Art review: ‘The Last Days of Pompeii’ at Cleveland Museum of Art

By Dorothy Shinn
Beacon Journal art and architecture critic

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After a Gladiator Fight During a Meal in Pompeii, 1880. Francesco Netti (Italian, 18321894). Oil on canvas; 115 x 208 cm. Museo di Capodimonte, Naples.

Be prepared for an onslaught of a large cross-section of art history, as well as the history of one of Earth’s most dramatic events.

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. destroyed and then preserved the city of Pompeii, providing a stop-action glimpse into the daily lives of ancient Romans.

Bodies have been recovered in mid-stride, mothers hunched over children, animals found as they were tossed aside by the pyroclastic blast, lovers as they lay together for the last time.

Since the rediscovery of the site in the 1700s, 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.

The exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art on view through July 7 is the first time the ancient city of Pompeii and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius has been explored through the lens of modern creators and thinkers.

Featuring nearly 100 works, and organized by the Cleveland Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum, The Last Days of Pompeii: Decadence, Apocalypse, Resurrection, is inspired by Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Last Days of Pompeii, a 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.

But be forewarned, this exhibit is not the scrubbed-clean, Christianized version. It presents us with Pompeii as the Romans would have seen it, with all its pagan orgiastic values and practices. Just as Bulwer-Lytton created an early Christian version of Pompeii, other artists have presented us with the Pompeii of their own imaginations.

Pliny the Younger witnessed the event from Misenum, 22 miles across the Gulf of Naples. His account of the event consists of two letters to the historian Tacitus. His uncle, Pliny the Elder, also seeing the blast from Misenum, launched a fleet to go to the rescue of a friend, and died in the attempt.

One of the Pliny the Younger’s letters relates what he could discover from witnesses of his uncle’s experiences, and in a second letter the younger Pliny details his own observations. These accounts have fueled the imagination of centuries of artists in a variety of mediums.

The exhibit seems to consist of every work of art worthy of the name of Pompeii or Vesuvius, or any related object, person or event that the curators could find.

From Francesco Netti’s After a Gladiator Fight During a Meal in Pompeii (1880) and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ Antiochus and Stratonice (c. 1838), to Andy Warhol’s Mount Vesuvius (1985) and Lucy McKenzie’s Cheyney and Eileen Disturb a Historian at Pompeii (2005), we are presented with a vast range of artistic styles, mediums and approaches, including plaster casts of fallen victims.

Also appearing in the Cleveland show is a 1991 installation called The Dog from Pompeii 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.

Mixing chronology and media throughout the galleries, the exhibition follows 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 others are compared, from the Civil War and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to 9/11 and most recently the Boston Marathon.

• “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 works exploring these ideas from more than 50 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 10 large paintings by Mark Rothko, preliminary studies for the Seagram Building commission in the late 1950s from which Rothko, disgusted from dealing with corporate entities, eventually withdrew.

This is the first time these 10 works have been exhibited in the same space, and, as remarkable and wonderful as they are, we have to wonder why they are included. An answer is provided in the exhibit’s catalog essay:

In 1958 Rothko was commissioned for the Four Seasons restaurant housed in the new Seagram Building in New York City. These are those paintings, which were eventually rejected by the Seagram’s commission, but even before that, Rothko’s conflicting attitudes were evident.

On his way to Europe in 1959, he confirmed to Harper’s editor in chief John Fischer that he had accepted the Seagram project “with strictly malicious intentions. I hope to paint something that will ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room.”

In Europe, Rothko visited Naples, Paestum and Pompeii. Fischer reported Rothko felt a “deep affinity” between the Seagram murals and those in the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii, as both possessed “the same feeling, the same broad expanses of somber color” that he eventually used for his project: deep reds, maroons and oranges, recalling fire, lava, smoke and dried blood.

“Rothko’s aim of creating a stifling environment that would make the patrons of the Four Seasons feel strapped, or buried, recalls the moralizing allegory imposed upon Pompeii: the eruption of Vesuvius was retribution for the excesses of the ancient Romans.”

Several programs have been organized for this show:

• Picturing Pompeii, 7 p.m. May 15 — Free with exhibition ticket. Nineteenth-century artists, inspired by archaeological excavations of Pompeii, often depicted ancient artifacts in their work. Led by intern Mallory Potash.

• Theater Ninjas — The group performs The Excavation, a theatrical celebration of the life, death and rebirth of Pompeii in popular culture. The Ninjas explore the legacy of the famous city through site-specific performances and interactive storytelling. Free performances at 2 p.m. Sunday and 7 p.m. June 12. Theater Ninjas will also be integrated into the exhibition during special Ninja Days on Fridays and Sundays.

Sins of Pompeii (The Last Days of Pompeii), 7 p.m. May 29 — This rare 1950 film is an opulent version of Bulwer-Lytton’s novel that was shot in Italy and France over a two-year period. Dubbed in English.

Voyage to Italy, 7 p.m. June 11 — At the Capitol Theatre, 1390 W. 65th St. Directed by Roberto Rossellini and starring Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders, this drama tells the story of a British couple traveling in Italy who suffer marital problems that come to a head at Pompeii.

• Docent-led tours, 2:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays; 7 p.m. Wednesdays. Meet in the atrium.

Dorothy Shinn writes about art and architecture for the Akron Beacon Journal. Send information to her at the Akron Beacon Journal, P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH 44309-0640 or

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