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Review: A mundane look at 'The Last Days of Pompeii'

The Getty Villa exhibit seeks to show the effect the Roman city has had on the artistic imagination (very little). Mostly, it's inspired a good bit of second-rate stuff.

September 30, 2012|By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic
  • Andy Warhol, "Mount Vesuvius," 1985, acrylic & silkscreen on linen.
Andy Warhol, "Mount Vesuvius," 1985, acrylic & silkscreen… (J. Paul Getty Museum )

"The Last Days of Pompeii: Decadence, Apocalypse, Resurrection," which opened recently at the Getty Villa at the edge of Malibu, includes a small Andy Warhol painting commissioned in 1985 by a gallery in Naples, Italy.

The canvas is rather ugly. But fame was a primary Warhol motif, and its subject — an erupting Mt. Vesuvius — ranks as a rock-star volcano.

Vesuvius probably hasn't done as much damage as Krakatau (west of Java), which sent powerful shock waves all around the globe when it blew up with cataclysmic force in the Pacific in 1883. It didn't spawn innumerable myths, unlike Popocatépetl and Ixtacihuatl that overlook Mexico City — a steamy pair of volcanoes that the Aztecs personified as epic lovers.

Sicily's Mt. Etna? Zeus was said to have tucked a ferocious monster beneath it, thereby explaining the almost constant state of rumbling agitation, but Greek mythology has by now gone the way of the dodo.

As celebrity volcanoes go, Vesuvius is the big one. It had a couple of things going for it that none of these others did. First and foremost, Vesuvius had Pompeii.

An outpost important to Rome at the peak of its imperial power, the palmy city was swallowed up by lava and ash in AD 79. Let epic nature destroy thriving culture, and celebrity is guaranteed.

The Warhol painting, based on a postcard and photographs of later Vesuvian blasts, imagines a fateful eruption. Blocks of bright red, deep purple, gray, pale blue and tan map out the explosive mountain landscape. Then, using a brush, Warhol painted over the color-blocks with thick, gestural marks of black.

But those thick tangles aren't merely representing the spew of smoke and ash. Stylistically, the black squiggles and curlicues also correspond to Jackson Pollock's black paintings of the early 1950s. All of Warhol's classic 1960s Pop paintings employ mass-produced commercial images to represent banalities about Modern art — especially bromides about Abstract Expressionism. The later "Mount Vesuvius" does too: The underlying volcano becomes an antic jape about volcanic emotions driving the tortured Pollock.

Warhol's painting is a groaner. Nearly two decades after '60s Pop had been instrumental in loosening the second- and even third-generation vise grip of Abstract Expressionism, a tired joke gets hauled out yet again. (That the 1980s saw Neo-Expressionist painting erupt on the scene didn't help the humor.) "Mount Vesuvius" is like an old vaudeville act trying to tap-dance its way into the Golden Age of Cinema: It's a bad painting because the last thing fame should be is stale.

As an exhibition, "The Last Days of Pompeii" suffers from a related problem. It wants to show the profound impact Pompeii has had on the artistic imagination. Mostly it shows the reverse: Pompeii's influence on significant art has been negligible.

In fact, it has inspired — if that's the right word — a good bit of second-rate stuff. Much of it is gathered here, in a show co-organized with the Getty by the Cleveland Museum of Art and the National Fine Arts Museum of Quebec.

In addition to the corny Warhol there are half-baked 1930s Surrealist canvases by André Masson and Salvador Dalí, both trying to jump-start old mechanical-erotic motifs familiar from Giorgio di Chirico; some soft-core gay porn showing half-naked youths draped in togas by German photographer Wilhelm von Gloeden and his lesser-known cousin, Guglielmo Plüschow; dryly academic studies of the ruins by Christen Købke and Edouard Alexandre Sain; and overripe Victorian-era pot-boilers by the likes of Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Francesco Netti and Hector Leroux.

There are also three marble versions — small, medium and large — of a figure of a blind Pompeian heroine plucked from a popular novel by 19th-century Neo-Classical sculptor Randolph Rogers. An expatriate American artist working in Rome, Rogers built up a thriving export business: 167 of these sculptures were reportedly shipped. The lenders to this show reveal that at least one ended up in a museum (the National Gallery of Art) and another in a mausoleum (Forest Lawn).

In addition to Pompeii, the other thing Vesuvius had going for it was the timely emergence of modern archaeology. Excavation of the town and its neighbor, Herculaneum, began in the mid-18th century. Uncovering ancient aristocratic grandeur bolstered the shaky royal prestige of the dig's local patron, the king of Naples.

As the digging went on, it also offered fodder for a newly moralizing era of Victorian rectitude. The show puts its finger on why Pompeii has inspired so much mediocre art: In a century when monarchies were under assault or in disarray, making Pompeii an effete symbol of an empire that got its just desserts played well with the public. Vesuvius was nature's way of cleaning up society's moral turpitude.

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