Barbara Rose, “the high priestess of art,” at Caserta
I’ve just come back from Naples, following a few days at Caserta, to see a variant of an exhibition we saw in Brussels in September, 2016, under the title “Painting After Post-Modernism” sponsored by Roberto Polo, and curated by Barbara Rose. But it wasn’t so much an alternative version of the earlier show (which was also seen in Málaga), as a whole new deal, because nine Italian artists were added to the American and Belgian painters of the earlier shows; and because, in Italy, the venue itself made problems that changed the character of what was shown.
The Brussels venue was remarkable enough. The Modernist Vanderborght building, with its atrium and six storeys of white walls elegantly accommodated the huge paintings by Larry Poons, Lois Lane, Paul Manes, Werner Mannaers, Melissa Kretschmer, Ed Moses, Marc Maet and many others; and I did not see the show at the Palacio Episcopal in Málaga. But the Reggia di Caserta is something else again. Barbara Rose says that “the vast dimensions of the place and its gardens rival those of the Château de Versailles, but architecturally it is far superior. Of all the royal palaces in the world, the Reggia di Caserta is by far the largest with more than two million cubic metres.” Its architect is not perhaps a household name, but Luigi Vanvitelli, the Italianised version of his original Dutch handle – Lodewijk van Wittel – was born in Naples to a Dutch landscape painter, Gaspar van Wittel, and his Neapolitan wife; trained in Rome, he became the most important 18th century architect in Italy. So, he was a natural choice for Charles VII, the Spanish Bourbon King of Naples and Sicily, when he was bestowing the commission to build the Reggia di Caserta, which, says Dr Rose, was “intended as a fresh start for administering the ungovernable Kingdom of Naples.”
Begun in 1752, the palace, which had to function as a small city, wasn’t finished by 1759, when Charles’ abdication (necessary to become king of Spain) was followed by the succession of his twice-deposed son, Ferdinand IV of Naples. When it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, it was described as the “swan song of …the Baroque.” In the region of Campania, Caserta itself is the capital of the province of the same name, and you can easily understand the political and financial difficulties of restoring this gigantic edifice with its four courts and 120ha of gardens – even without taking into account the endemic corruption of this part of Italy which, of course, continues. It is no surprise that to get to the exhibition you have to walk through buildings with weeds poking through the roof gutters; or that the exhibition’s lighting is imperfect; or that the American, British and Belgian journalists invited to see this show were sometimes used as objects to be bartered in return for local sponsorship of the exhibition. (Nothing else could explain parts of the programme of visits, such as to the relaunch of a local jewellery and crafts project – a noble cooperative effort, which deserves support and congratulations, but which was not exactly a fit with the interests of a pack of international art critics. Still, they gave us a stunning lunch; more generous than the pizzeria, where dinner consisted of a single – though delicious – pizza Margherita, and a single, small glass of a local craft stout, interestingly made using buffalo milk.)
The Reggia di Caserta was never going to lend itself to being used as a white cube; and hanging pictures on its Baroque walls would have given its restorers apoplexy. Dr Rose was clear that what convinced her about the venue was that the exhibition design was trusted to the architect Giovanni Francesco Frascino, who explains his scheme in a catalogue note:
A thin metal element connects the artworks, becoming stands, wandering along the palace floors and vanishing into the heights of the rooms. This device distances the works from the walls revealing the intent to respect the spaces of the Baroque palace.
It’s a brilliant solution , as all the works are very big indeed. Their heroic size is an aspect of what, in the view of Roberto Polo and Barbara Rose, makes these painters part of a trend – or is, at the very least, one of the threads that binds them.
Proving that painting is not dead – after the reproduction-based Postmodernist emphasis on graphic imagery, minimal reductiveness, banality, mundanity, the factual and the familiar – is a challenge Rose rises to, adding to her American and Belgian representatives, the nine Italian painters Roberto Caracciolo, Arturo Casanova, Bruno Ceccobelli, Elvio Chiricozzi, Gianni Dessi, Nino Longobardi, Roberto Pietrosanti, Marco Tirelli, and Rosella Vasta. In order to give them a fair showing, the number of paintings by American and Belgian painters have been reduced from the large numbers shown in Brussels.
