The shattered embrace: sacred, dramatic, sensual

by Ludovica Sebregondi

One of the things we hear most often in these days of isolation is the hope, reflecting a basic human need, that we can soon embrace our loved ones and friends again physically rather than just virtually. Until only a few months ago we barely gave it a second thought when we shook hands or embraced whenever we met someone, then embracing gradually became rarer and so did shaking hands, even though the gesture was instinctive while holding back demanded rational thought.

Being physically “in touch” was normal, but now we sorely miss those displays of closeness. Our present situation can also prompt us to take a fresh look at those works of art that have sought to convey this physical contact, each one in its own way and each imbued with a different emotional condition, be it sacred, dramatic or sensual.

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Bill Viola, The Greeting, 1995, Courtesy Bill Viola Studio

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Pontormo, Visitation, c. 1528-1529, Carmignano, Pieve di San Michele Arcangelo, Photo Antonio Quattrone

The Bill Viola. Electronic Renaissance exhibition held in 2017 conjured up an astonishing dialogue between the historical and the contemporary by juxtaposing some of the artist’s works with masterpieces by those masters of the past to whom he had turned for his inspiration in the course of his artistic career. In exploring spirituality, experience and perception, Viola probes mankind: people, bodies and faces are the leading characters in his poetic and highly symbolic work. He does not simply emulate the old masters, he revisits them. The women in Pontormo’s Visitation, united in a kind of dancing embrace reminiscent of the Three Graces, also number three: Elisabeth on the right and Mary on the left are shown in profile, while Elisabeth’s alter ego is seen full-face in the centre. The fourth figure on the left, in pink, is set slightly apart and does not appear to be fully involved in the meeting. That was certainly one of Bill Viola’s intuitions, at any rate, and so he cut the number of figures down to three, focusing on the relationship between them and on their different emotions, allowing us to perceive each detail in extremely slow motion and turning each still into a painting in its own right in an allusion to the great tradition of Western art. A scene of a few seconds is drawn out thanks to this extremely slow motion: what the artist is attempting to do here is to capture a specific, simple, daily event – women meeting – in order to highlight the complex inner and social dynamics underlying such a run-of-the-mill occurrence.

There are countless depictions of the Virgin embracing the Christ Child in the most natural of human gestures, a mother holding her small child close, yet they are veined with the melancholy that comes with foreknowledge of the future, and there are an equally large number of images of the Passion, with Mary grieving as she holds the body of the dead Christ.

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Bill Viola, Emergence, 2002, Courtesy Bill Viola Studio

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Masolino da Panicale, Christ the Man of Sorrows, 1424, Empoli, Museo della Collegiata di Sant’Andrea, Photo Antonio Quattrone

In his video entitled Emergence, Bill Viola cites Masolino da Panicale, despite other illustrious sources of inspiration stretching from Roman sarcophagi, via Raphael’s Deposition, to Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Marat, but the artist’s initial inspiration came from a photograph in the papers in which two women were lifting up a dead man’s body. Viola was reminded of Masolino’s work and this spawned a production with actors and stage props, where the shape of a Renaissance tomb merges with that of well and the presence of water brings a symbol of life to the image of death alluding, in a Christian vein, to the Resurrection.

These images, however, are at variance with others of an erotic nature that borders at times on the incestuous. The Cinquecento in Florence. From Michelangelo and Pontormo to Giambologna (2017–18) exhibition highlighted the immense freedom of expression displayed by the same artists in addressing both sacred themes and secular subjects of a sensual nature, casually switching from the devout to the lusty and back again. Thus Alessandro Allori (Florence, 1535–1607), an artist capable of exploring religious themes in intimate depth, shows us, in his Venus and Cupid, a mother and child involved in a tussle for possession of a bow, interpreting the subject in an erotic and sensual vein to convey a moment of intimacy and physical contact between the two figures.

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Alessandro Allori, Venus and Cupid, c. 1575-1580 circa, Montpellier Méditerranée Métropole, Musée Fabre, inv. 887.3.1

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Vincenzo Danti (Perugia 1530-1576), Leda and the Swan, 1570, marble, London, Victoria and Albert Museum. Purchased by the John Webb Trust, A.100-1937

Vincenzo Danti (Perugia 1530–76) goes even further in his rendition of the subject of Leda embracing Zeus in the shape of a swan, an embrace heralding their lovemaking. Florentine art in the latter half of the 16th century explored the mythological and allegorical repertoire in conflicting ways, presenting figures – arranged in elegant and complex compositions with their often contrasting poses – in which erudite reference sits cheek by jowl with unashamed sensuality.

