Rosenfeld Porcini, London
3 July – 21 September 2013
by ANNA McNAY
When Christians entered a church and saw a painting recounting a Biblical episode, they knew the narrative surrounding it so well that they could virtually see the action unfolding in their mind’s eye; similarly, Old Master paintings of Greek and Roman myths could easily conjure up vivid and dramatic denouements in the imaginations of their educated viewers. As the third of their annual themed exhibitions, Fitzrovia art gallery Rosenfeld Porcini, whose partner gallery, Galleria Napolinobilissima in Italy, regularly shows Old Master works, brings together newly commissioned works by seven contemporary artists and, for the first time, works from the directors’ collections by 10 Old Masters, looking at the tradition of narrative artwork, both before and since the birth of cinema.
The idea for the exhibition was spawned by director-curator Ian Rosenfeld, as he sat one day thinking about the competition to design the doors for the Florence Baptistry in 1401. He realised how the miniature sculptures put on public display had told stories in a purely visual way. Unlike with theatre, it was not, in this instance, about place and space. In his mind, then, these sculptures were forerunners of the cinematic tradition, and, as he let his thoughts roam further, so too, it seemed, were many of the paintings in his collection.
This is not an easy show to look around – at least, not if you want to appreciate it fully. You need to take your time to stop and read – or watch – each work, and to participate in its story. Alongside the individual works’ narratives, the striking curatorial juxtapositions between ancient and modern, and the overarching cinematic theme, there are further mini dialogues and threads interweaving and relating the works in each part of the gallery. In one section, for example, we find a religious theme, with three Old Master works depicting different moments from the story of the Crucifixion (before, during, and after) hanging opposite two works illustrating David’s defeat of the giant Goliath. Although of the same story and with similar compositions, these latter two works are of radically different styles and from vastly distanced eras: one, an extravagantly Mannerist canvas, dates from the turn of the 17th century by Andrea Michieli (called “il vicentino”) (1542-1618), while the other, Those Who Remain – The Fall (2013), by Cesare Lucchini (born 1941), looks more like something Cy Twombly (1928-2011) might have produced. This pair, however, hang more closely together than either does with Lucchini’s neighbouring work, The Child Soldier (2013), which, distressing because of the size of the gun and all the moral decrepitude it evokes, contrasts contemporary society, with its lack of ethics and overarchingly nihilistic attitude, with those earlier days when it was largely believed that good would overcome evil, and that Christ had died on the cross to redeem humanity from its sins.
A similar theme continues across the upper gallery, where two large-scale mythological works hang facing one another: the heavily Baroque Aeneas Fleeing with his Family from the Burning City of Troy (1610-1612) by Giovanni Lanfranco (1582-1647) and an obsessively layered drawing of The Death of Actaeon (2013) by Lanfranco Quadrio (born 1966). While the former tells the tale of a hero who, despite having lost his people, travels onwards and discovers Italy, engendering new hope, the latter focuses on the tragic – and, again, nihilistic – end to Actaeon’s life where, having been caught spying on Diana and her nymphs, and, as a punishment, turned into a stag, he is set upon and devoured by his own hounds. The overlaying of images as Quadrio captures the climax of the story moment by moment, drawing and redrawing different sketches on the same space of canvas, brings the dynamism of a motion picture to the static arena within the frame.
Downstairs, the concepts of scene and frame come fully to the fore. Aída Rubio González (born 1978) has produced a number of brightly coloured and peopled street scenes that seem to echo, in paint, the complex narratives and freedom most often associated with Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar (born 1949), while Your Life was in my Mouth (2013) by Robert Muntean (born 1982) captures, in its neo-Cubist sketchiness and thinness of paint, a sense of evanescence and the moment dissolving, with the mere suggestion of a shadow of the man on the right’s hat, lingering mid-canvas after he has moved position. The huge dimensions of this work make it further suggestive of a cinema screen.
Much smaller in scale are the two works by Gideon Kiefer (born 1970), produced in pencil and gouache on the covers of books. While in The Solemn Moment (2013) the viewpoint causes one to look up, again as if at a cinema screen, in Rabbits; I wonder who I will be (2013), based on the movie Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2001), both the viewer and the man in the picture look down on a boxed scene, in a stance suggesting that of the director.
The sole film work in the exhibition is Blessed are you who come by Fatma Bucak (born 1982). Rich in its possible interpretations, this enigmatic and atmospheric video, shot on the Turkish-Armenian border against the backdrop of the remains of an early 12th century church, shows a group of village men as they watch a woman dressed in black carry out a curious ritual. Shot almost entirely from a fixed frame, this contemporary piece echoes the structure and content of the Old Masters amidst which it is being shown, and is, on many levels, the least dynamic and offers the least interwoven narrative of them all.
Bringing together these works, juxtaposing their styles and contents, and contrasting their moral lessons, as well as being a fascinating exercise in and of itself, also vehemently contradicts the oft put forward belief that while modern cinema bombards us with an overload of visual and aural information, pre-cinematic imagery was more passive and peaceful, merely inviting quiet contemplation. Life then, it would seem, was just as full of narrative excitement as is that of the modern day, albeit perhaps with greater integrity and spiritual purpose. As always, however, there are plentiful exceptions to the rule.