The exhibition as
Salvatore Settis in conversation with Chiara Costa
Chiara Costa – Over the last fifteen years, the study of exhibition history as a subject practically in its own right, as distinct from art history and historiography, has stepped up considerably. In the contemporary sphere, I am thinking of Bruce Altshuler’s research, or the “Exhibition Histories” series by Afterall, the research centre of University of the Arts London. In 2013 and 2018, with Germano Celant, the Fondazione Prada worked on these very themes, with the readymade-exhibition that reconstructed When Attitudes Become Form (Bern, 1969) in dialogue with Rem Koolhaas and Thomas Demand, and with the exhibition Post Zang Tumb Tuuum. Art Life Politics: Italy 1918–1943 which traced the history of exhibitions, and hence that of the art system in Italy between the two wars. The exhibitions that you curated – Serial Classic and Portable Classic (Fondazione Prada, Milan and Venice, 2015) – also covered a similar theme, namely the idea of the creation of a canon and its repetition. In your book Futuro del “classico” (Einaudi, 2004), you speak about the rhythmic mechanism which, from fragments of the past (‘pathos of ruins’), generates the need for rebirth . Do you think that this perennial evolutionary drive of the classical – an extremely contemporary characteristic in its own right – can be examined in depth and studied in an innovative way through exhibitions?
Salvatore Settis — Your question concerns the ‘classical’ theme, but transcends it. In recent decades, the number of exhibitions (even of classical art) has grown, often in a deleterious and spurious manner, spreading all over the world a large number of instant shows without a real intellectual project behind them, placing works of art at risk unnecessarily by subjecting them to travelling, and sometimes running such risks merely to pander to the vanity or stratagems of politicians or curators of museums and exhibitions who have run out of ideas. So the fundamental question is: is it worth holding temporary exhibitions, given the costs involved and the stress (which can be reduced to a minimum but not completely eliminated) to which works of art are subjected, just by being packed and having to travel? My view is that it is only worthwhile organising temporary exhibitions if they really do broaden the knowledge, not only of specialists in that particular field, but also of every other visitor. This can also happen in exhibitions where the theme is not (or does not appear to be) new.
When Germano Celant reproduced When Attitudes Become Form with Koolhaas and Demand at Ca’ Corner della Regina, it was certainly not out of laziness (redoing an exhibition that had already been done), or to pay an abstract academic homage to Harald Szeemann or to the Bern Kunsthalle, but to cast doubt, by an action with a strong authorial imprint, on a question of method, i.e. is it possible to reconstruct an important exhibition ‘archaeologically’, and what does it mean, in terms of impact and response, to reproduce it ‘as is’ forty years later? This brings to mind a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote (1939): Pierre Menard assiduously rewrites Don Quixote, word for word, without copying it, because, as he says, ‘I have taken on the mysterious duty of reconstructing literally his [Cervantes’] spontaneous work’. It is a project that lasts for years, and only a few pages come out of it, identical to those of Cervantes’ masterpiece, for example this sentence: “la verdad, cuya madre es la historia, émula del tiempo, depósito de las acciones, testigo de lo pasado, ejemplo y aviso de lo presente, advertencia de lo por venir” [truth, whose mother is history, who is the rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, example and lesson to the present, and warning to the future]. The sentence is the same, but what a difference in meaning! “Written in the seventeenth century, – writes Borges – this enumeration is a mere rhetorical praise of history”. In the twentieth century (Menard’s time), the idea that history is the mother of truth has a new implication. “Historical truth (…) is not what has happened; it is what we judge to have happened”. Reproducing a text (or an exhibition) after a long period of time has major cognitive consequences: the exhibition changes, but so does the mind of the person who does (or re-does) it. Germano was fully aware of this: when he was starting to work on the Venetian edition of When Attitudes Become Form he once spoke to me about it. He began more or less like this: I have an archaeological exhibition in mind, do you think it is worth doing? ‘Archaeological’, or philological, referred, in fact, to the method, the filter through which to reproduce that exhibition, acting, so to speak, as secondary curators (or half-curators), an intellectual endeavour of great interest.
The distance between Szeemann’s When Attitudes Become Form and Celant’s is the same distance as that between Cervantes’ Quixote and Menard’s. The Venice 2013 exhibition appears the same as the Bern 1969 exhibition, but has a radically different meaning.
