Published  28/08/2000

Chasing beauty

Chasing beauty

L'Idea del Bello:
Palazzo delle Esposizione, Rome - Through September.

Le Jardine 2000
Villa Medici, Rome - Through 24th September.

La Beauté:
City of Avignon - Through September.

Enclosed and Enchanted:
Museum of Modern Art, Oxford - Through 8th October.

Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Rome

L'Idea del Bello has been running through the summer in Rome's Palazzo delle Esposizioni; a massive fulfilment of curatorial and scholarly ideals (not usually one and the same). Over 700 works or objects of one kind and another have been assembled on two levels. The catalogue of the same name, in two volumes, covers 914 pages. The subtitle is 'Journey through Rome in the Seventeenth Century with Giovan Pietro Bellori.

The exhibition celebrates the pivotal, and transitional culture of Rome in the seventeenth century, assessing the influence of the scholar and historian Bellori. In his publication 'L'Idea del Pittore, della Sculture, e dell'Architetto', Belloni developed his central thesis that the springs of creativity were derived from cerebral supremacy, as the mark of intelligence, enhanced wherever possibly by imagination, rather than by divine intervention or a sense of nature. Bellori marked a sea change that culminated in the Baroque. He recognised that such artists as Caravaggio and Rubens were moreso the precursors of this new mid-seventeenth century surge of exuberant creativity in painting, sculpture and architecture than ever the representatives of a receding Renaissance. Poussin, too, was to become Bellori's championed figure, a Poussin who had reconciled order and nature together against the backdrop of Rome and the Campagna. Bellori promoted Poussin as representing a new order, based on the intelligent reconciliation of history and antiquity as bulwark against any return to darkness. Poussin could both circumscribe and infinitely extend the idea of beauty, as in his preface (L'Idea), but as the exhibition reveals, neither Caravaggio, nor Van Dyck, let alone Rubens, could tame passion or obsession within such intellectual constraints.

Bellori anticipates the serene perspectives of a more settled eighteenth century expressing both the sublime and the picturesque, and sets up Annibale Carraci (in view of his Farnase Palace works) as signalling the new direction. But Carracci too cannot forego the tension between feeling and rationale; in "Hercules at the Crossroads", the figure of Virtue points to the seemingly unattainable mountain, while Vice indicates more pleasurable activity: the tension rises while Hercules is forced to decide which way to go.

It seems Bellori was not exactly himself the real catalyst for change that his position might suggest was possible: yet he is substantiated nonetheless in the way that scholars and archivists are enabled, offering interpretation and clarification about the real tides of cultural change, where beauty in itself was to become less rather than more attainable ever after.

Villa Medici, Rome

Coincidentally with the figuration of the Baroque in the Bellori exhibition, the French Academy in Rome has made possible the exhibition Le Jardin 2000: beauty as an idea is inseparable from these manifestations around the Villa Medici, standing amongst ancient trees and amidst cooling breezes on the Pincian hill, such as Poussin would have admired. While the sculpture collection of Ferdinand de Medici now stands in the Uffizi in Florence, the Villa has been a centre of French creativity through the last century. Curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist recognises that the garden has always had a universal potential for art, never less so than today. Daniel Buren has devised a square of mirrored planes containing one each side of a doorway leading to a large entrapped or enshrined fountain. Bertrand Zavier has embellished and reactivated an existing fountain in the Villa garden by means of coloured tubes curved and coiled. Dan Graham has used architectural metaphor to emphasise time; in glass and steel he establishes a reductivist contrast against the unrestored interior walls of the ancient villa, enshrining the idea of perfectibility with decay. Zaha Hadid has woven red-wired elements architectonically to make her point, contrasting an image of dynamic flow against the rectangularity and axiallity of the Villa garden.

City of Avignon (Various locations)

In Avignon, that alternative seat of the Papacy, the curators have employed the quest for Beauty in modern times, as a theming device. But here the definitions of beauty defy categorisation or philosophical exactitude - since manifestly this pursuit is not fulfilled in a number of the exhibits or installations; or should one say not consummated -- since sexuality is acknowledged to be a physical attribute to beauty. La Beaute seems here to be simply a pretext rather than the materialisation of an actual 'idea'. So, no Buren, who is after all already defying rather than defining beauty at the Villa Medici (see above); but Anish Kapoor's casually leaning polished lozenge also implies a stand-off from formalised beauty, consummating the object as such in the loggia. Annette Messager deploys soft toy objects alongside knightly armour, rather as a flower stem disarms a gun.

In the Grande Chappelle, curator Jean de Loisy has cunningly installed Bill Viola's video masterwork from 1996. 'The Crossing', which dramatically activates the historic setting. And in the Jardin-des-Doms, nature re-emerges with hyper-realism, as fish specimens jostle with fossils, insects in cases, and other creatures in the section entitled La Nature a L'oeuvre'. (Nature at Work). Joeff Koon's 'split-Rocker' parodies kitsch with a grotesque animal head created out of thousands of flowers, somehow transforming the crudity of the toy animal figure through the beauty of natural covering.

This Avignon Programme spreads other installations and sculptures out around the city itself, both within the walls and in the housing areas built beyond. This is well conceived (entitled "La Belle Ville"). What this arrangement seems to demonstrate is the indivisibility of art and architecture. Modest and unassuming urban spaces become thus transformed. The artists too responds to the specifics of urban siting. In the concrete arena, of the Quartier Champfleury, Thomas Hirschhorn from Switzerland decided "to displace the notion of beauty as an aesthetic concept toward thought, ideas and projects" to behold the medieval ramparts of the city, in creating a kind of domain of house of philosophy" where one can relax and be imbued with such ideas of universal (and racial) harmony.

Perhaps it is Deleuze, too, who comes closest to the idea of a beauty enhanced by the intellect of man, rather than purely through nostalgia or sentimentality. Bellori would surely endorse such ambitions.

Museum of Modern Art, Oxford.

It is precisely the emotion and romanticism rejected by Bellori and Deleuze, in recognising beauty, that bedevils this curatorial essay in Oxford. This is an attempt to entrap the essence of the romantic garden as perceived and presented by artists over the centuries. An ambitious programme is vindicated by such contemporary essays as that of Diana Thater in video, "Oo Fifi: Five days in Claude Monet's Garden" (1992). there is much concern with the garden as 'Idea' here: and this is where beauty is only realised through actual creation and physical execution.

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