Top: Paul Manes, “The Fifth Seal,” 2006, oil on canvas, 264.2 x 198.1cm
Bottom: Roberto Pietrosanti, untitled, 2014, pins on canvas, 150 x 125cm
One of their virtues, claims Dr Rose, is that these painters reject “fashion and commerce for enduring values rooted in their art historical heritage.” That is, they don’t play to the gallery, and refuse to make decorative concessions that would make their work chic enough to be sold as an expensive luxury commodity “to an ignorant and decadent clientele, who do not acquire art out of love, but rather as a status symbol and/or speculation.” All her chosen artists have in common, she says, that they are talented, reject theories and formulas in favour of individual, expressive styles, and are in some way “visionary.” They “share a commitment to tactile values of surface and touch” and continue “to be inspired by the great artists of their own individual culture.” They – especially the post-Pollock-drip-painting American artists – are concerned with the actual (as opposed to “virtual”) “properties of surface and support.” And all the artists concerned reveal “the cutting-edge of painting today, resurrected as a major art form that can hold its own on the walls of a palace that incorporates painting as a decorative art.”
How is this tension – between these huge paintings not intended as decoration, and the venue with its painted ceilings, frescoes and murals – resolved? I’m not sure it’s occurred to the distinguished architect who devised these wondrous black metal devices, which cradle each of these pictures, but what he’s done is, in effect, to treat these giant works, whatever their supports, as easel paintings, standing a few feet proud of the walls of the palace.
This has the occasional disadvantage, caused by inadequate lighting, of casting a disconcertingly equally enormous shadow on the wall behind the easel-like picture-holder, or, in the case of one of the superb Larry Poons shown, a tiny shadow on the lower left of the picture surface. But on the whole, this is a refreshing solution, which enables you to look at the picture in an entirely new way (as I can say with confidence about the works also showed in Brussels). Rosella Vasta’s gold-encrusted Cosmic Mountains (2017), for example, are breathtaking, almost awesome in their verticality, which escapes the decorative trap; as do Roberto Pietrosanti’s amazing works that look like glittering abstract drawings, until you see from behind that they are composed of tens of thousands of straight pins poking through the fabric.
Making the point that post-Postmodernism is not about abstraction versus figurative art, the glorious Colorado painter, Paul Manes, shows two works, “In the Heat of the Night, 2008” and “The Fifth Seal, 2006,” in which tree-shapes boldly leap from the canvas, but demand that you get close up to them to puzzle out the details of what you are looking at. Lois Lane’s “Rays, 2010” presents another – perhaps figurative puzzle, though it is a slight victim of not covering the fresco behind it; still, her “Moon Shadow, 2010” is a socks-knocker-offer, even more than it was in Brussels. Melissa Kretchmer’s pair of incised painted wood pictures appear even more sculptural and three-dimensional in the Caserta show, because the combination of “easel” display and lighting make for internal shadows on their surfaces. I’m still impressed by the Larry Poons pictures, and in Caserta I finally got the point of (and very much liked) Werner Mannaers’ strangely patterned backgrounds with their big slabs of single colours floating on their surfaces. And I’m told the secret of (the delightfully named) Arturo Casanova’s unsettling “Liquid Nerve, 2001” and “Mystic, 2017” is that he applies paint to the canvas with both hands at once.
Disclosure. Barbara Rose is a close friend, which accounts for my presence at both editions of the show. It was an additional pleasure to see her lionised like crazy by the Italian press, who called her “the high priestess of art,” along with other compliments both extravagant and deserved; and to hear her give press conferences and answer questions in maddeningly fluent Italian (because I know she can do the same in most of the rest of the Romance languages, and probably a few others.) The remarkable dealer-collector-cum-philanthropist, Roberto Polo’s next venture is in Spain, the future state Museo Roberto Polo. Centro de Arte Moderno y Contemporáneo de Castilla-La Mancha.
