters in succession, running down streets and along bridges. The Marilyns are deducted from the inimitable, world-renowned starlet and reduced to copies that almost look like negative afterimages, each employing garish colours transposed upon one another in such a fashion as to mask the actress’s beauty. Warhol also applied this same technique to Mao Zedong’s famous portrait. Bright pink and red colour Chairman Mao’s lips–bold and cheeky. Did Warhol wish to draw a parallel between dictatorships and propaganda? Or perhaps even a parallel between capitalistic advertising and propaganda? ‘Mao’ reminded me of ‘Drag Putin’, the portrait of Vladimir Putin in heavy makeup–false lashes, blue eye-shadow and red lipstick–with a rainbow flag as his background. Banned in Russia.
“At the heart of much of his work is the relationship between art and consumption.”
Warhol’s affinity for the equalising potential of consumerist culture, however, was clear. He famously stated: “You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you can know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke.” At the end of both tours, there were little gift shop where one can purchase such memorabilia as biographies, canvas bags, sketchbooks, little Warhol dolls, Campbell soup cans, and notebooks with a quote from Warhol that is uncannily relevant to our times: “In the future, everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes.” Remarkable intuition.
Souvenirs with a hint of irony.
Outside the Vittoriano, a street artist sat on the sidewalk and spray painted sci-fi inspired landscapes in bold shades of purple, pink, orange, blue, and green–otherworldly sunsets, oceans, and forests. All for sale at a negligible sum. The poetry of the moment was absolute. I was at the intersection of some of Rome’s most important streets, including Via del Corso and Via dei Fori Imperiali, the latter of which leads to the Colosseum. Behind me was a late nineteenth century monument, striking to our modern eyes–a veritable symbol of Rome now–but which was mocked for its garishness by contemporaries to its construction! Off to the side, on Via dei Fori Imperiali, were the ancient ruins of the Roman Forum. The Via itself was a product of Mussolini’s imperialistic ambitions and delusions of grandeur. He had razed to the ground medieval houses and buildings to pave the way for the immense boulevard. He had used the piazza to deliver speeches to his crowds. It was overwhelming to be in the presence of so much history and to consider modern Rome in light of its past. As an American in Rome, it was especially humbling to see our artists represented in one of the world’s most celebrated and enduring capitals of art –a testament to the success of these daring visionaries.
“Outside the Vittoriano, a street artist sat on the sidewalk and spray painted sci-fi inspired landscapes in bold shades of purple, pink, orange, blue, and green–otherworldly sunsets, oceans, and forests. All for sale at a negligible sum. The poetry of the moment was absolute.”
Whether you are an art lover or simply curious, visiting the Pollock and Warhol exhibitions is a rewarding and enriching experience, offering you an excellent way to spend an afternoon in Rome and leaving you the better for it. The exhibitions are located in the Ala Brasini wing of the complex, on Via dei Fori Imperiali and will be hosted until February 3 (Warhol) and February 24 (Pollock). For more information, visit the official site of the Vittoriano, which is available in both English and Italian. If you wish to visit the ancient ruins near the Vittoriano, you can do so in a variety of ways. Visit the links for more details.