Chiara Costa — When the Fondazione Prada opened its new arts complex in Milan in 2015 with Serial Classic, many were surprised that an institute of contemporary art and culture would unveil itself to the public with an archaeology exhibition. I think it was a statement of intents for the foundation. From the dialogue with you, it gained a fundamental awareness of the importance of placing in dialogue and integrating different subjects. After all, a key element in the work of Rem Koolhaas and OMA studio when designing the building complex was that of ‘expanding the repertoire’ of types of space in which art can be exhibited and shared. This architectural choice is complemented by an extension of the types of content that can inhabit the space through the exhibitions and their settings. Shortly before the official opening, I remember that we went together to see Defining Beauty: The Body in Ancient Greek Art, an exhibition at the British Museum the purpose of which was to examine the “revival of the Greek body in the modern era”. The set-up used the contrast between the artificial light and the blackness of the walls, creating a very theatrical effect, which in contrast was replaced in Serial Classic by an almost en plein air display. Since it is undeniable that an exhibition set-up is a communication tool, what was the message you wanted to convey?
Salvatore Settis — What led me to imagine Serial Classic was, I think, in sync with Germano Celant’s experiential imagination and curatorial intuition, but it was prompted by a totally different initial impulse. Miuccia Prada had asked me to envisage an exhibition on Greco-Roman themes for the opening of the new Fondazione Prada complex in Milan, a building designed by the architect Rem Koolhaas, but still to be constructed. I felt free to choose the theme, but I felt that it had to be in harmony with the strictly contemporary mission of the Prada collection, and in harmony with the spaces designed by a rigorous and visionary architect like Rem. This is why I decided to work on seriality in art, a theme that couldn’t be more contemporary, but which classical Greco-Roman art had already addressed in another way. Classical archaeologists are well aware of this, but others rarely suspect it, since mainstream culture cultivates the traditional image of classical art as invariably original, unique and unrepeatable.
So it was a question of bridging the gap between the study of copies of lost works of art, which is the bread and butter of classical art historians, and a public that for the most part knows nothing about it. Archaeologists consider it a subject exclusively for specialists, and much of the public does not realise that when they see a Discobolus in London or Rome they never see the original – irremediably lost – Discobolus of Myron, but one of its many copies. But why were so many copies made? How do we know that they are copies of that very statue? And how can we imagine the lost original, which nobody has seen for the last fifteen centuries? Questions that archaeologists think they can easily answer (they cannot), but which may flash through the mind of any attentive viewer. The short circuit between two levels of knowledge thus became the springboard for envisioning narrative paths, exhibition challenges and cognitive expedients. Was this a new way of speaking about the ‘future of the classical’? It may seem a little presumptuous, but yes, I think it was.
Interaction with Rem Koolhaas was essential in order to ensure that messages such as these were not only conveyed, but also enhanced by the exhibition set-up. With my co-curator Anna Anguissola (at the parallel, ‘twin’ exhibition Portable Classic the co-curator was Davide Gasparotto) we developed a close dialogue with Rem and his co-workers, always mediated by the Fondazione Prada team, Germano Celant and Miuccia Prada herself. It was like tackling Mont Blanc from two sides: on one side a sensational piece of architecture was taking shape with its commanding spaces and expressive potential; on the other, a curatorial idea was coming to light, entailing a double challenge. Firstly, it questioned the alleged unrepeatability of classical art while, secondly, raising an unresolved question: can classical culture and art, which have played a decisive role in European history for centuries, continue to maintain its citizenship today, tomorrow and the day after? And if so, how and why?
Let me use the metaphor of the tunnel for the last time: we met, digging from both sides, and we joyfully (this is the word) realised that the spaces designed by Rem seemed to have been expressly made to accommodate Discoboli and Doryphoroi, Venuses and Satyrs, allowing them to dialogue with one another and with the public. Rem’s ingenious idea of completely abolishing the pedestals of the statues – their most customary museum feature – totally confirmed the extent to which we had understood each other. I had not thought of it, but it fully corresponded to the idea of de-classicizing classical art by making it ‘walk’ among us, thereby changing the viewer’s role from blind and passive admiration to creative questioning, by its very nature infinite and unsatisfiable, but all the more fruitful for this very reason.
Chiara Costa — The first time I associated Aby Warburg’s name with contemporary art was thanks to the work of Goshka Macuga, who has not only openly paid tribute to the German art historian on several occasions, but has also incorporated the image-based procedure experimented in Mnemosyne into her artistic (and curatorial) approach.
Warburg likened his research to that of Nietzsche and Burckhardt, “receivers of mnemonic waves”, and thus described himself as a seismograph that received signals, and would transmit the data collected in a monumental publication (only produced in 2020 by the Warburg Institute). It seems to me that this “seismographic metaphor”, to which you have referred several times, can certainly be applied to some artist-receivers and also to the figure of the curator, and hence to the profession of making exhibitions.