The Palace of Caserta is itself worth the voyage, and this show, up until 16 June, provides the best excuse anyone will ever have to see it. (Do not, on any account, however, stay as we did at the Hotel Golden Tulip Plaza Caserta. It’s only cheap because it’s so ghastly – we actually felt unsafe, especially with respect to the lifts, and though we looked, could not find the emergency stairs. I do not think this hotel would be allowed to stay open anywhere but southern Italy.) However, the Old Town of Caserta looks splendid; we saw the wonderful Titti’s Art B&B there; and had a slap-up dinner, starting with my favourite grilled octopus, at Corso Trieste restaurant (Corso Trieste, 74, +39 338 723 3959) there. Our host, Generoso Paolella, himself a collector, was the driving force behind the entire expedition; without his generosity (by name and by nature) and energy I don’t think the exhibition would have taken place.
In addition, there are the non-trivial pleasures of Naples less than a half-hour away. There’s the relatively new Madre Museum (Via Settembrini, 79, 80139 Napoli, www.madrenapoli.it ) with its rooms made by artists such as Sol LeWitt, Richard Long, Francesco Clemente, Anish Kapoor, Richard Serra, Rebecca Horn, Daniel Buren – the usual suspects, but each paired with a stunning bit of archaeological matter from Pompeii. It’s so strong I almost thought the Jeff Koons room made him look like a real artist.
I was too exhausted to explore the Naples Catacombs of San Gennaro (Via Capodimonte, 13, C/o Basilica del Buon Consiglio, www.catacombedinapoli.it ); but my wife, who braved walking the enormous length of this new tourist attraction, says it’s wizard. The Capodimonte museum itself is not to be missed. But why does Naples so revere its non-native son, Caravaggio, who, after all, worked there only a short time? His single painting of The Flagellation has a room to itself here, which is always crowded; whereas the room with six familiar Titians is much less popular. Of the three Caravaggios in Naples, I also saw the second, “The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula,” his last known painting,1610, in the Intesa Sanpaolo Collection and on display in the Gallery of Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano at Via Toledo, 185; the third, “The Seven Works of Mercy” is at Pio Monte della Misericordia, Via dei Tribunali, 253.
The Naples hotel we found for ourselves is the blissful Decumani Hotel de Charme (charming, by name and by nature), Via San Giovanni Maggiore/Pignatelli, Naples 80134, +39 (081) 5518188, where every member of the staff is as helpful and pleasant as one desk clerk at the Caserta Golden Tulip was surly and foul-mouthed. The rooms have high ceilings and beautiful new bathrooms – our shower did not even flood the floor, almost a first in my recent experience of hotels – and the breakfast room is a perfectly preserved room of the palace that evidently once stood on the site. As a bonus, in the same street is the Pulcinella Bistrò Ristorante, Via S. Giovanni Maggiore Pignatelli, +39 (081) 497 1119, www.pulcinellabistro.com. We went there on the recommendation of the hotel, and liked it so much that we ate there every day of our three-day stay. Everything we ordered, from octopus to risotto, and stuffed artichoke, was very, very good. Their frying is particularly fine, the wine list has some very exceptional bottles, all under 20€, and our bills for two were always well shy of 100€. Moreover, you can trust the agreeable waiters to recommend your menu, or order the (slightly smaller portions of) the unchangeable fixed price fish or meat menu (slightly misleadingly called a tasting menu). For pizza – and everybody in Naples eats a lot of pizza, which is good almost everywhere – we were lucky to be taken to the tiny Ristorante Pizzeria Caffè Franco, Corso Arnaldo Lucci, 195/197, +39 (081) 19138170, www.ristorantepizzeriafranco.it . The business has been in the family since 1916, Mamma still works in the kitchen, and the engaging chef, with all sorts of medals embroidered on his whites, is heavily into researching the virtues of different flours and yeasts. He fed us an entire Neapolitan dinner, which ended in a great crescendo of three different pizzas, all impressively dispatched by some of our number (24, I think) at table.