Looking Out from the Inside: relating and connecting during a lockdown

by Irene Balzani

Art feeds on relations, and every artist chooses how to connect with those who are going to look at his or her work. Tomás Saraceno, for instance, does this by “trapping” us in installations that involve our senses and highlight the thin threads that bind us to the other beings that inhabit the earth with us. We are all now starting to realise just how tough it can be when those threads break and when the simple acts of going out and meeting other people disappear from our daily agenda, as our lives are basically played out in the confines of our rooms.

In our work at Palazzo Strozzi we often reflect on the concepts of “openness” and “accessibility” because we are aware of those terms’ complexity, and we try to ensure that our exhibitions can welcome the largest possible number of visitors. Over the years, expanding on our experiments and taking different approaches on board, we have developed a considerable number of accessibility schemes designed to promote the inclusion of people who risk social exclusion, and during this lockdown period we are trying to keep the threads of our relationship with them alive “by remote” through direct contact and proposals. We are talking about the boys and girls with autistic spectrum disorders in our Nuances scheme, the Parkinson’s Disease patients in our Free flowing scheme or the many participants in our Connections scheme for people with mental disabilities and psychological issues.

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With Many Voices  during the Bill Viola. Electronic Renaissance exhibition (10 March – 23 July 2017)
Photo: Simone Mastrelli

The first accessibility scheme that the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi developed was With Many Voices  for people who live with Alzheimer’s and their carers (whether family members or professionals). To tie in with the Bill Viola. Electronic Renaissance exhibition in 2017, we reflected on the meaning of “staying shut away” and of “going out” in the company of the artist Cristina Pancini with a project called Caterina, which took its cue from the observation of two works of art on display in Palazzo Strozzi: a video installation by Bill Viola entitled Catherine’s Room and the predella of a 14th century altarpiece by Andrea di Bartolo showing St. Catherine of Siena with Blessed Dominican Nuns, both of which focused on the theme of isolation and people’s relationship with the outside world.

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Certain moments during the Caterina project
Photo: Simone Mastrelli

The Caterina project was spawned by a reflection on the opportunities available to people with Alzheimer’s for experiencing their relationship with the world. As dementia deepens its hold, the mind gradually ceases to be a tidy, well-ordered room and becomes an unknown space. In parallel, the outside world becomes increasingly difficult to grasp and going out becomes more and more difficult. Relations with others can be reassuring, a source of wonderment or a threat, but less and less a source of mutual identification. Yet we need others, we need the world as it goes about its business outside our own selves, and this lockdown situation is bringing that fact home to us very forcefully. At the same time, “staying shut away” is not just a physical condition, it is also an attitude that can prompt us to remain locked away inside our own minds. We can all feel like Caterina/Catherine at certain times in our lives.

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A moment during the Caterina project
Photo: Simone Mastrelli

The emergency that we are experiencing has catapulted us into an “interior” whose perimeter we can clearly perceive: our own home is our space for action, our daily horizon today. In the course of the project developed with Cristina Pancini, a room in Palazzo Strozzi was transformed into a space for a journey, a pathway for discovering its corners, its ceilings, the objects it contained, in fact anything and everything that can inhabit a space, including our own selves. It was a journey played out as a couple, each elderly participant being accompanied by his or her carer: a journey made of stories and listening, a pathway to knowledge that we might want to repeat today to rediscover our own homes, observing a room to discover its endless panoramas or looking out of the window and telling each other what we see or what we imagine is likely to be out there.

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Caterina, the book
Photo: Martino Margheri

The Caterina project took concrete form in the shape of a specific question asked of participants: what can you tell a person who has been “shut away” for a long time? What is worth looking at or doing after a long period of separation from the world? “I’m asking you this question because I know you have far more experience than me,” said the letter accompanying the notebooks in which each participation could then jot his or her advice. Here are a some of the replies: “find a good sister,” “smell the perfume of a rose,” “never lose sight of the sky and the sea,” “eat a nice ice cream because it’s good for you and delicious. Eat it in the street,” “I’d advise you to turn to the person you like best and look at them with love,” “go away, move, never stop.”
This precious advice was collected, along with the story of the project as a whole, in a book published by Boîte Editions and available on line on the Palazzo Strozzi website (page in Italian).

Heaven in a Room

by Ludovica Sebregondi

While many of us may be experiencing our home right now as a place where the current emergency is forcing us to stay holed up, isolation can be a life choice for some people. In fact it was just that for centuries. Think of the hermits who used to shut themselves away in tight spaces or even had themselves walled in, or the monks and friars who sought and found a space for meditation and prayer in their narrow cells. Artists have revisited and reinterpreted these spaces both in the past and today, often depicting them as immaculate “perspective boxes” in which human individuality is enhanced in a meditative reflection.