Salvatore Settis — I would add to what you said that Warburg was very interested in communication through exhibition. He lived during a period (1866–1929) when the practice of exhibition-making, although already in vogue for some time (see Francis Haskell’s famous book on the subject, published in Italian by Skira), had little to do with what happens around us. Warburg was not a collector of the contemporary art of his time, but in 1916 he bought a painting, from a few years earlier, called Blue Horses by Franz Marc and he hung it in the entry hall of his home in Hamburg as a kind of manifesto attesting to his preferences. The years of the First World War were years of tremendous suffering for him. In the conflict between his two homelands, his native Germany and the Italy of his studies, he saw the collapse of European historical memory. This conflict led to his mental illness (first diagnosed as schizophrenia, then as bipolar syndrome) that was to torment him for some years. He meant this and nothing else by his seismic metaphor: in the artist and philosopher, as in the art history scholar (and, by extension, in the exhibition curator), he saw – autobiographically – a sensitivity intensified by his own expressive needs, and therefore strongly reactive to external stimuli, but also capable of grasping hidden connections. Exactly like a seismograph, capable of detecting even an earthquake in course hundreds of kilometres away, which none of the human beings in the same room are aware of. And so Franz Marc’s painting, and by extension the poetics of the Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), appeared to him (in one of his notes from those years) as an example – equal in this to Dürer – of how artistic sensitivity can develop “interior figures that reflect a necessity of nature”.
And when, after the war and his mental illness, Warburg vigorously resumed his work, he understood it as a therapy not only for himself but for the crisis of European civilisation, so he envisaged ways of spreading his ideas not only among specialists (often reluctant to listen to him), but to a much wider public. Lectures in workers’ clubs, educational exhibitions on astrology and its images, and finally the thought of constructing an authentic Atlas of Images to ‘map’ the figurative memory of European civilisations: Mnemosyne. The original plates of this Atlas were very large (only recently Monica Centanni managed to reconstruct their original dimensions, and she will soon talk about them in her online magazine Engramma). They appeared to be conceived almost – we would say today – as a series of posters to be put on display in an academic venue. Waburg did, in fact, do this in some conferences in Rome and Hamburg. During the years in which he was preparing the plates of Mnemosyne (a work destined to remain unfinished), his favourite metaphor, that of the seismograph, was extended to include – as though it were a mission he felt had been assigned to him – the transmission from generation to generation of cognitive and perceptive procedures refined by historical studies and hence similar to those of artists.
The seismic waves that the astute scholar (curator?) had to be able to register were those of the formulas of pathos that disappear like a karst river, to re-emerge centuries or millennia later, thanks to the secret fire of their expressive content in this succession of deaths and rebirths, the pathos of artistic expression becomes (according to Warburg) increasingly stronger as the Pathosformeln are revived and relived as symptoms of emotions and conditions that concern the artist in question and their time, but also the historian who – as a ‘receiving station’ – enters into harmony with them.
Chiara Costa — A few pages of your latest book Incursioni. Arte contemporanea e tradizione (Feltrinelli, 2020), are dedicated to this seismographic metaphor. Among other things, the volume contains an unpublished text dedicated to Ingmar Bergman’s film The Rite (1967–68), the only feature film in which the director appears briefly as a character. Some of the scenes in the film, whose title refers both to religious and theatrical rites, intersect with the Dionysian iconography of the frieze in the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii. You describe this relationship between the fresco and the film as a “genre shift” in which, to quote Sergei Eisenstein, there is a return of “identical formulas which – regardless of the people, periods or artistic spheres – provoke a fundamental ecstatic explosion, on which the pathetic effect of the whole is based “.
A similar formulation to the Warburgian concept of Pathosformeln. What if we looked at the friezes of Pompeii with a cinematographic eye? Are there any limits to a multidisciplinary reading of antiquity?
Salvatore Settis — The fact that Eisenstein, without knowing anything about Warburg, coined the concept of Pathosformel on his own and in another language (Russian) speaks for itself. The genre shift from fresco to cinema or video art is not so different from the shift from painting to sculpture, medal design and photography. What matters is not only and not so much the iconographic schemes, but their emotional and expressive load (or overload). The unexpected convergence between Warburg and Eisenstein on the idea of Pathosformel can probably be explained by a common background, the artistic practices (from painting to cinema, from theatre to dance) of German expressionism. In my essay on Bergman, which I abandoned halfway through in 1974 and finished writing many years later in connection with this book, the scenario is determined by the wave of ‘Dionysism’ of the years around 1968, from the United States to Bergman’s Sweden to Pasolini’s Italy, but also by some banal and yet unanswered questions. Why did those liberation movements, for example of sexual mores, feel the need to invoke Euripides’ Bacchae as a kind of precedent? How is it that the renewed good fortune of that terrible and bloody tragedy, where a mother tears her own child to pieces, still endures? Of course, I wanted to establish a link between a fresco in the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii and a 1968 Swedish film, and I also believe that this link is historically plausible; but I have tried to read it, imitating Warburg while maintaining the necessary distance, as a speaking symptom of an excruciating impulse to construct the new by coming to terms with history: something that is easier to deny than to explain. This and other visual and emotional connections that I tried to highlight in Incursioni are conceived as though a hypothetical table of Mnemosyne were being composed, in a heuristic exercise.