22 September 2011

Seeing the wood for the trees

Winter (After Arcimboldo), Philip Haas
Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, September 2011
Speaking of pareidolia, and before we get to the Biennale, Venice also saw an afternoon visit to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.

Ms Guggenheim was what I believe is euphemistically referred to as a 'Society Girl', niece of Solomon Guggenheim of museum and foundation fame and an avid art collector in her own right (though I believe she collected artists as much as she did their work). She lived in Venice from 1947 until her death in 1979, and her palazzo on the Grand Canal which had been open to the public intermittently throughout most her life in Venice was formally opened as a museum in 1980.

The Collection includes an array of works by Max Ernst (one of her husbands), Mondrian, Klee, Pollock, Brâncuşi, Maigritte and others, a very eclectic group of Modernists, Cubists and Futurists (oh my), and yet strangely I didn't really care for it at all, at all. It basically showcases the tastes (and conquests) of a middle-aged American heiress of the 40's and 50's, and the parallels between her Collection and the trophy rooms of the Natural History Museum a few vaporetto stops up along the canal are obvious.

Herein lies another of the tensions I have with the nature of Art, the fact that our tastes are shaped by what we are exposed to, and what we are exposed to exists largely because it is commissioned, bought, preserved and displayed by folks like Peggy Guggenheim. Art exists because of the wealthy elite, either institutional or individual, who create a demand and a market for it, and what we see on the walls of Public Galleries are the braggadocio of the aristocracy, thrown to the masses like table scraps. Public taste is by and large the result of trickle-down aesthetics.

In a Public Gallery whose collection has been amassed for the specific purpose of educating and enlightening the masses, you can sometimes ignore the invisible hand of capital moving behind it all, but at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection you cannot escape the fact that everything on display belonged to one single very privileged person.

I passed through it quickly and progressed the next day on to the Biennale.

(oh, and the pareidolia reference is to the above sculpture by Philip Haas that was in a temporary exhibition, a study of a much larger 15' high version that itself is of course based on the 16th century painting Winter by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, who painted a series of portraits of faces composed of vegetables, fruit, trees and other flora, though in this case you would be forgiven for seeing a face amongst the food because that, I believe, is the intended effect. Otherwise Arcimboldo was a very, very bad painter indeed.)

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