Exhibitions and Installations, Getty Villa, J. Paul Getty Museum

“The Last Days of Pompeii” and the Archaeology of Imagination

The Forum at Pompeii with Vesuvius in the Distance / Christen Schjellerup Kobke

What stories do ruins tell? The Forum at Pompeii with Vesuvius in the Distance, 1841, Christen Schjellerup Købke. Oil on canvas, 27 7/8 x 34 5/8 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 85.PA.43

Having traveled to countless archaeological excavations—and heard, overheard, or given tours at archaeological sites from diverse cultures—I am often struck by what narratives about the ancient world grab people’s imagination. Whether it be hair-raising mythological stories brought to life by the ruins, such as in the case of the Minotaur who’s often the focus of popular tours at the labyrinthine palace at Knossos from Minoan Crete, or a cataclysmic natural disaster, such as the eruption of Vesuvius in the Bay of Naples in A.D. 79 that, quite literally, sealed the fate of the inhabitants of the important centers of Pompeii and Herculaneum, one thing is clear: ancient monuments and their ruins speak to people in disparate ways.

Some of the many narratives that have developed around the ruins of Pompeii are the subject of the exhibition The Last Days of Pompeii: Decadence, Apocalypse, Resurrection. This is not your average Pompeii exhibition, with the usual focus on daily life or artifacts discovered during excavations of the site. Many of us have seen those exhibitions and have been moved by the casts of victims suffocated by ash, and perhaps even shocked to learn about certain practices of the ancients—that inhabitants of Pompeii used urine to bleach their togas, for example.

Four dogs from The Dog from Pompeii as installed in The Last Days of Pompeii / Allan McCollum

Amplified sorrow: The Dog from Pompeii (detail), 1991, Allan McCollum. Polymer-modified Hydrocal®, 20 7/8 x 20 7/8 x 20 7/8 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York

Instead, much to my delight, the exhibition focuses on the legacy of Pompeii in the popular imagination since the buried city’s rediscovery in 1748 under several meters of ash and pumice. It’s appropriate that this exhibition coincides with National Archaeology Day this Saturday, October 20, because it explores a fundamental truth about archaeology: that the stories we weave around ruins and remains say as much about ourselves as they do about the past.

As suggested by the exhibition title, the show is organized around the themes of decadence, apocalypse, and resurrection, rather than chronologically. Each section includes a variety of works in different media, including sculpture, painting, photography, film, and text. From Fuseli and Kaufmann to Dalí, Duchamp, Rothko, and Warhol, many notable artists have drawn inspiration from Pompeii. But each artist takes away a different meaning, or develops his or her own narrative, in response to the tumultuous history of this fascinating archaeological site.

Pompeii is constantly being reinvented, reminding those of us who study and write about the ancient world not to get too comfortable with the narratives we create. Yet the variety of narratives in the exhibition also reminds us of the myriad benefits of studying the human past through art, archaeology, and texts. As this exhibition vividly demonstrates, there is something for everyone to respond to and lessons to be learned from antiquity, as long as we approach it with open minds and hearts.

Nydia, the Blind Girl of Pompeii / Randolph Rogers

And if it happened to us? Nydia, the Blind Girl of Pompeii, model 1855, carved 1860, Randolph Rogers. Marble, 54 in. high. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Patrons' Permanent Fund 2000.85.1. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

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One Comment

  1. Bradley Griffin
    Posted October 24, 2012 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    A beautiful and thoughtful analysis. I found the exhibit stunning, and I appreciated the anachronistic arrangement of art and artifacts to bring the themes of the exhibit into clearer focus to the lay observer. Well done!

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      A Chat with Photographer Tomoko Sawada

      A conversation about Japanese matchmaking traditions, self-portraiture, clothes, and identity.

      When did you start photographing yourself?
      I began making self-portraits when I was 19. It was an assignment for a photography class. I can’t even explain in Japanese why I liked them so much. It was instinctual. It’s as if I knew that this was going to be my style, that this is what I wanted to do. And I’m still doing it because I love the self-portrait, but I don’t know why. 

      What themes are you exploring in your work?
      I’m interested in the relationship between inside and outside. If you wear a sexy dress or if you wear kids clothes or casual clothes, people treat you differently. Even though you are you no matter what you wear. It’s that relationship that makes me think. 

      My new work is from when I was living in New York. When I was in New York, people didn’t think I was Japanese. Sometimes they thought I was Korean or Chines or Mongolian. Even Singaporean. It was funny, when I would go to the Japanese market, they would speak to me in English. When I went to the Korean market, they would speak to me in English again. I don’t seem to look Japanese outside of Japan. I was surprised because I think I look totally Japanese. It’s funny that people’s points of view are totally different.

      Could you talk a little about OMIAI, the series that represents a traditional Japanese matchmaking technique.
      OMIAI is a tradition that is somehow still working today. Usually, there is a matchmaker and photographs are exchanged before meeting. If both sides are interested, they can meet for lunch or dinner accompanied by their parents and steps for marriage proceed from there. In the old days, some people chose their marriage partner just through photographs, without even meeting each other. 

      When OMIAI was exhibited in Japan I saw people making various comments in from of the work. People would say things like, “she looks like a good cook; surely she would prepare delicious meals every day,” or “ this girl could be a perfect bride for my son,” or “I can tell she would not be a good housewife,” or “she’s such a graceful girl; she must be the daughter of a decent family.” Comments like that. 

      What was the process of making that work?
      I gained 10 pounds before I started taking the pictures, and in six months I lost forty pounds, because I wanted to look different in each photo. I wanted to change the way my legs looked. 

      Every weekend I went to the hair salon and put on a kimono. Then I went to the photo studio on the street in Japan. I would take a picture and then change my clothes to western dress. Then I would go to the studio again the next weekend. 

      Did you tell the photographer how you wanted it done?
      I told him I was an artist and wanted to make photographs with him. I told him to think that each weekend new girls would show up to make the OMIAI. I didn’t want him to think of me as the same girl who came every weekend. He understood the concept. 

      We had fun. While he was taking pictures, his wife would tell me how to lose weight. She gave me many tips.

      Tomoko Sawada’s work is on view at the Getty until February 21, 2016 in “The Younger Generation: Contemporary Japanese Photography”


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