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Andrea di Bartolo, St. Catherine of Siena with Four Blessed Dominican Nuns (detail), 1394-1398 circa, Museo Vetrario di Murano.

Andrea di Bartolo (Siena, recorded 1389–1429), for example, in the predella for his panel painting of St. Catherine of Siena with Four Blessed Dominican Nuns, dated c. 1394–8 and now in the Museo Vetrario in Murano, shows the religious in four scenes of daily life in the cells in which, as Salvatore Settis writes, the narrative imparts “a meaning and an intensity” to solitude “designed to prompt the observer to identify with that visible example of piety” through an “intense relationship with the divine with which the narrative is infused.”

The painting was shown at Palazzo Strozzi’s Bill Viola. Electronic Renaissance exhibition in 2017, when the video artist’s work was displayed alongside the old master works that had been his source of inspiration, accompanying the development of his artistic style.

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Bill Viola, Catherine’s Room, 2001. Courtesy Bill Viola Studio.

Andrea di Bartolo’s polyptych inspired the video entitled Catherine’s Room (2001). Five colour videos arranged horizontally, like the panels of a predella, frame the room of a woman going about her daily chores throughout the day, always alone. Each screen shows a different moment of the day: morning, afternoon, sunset, evening and night. On the wall of the room there is a small window through which we catch a glimpse of the branches of a tree portrayed, in each screen, at a different moment in its yearly cycle, from when it blossoms in spring until it has shed all its leaves at the end of the year. Thus the videos do not only show us a full day with the changing light, they also show us the course of a year through the different phases of vegetation and the course of human life from waking up (signifying birth) to going to sleep (representing death).

Settis explains: “In Bill Viola’s installation, Catherine is not the saint of that name; this predella neither accompanies nor presupposes a religious icon. It is the tale of a woman’s actions captured in the intimacy of a solitary life, to some extent involving a sanctification of the daily routine as suggested by the implicit, yet strong, reference to the predella format and to the religious and narrative tradition that this entails. Thus the leading lady’s flowing gestures are transposed onto an almost ritual plane, thereby drawing our attention to her individuality. Catherine’s ego is expressively indicated through her body language, a solitary presence in a space built to resemble the stage of a theatre: always the same yet ever changing according to the way it is furnished. Alone with herself, as indeed is each one of us as we observe her, Catherine deserves our gaze for that very reason. Her solitude resembles us, her room is ours.”

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Marina Abramović, The House with the Ocean View, 2002-2018
New York, Abramović LLC, Courtesy of Marina Abramović Archives e Sean Kelly, New York, MAC/2017/072. Credit: Ph. Attilio Maranzano

That same solitude was also doggedly sought by Marina Abramović in The House with the Ocean View dated 2002, a performance that the artist herself tells us was spawned “by my wish to understand whether it is possible to use a simple daily routine with its rules and restrictions in order to purify myself.” The artist lived in three suspended interiors for twelve days without eating or speaking, before an audience in the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York. Marina writes in Walk Through Walls: A Memoir: Becoming Marina Abramovic: “It was shortly after 11 September, people were in a receptive frame of mind and crowds of spectators came along, remaining seated on the ground for a long time, observing and reflecting on the experiment in which they were immersed. The visitors and I intensely felt each others’ presence. There was a shared energy in the room, and the heavy silence was broken only by the ticking of the metronome that I kept on the table […] I did everything – sitting, standing, drinking, filling the glass, having a pee, having a shower – with a sluggishness and an awareness that bordered on a trance.”

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Left: Andrea di Bartolo, Caterina da Siena fra beate domenicane (detail), 1394-1398 circa.
Center: Bill Viola, Catherine’s Room (detail), 2001.
Right: Marina Abramović, The House with the Ocean View, reperformance Tiina Pauliina Lehtimaki, 4-16 December 2018 Palazzo Strozzi.

The House with the Ocean View was re-performed in Italy for the first time by the performer Tiina Pauliina Lehtimaki in Palazzo Strozzi from 4 to 6 December 2018. Tiina, like Marina back in 2002, lived in silence for twelve days in three small rooms suspended inside the Marina Abramović. The Cleaner exhibition. Each one of the rooms appeared to echo the “perspective boxes” in Andrea di Bartolo’s predella, but also the scenes in Bill Viola’s Catherine’s Room. “Purification,” the effort of isolation and the practice of asceticism that we see in them appear to forge a direct, echoing link among the three works. What emerges from all of them is an attempt to imbue daily life with a sacred quality and to rethink our actions, even our most humdrum actions, by imparting new value to them: a reflection on strength of will and on the possibility of imparting new meaning to our lives in a new perspective.