We Wealth | February 2022

The ancient and the contemporary do not always maintain easy relationships: filiation, lineage, legacy, and hierarchies generate struggles between the artists of today and the artists of the past. And the sudden changes in taste, dictated by thousands of reasons not least the diversions of the market, are hardly helpful. The life of art, one might say, has always been marked by rejections of the past and departures from progenitors or predecessors. In a history of disruptions, the 20th and 21st centuries occupy a place of honor, ready as they are to brandish the slogan ‘Make it new!’ in challenging or combative ways, from Futurism to Dadaism or Fluxus, to conceptual art and beyond. However, as soon as one recognizes that discontinuity rules supreme and that art lives precisely because it breaks the bond that connects it to the past, suddenly artists drawing heavily from the ancient heritage appear in the contemporary panorama. One need only think of Jeff Koons’ series Gazing Balls, modulated between sculpture and painting, in which artworks from a distant past – such as Ercole Farnese of Naples (370 B.C.) or Pieter Paul Rubens’ The Tiger Hunt (1616) – are reproduced (by an army of assistants!) and ‘enriched’ by a blue reflecting sphere located strategically so as to generate a dialogue with the environment of the exhibition and with the spectator, whose image appears reflected on Hercules’ shoulder or among wild beasts. In a very blatant way, Koons stages the classic in order to create intentional deflagrations between old techniques and shapes and contemporary materials and manners, such as the bright industrial plastic chosen also for some of his other artworks. Of course, Koons’ little round mirror is not the only artistic object to remind us that between the ancient and the contemporary exists an ‘eternal tension constantly rearticulated in the flow of critical languages and taste, market mechanisms, in the workings of the institutions, in popular culture’. These are the words used by Salvatore Settis in his introduction to the book Incursioni. Arte contemporanea e tradizione (Milano, Feltrinelli, 2020). The book comprises adventurous pages following the archaic memory of the first Greek wooden sculptures resting silently, yet alive, behind Giuseppe Penone’s trees, while breathing the scent of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Moreover, some chapters bring to light unexpected dialogues, such as that between Bill Viola’s videoart and the medieval form of the predella or the affinities between some of his video installations and Jacopo da Pontormo’s troubled Renaissance.

Settis, a great and refined critic, understands that the artistic dialogue between the present and the past is far from being linear, continuous, or transparent. However, he seems to be endorsing Aby Warburg’s belief, sure that ‘the art of the past, revived in a rhythmic succession of deaths and rebirths, becomes an agent of innovation’ and often a precious picklock used to capture the experience and the perceptions of the present. Those who visited Venice last summer and autumn may have perceived the echo of these words. It would have been enough to cross the threshold of Punta della Dogana to meet Contrapposto Studies by Bruce Nauman, a versatile artist who employs visual and musical languages and who forms part of the liveliest modernity of research. Here the ‘contrapposto’ alludes to the key moment, dating back to the V century B.C., when sculptors, sated with the symmetry and stillness of archaic forms, gave unfathomed dynamism to stone bodies, through the fold of the knee, the shift of weight, the lowering of the shoulder, a new torsion, and the suggestion of a coming step. Between performance, videotapes, video installations and, at the same time, under the sign of classical memory, Nauman modulates the variations of the ‘contrapposto’ in male figures caught in the act of walking or dancing, frontally or from the side, in a sober and dissonant journey through the precariousness of balance and the risks of falling that mark the existential landscape of the artist.

On the other side of Canal Grande, in the beautiful rooms of Palazzo Franchetti, ancient and contemporary meet differently, with joy and sensuality in the exhibition entitled Massimo Campigli e gli Etruschi. Una pagina di felicità. Human figures, animals and everyday objects give life to a world made of soft shapes and refined chromatism – the ocher of the terracotta, the blue of lapis lazuli. And a modernity that belongs distinctively to the 20th century – streets, popular life, women chatting, men at work, geometric and non-figurative shapes – coexists, for affinity and contrast, with two invaluable fictile sarcophagi of the III century. The very modern of the ancient is an ongoing history of intersections and reflections.

Caroline Patey, cultural advisor for Finer Finance Explorer