by Marissa Racht Ryan
For English speakers out there, “La Bellezza Divina” means the divine beauty. These words can naturally be interpreted in many ways, the divine can be a sense of the spiritual, not necessarily with a religious connotation. “Bellezza divina tra Van Gogh, Chagall e Fontana” is an exhibition currently on view at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, until January 24, 2016.
From what I gathered, the show is trying to prove that when artists speak through the language of beauty, miraculous visions can be achieved. The obvious problematic part in this attempt is the fact that almost all artworks included in the show relate to Christianity, with the consequence of insinuating that the language of beauty, of the miraculous, of the divine, is fundamentally attached to Western imagery and Christian religion.
However, despite my polemic beginning which I think you need to keep in mind when visiting the exhibition, I prefer to guide you through the artworks that stood out for me, because there are some incredible masterpieces you’ll better not miss if in Florence.
The show includes works realized by mostly European artists between the beginning of the mid 19th century and through to the mid 20th century. As usual at Strozzi, the show is very carefully curated in thematic areas, with each room articulating a specific “thesis”, in this case following key moments of the life of Christ and the birth of Christianity. In the first room, you quickly find yourself staring up at a gorgeous and very sexually charged depiction of the Flagellation of Jesus Christ (1880) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, showing each muscle of a male body in a calm, but firm ecstasy as he is being whipped. Further down the room there is a beautiful and effeminate depiction of Saint Sebastian (1870-1875 or 1890) by Gustave Moreau, both this and the Bouguereau, showing a very human perception of the Christ as a symbol of the perfection and the physical beauty of humanity. This room culminates in an intense crescendo when you turn around after seeing Moreau’s work and you catch a glimpse (or glare for that matter) of The Savior (1900) by Giuseppe Catani Chiti. Probably the most intensely kitsch piece in the exhibition, but fabulous in its opulence, this work crosses the boundaries of several art movements beginning with Medieval golden ground paintings, crossing into the Renaissance and continuing on to the Pre-Raphaelites and Art Nouveau and glows with a gaudy, but glorious splendor showing a very earthly understanding of the divine.
You then wander into the area titled “The Mystic Rose”, containing depictions of the Madonna. Here, some or most of the works are very carnal in their symbolism, beginning with that of Edvard Munch, portraying the very human state of a beautiful woman who has been impregnated, extremely controversial at the time of its creation. A bit literally this section portrays diverse images of the Virgin Mary mostly as a mother, in all its simultaneous simplicity and complexity.
The next section titled “The Life of Christ” boasts a star-studded cast of artists. Make sure not to miss one of the tiniest, but magical pieces in the show, Odilon Redon’s The Flight into Egypt (1903). Proof that good things come in small packages this little painting can mesmerize you for a while. It is seemingly dark, but the more you look at it, the more subtle and colorful, abstract details appear, with its main character being a stately tree in the center of the composition. Several eloquently executed works here place the life of Christ in a very real and contemporary context for the artists’ time period, such as Stanley Spencer’s Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem (1920) – if it weren’t for the title you would think it was just a 20th century street scene.
Then you arrive to the room of the Crucifixion. This starts off with a sketch of Christ on the Cross (1896) by a very young (15 or 16 years old) Picasso, loosely sculpted on the canvas with gestures of muted color. Then soon after is a gut-wrenching Max Ernst in which the body of Christ resembling a slab of meat hanging at the butcher shop, is himself the Crucifix (1914). Pope Francis’s favorite painting is here (and let’s not be surprised by this: it is an extremely Christian-consensual scenario), Marc Chagall’s White Crucifixion (1938). This painting stands for what the curators were trying to express. It is painted by a Jewish man remembering the horrors of the burning of the synagogues and trying to remind society that spirituality isn’t one religion, but a unifying sense of something beyond this world. Here you also can’t miss Van Gogh’s Pieta (1889), but Florentines probably know this image already as it’s the one Strozzi used for its communication campaign. You literally can’t miss it, as their posters are everywhere, from buses to the airport, to the tablecloth of all surrounding restaurants…Yesterday on the bus, I noticed it hanging from all of the straps that you grab so you don’t go flying when the bus driver hits the gas. Wise placement, since people are often yelling out their “god’s” name in those moments, creating the perfect example of when the sacred meets the profane…
Lastly, my favorite part of the show (and I’m guessing it’s the favorite of many people) is the section titled “Prayer”. This room has a peaceful calmness that indeed best illustrates the point of the exhibition. There are (finally!) no religious symbols, only figures engaged in quiet reflection, alone in their thoughts.
Remember, I only touched on a few of the pieces in this exhibition. There are entire areas and rooms I didn’t mention in the interest of an economy of words. So, I definitely suggest you go check it out for yourselves and really look and think about the theme that is being explored. It can be very eye opening, even with all of its Eurocentric and Christian centric approach.
Marissa Racht Ryan is a jewelry artist based in Florence. She is currently attending the second year of the MFA in Contemporary Jewelry and Body Ornament at Alchimia, tutored by Lucy Sarneel.