Monday, 23 July 2007

a recommendation

My brother and I share a deep and abiding love of Michelangelo's Pietà (the most famous, the one in St Peter's, which he completed when he was just 23). He has sent me a link to a brilliant essay on it from an American art critic who has written a personal, moving and insightful piece which you can find here. If you have half an hour to spend I strongly commend it to you.

When I went to see it with my friend Philippa in 2004 we each bought a copy of the collected photographs of the pietà by the Austrian sound engineer and photographer Robert Hupka, best known for his huge collection of photographs of Toscanini. When the Pietà went on tour to New York for the Wolrd Fair in 1964 he was granted unique access to photograph it from unusual and unprecedented angles. His pictures are truly wonderful, as though the brilliance of the sculpture
insipired him to new photographic heights, and more than simply documenting the original work they create a new dialogue between media and across the centuries. Here are some of his images:

Here the lighting is so amazing, and the marble looks almost supple, like waxy cold dead flesh.

What I especially love about these pictures is the intimacy and emotional immediacy which you can never hope to feel stood on the far side of the sheet of protective glass amongst the milling crowd of chattering tourists. I also loathe the multicoloured marble backdrop in St Peter's and think the plain black backing is perfect.

Hupka saw the Pietà from angles none of us will ever be able to, including, most spectacularly, directly above. And he captures planes and angles which one doesn't see from the front. But more than the technical genius, he shows us something important about the work: that like a photograph, it depicts a specific moment in time. In fact, it enacts Cartier-Bresson's 'decisive moment.' The idea that a sculpture, the most solid and atemporal of art forms, and a photograph, perhaps the most ephemeral, can both come down to this, is a surprising one. Sometimes looking through another artist's eyes helps you see wholly new things in the original work.


ursus arctos said...

The Pieta is genuinely awe-inspiring and is to me one of the few widely recognised masterpieces that lives up to the hype. It is so powerful that I realised it was special when I first saw it in New York. I was four.

The current installation, however, is horrible, for all of the reasons you mention. The photos appear to be a great way of being able to see the piece in a way that allows one to understand just why it is as special as it is. I wasn't aware of the book, but will now try to find it.

I have never been a big fan of St. Peter's (especially the interior), and wonder if the Vatican has ever seriously considered moving it out of the church and into a properly designed room at the Vatican Museums. It wasn't always where it is now, and doesn't "have" to be there for any liturgical reason.

de vertalerin said...

The article explores some of the issues Benjamin raised in The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction which you can find here:

I was particularly interested in the reflection on the bronze reproduction, which is available for exploration in ways that the original, for security reasons, is not. Accessibility vs aura.

If the Vatican were to move the statue to a special room in the Vatican Museums, there would be a small gain in accessibility for the (relatively) few - the paying public prepared to queue - and a total loss of accessibility to the masses, both tourists and Romans who can just pop in to see it regularly. I very much doubt if such considerations would affect the vatican's thinking, though.

de vertalerin said...

Eurgh, here's the URL shotened:

ursus arctos said...

Accesibility is a very good point that I hadn't properly considered.

Am I misremembering, or aren't there rooms on the first floor of the Vatican Museum complex that are open to non-paying visitors?

As much as I dislike the current installation, I agree that accesibility is a very important value. If not in the museums, perhaps in the colonnade.

I think I read that Benjamin piece almost 30 years ago. I probably should do again.

Spangly Princess said...

like you, Ursus, I'm not a massive fan of St Peter's but it is at least free. Nowhere in the Vatican Museum complex is free (except one hideously over-crowded Sunday per month) and so that's not really an option.

Mind you the queues for St Peter's are bad enough now you have to go through metal detectors first.

If you can't find the Hupka book (I think it might be the exhibition catalogue of the 2004 exhibition, actually) let me know and I shall pick a copy up for you next time I'm in that part of town.