Monday, August 27, 2012

J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Villa Presents 'The Last Days of Pompeii: Decadence, Apocalypse, Resurrection'

In 79 A.D. Mount Vesuvius exploded over the ancient city of Pompeii, at once demolishing its future and preserving its history. Since the site was discovered in the early 1700s, the chance to peer into the past has not only unhinged what we can know but what we can imagine. The first exhibition of its kind, "The Last Days of Pompeii: Decadence, Apocalypse, Resurrection" visits 400 years of artwork revolving around the history and myth of the ancient city.

The exhibition takes its title from the hugely popular 19th-century Edward Bulwer-Lytton novel of the same name, which melodramatically told the story of Pompeii as one of corruption and seduction. Casting the location in an almost fictitious light of luxury and vice, Bulwer-Lytton inspired the now popular vision of Pompeii as a decadent city deserving of its apocalyptic divine punishment.

Francesco Netti's "Gladiator Fight during a Meal at Pompeii" translates Bulwer-Lytton's words into image, painting a scene dripping with so much drama you'd swear Russell Crowe had to be involved somehow. Scantily clad youths pile on top of couches, and each other, after combat. While they enjoy ornate decor and copious liquor, a corpse is dragged away, unnoticed, though trailing blood. Although dramatic and juicy in that love-to-hate way, the press release states "this scene has little basis in ancient practice," and gladiators rarely fought to the death. Rather than depict a historical past, Netti transposed a critique of his era onto theirs, a practice would explode in years to come.