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“The Last Days of Pompeii” at the Getty Villa

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“The Last Days of Pompeii: Decadence, Apocalypse, Resurrection” traces the Pompeii meme in art and pop culture. It’s more Pinterest board than “influence show,” but once you get past that, it’s fascinating. It’s at the perfect venue, for J. Paul Getty’s reconstruction of a Vesuvius-doomed villa just might be the most extreme example of what the show is about.

There are only a couple of antiquities. This is a thoroughly miscellaneous show of modern art and ephemera, dating from the excavation of Pompeii in the mid-18th century onward. The subtitle aside, it splits into three parts: romantic views of erupting Vesuvius (which are often good); Victorian illustrations of the human stories surrounding the disaster (which are all goofy: below, Francesco Netti’s 1880 Gladiator Fight During a Meal at Pompeii); and modern works referencing the cultural memory of Pompeii. At the Getty, Victorian marble-school paintings are hung on walls painted with faux-Pompeii wall paintings, echoing the Villa’s faux-Herculaneum paintings.

At top of the post is Giorgio Sommer’s c. 1874 Cast of a Dog Killed by the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius, Pompeii. Sommer made souvenir photos for Pompeii tourist. His photo is a hybrid, for its subject is a found sculpture created by pouring plaster into a cavity formed by the long-vanished body of a dog. The exhibition has two later casts of human victims, and one of its puzzles is why the dog is a better sculpture.

In the 20th century, references to Pompeii were mostly personal and one-off. They’ve got the absolute worst Warhol you’ve ever seen, an exploding Vesuvius commissioned by a Neapolitan dealer in contemporary art. More engaging are good-to-great works by Duchamp, Dali, Rothko, Baziotes, and Rauschenberg. The Rauschenberg Small Rebus, on loan from MOCA, is here because it collages a postcard reproduction Sommer’s Cast of a Dog.

A few surrealist pieces were directly inspired by Wilhelm Jensen’s historical novel Gradiva and Freud’s famous essay on it. André Masson’s Gradiva (1939, above) is the corpus of every exquisite cliché: surrealism, cubism and classical sculpture; Pompeiian wall painting and romantic views of Vesuvius.

A documentary photograph of American B-25 Mitchell Bombers Flying Past Vesuvius could be a still from Dr. Strangelove. The equation of volcanic and atomic Armageddon was implicit with most of the show’s post-WWII artists.

Meanwhile, the dog has another day in Allan McCollum’s The Dog from Pompeii (1991). As shown here, it’s a set of four replica casts of the original reproduction. The curators (Kenneth Lapatin for the Getty) display McCollum’s canines close to three near-identical carvings of 19th-century American sculptor Randolph Rogers’ Nydia, the Blind Girl of Pompeii. These were churned out in great numbers for American plutocrats who didn’t care too much about the unlimitedness of the edition. Those who read the labels will find another death-in-Arcadia punchline: One of the Nydia’s is on loan from the collection of Forest Lawn cemetery, Glendale.

Each of three main galleries has a video screen playing a continuous loop of clips of amusingly cheesy Pompeii-themed movies, TV shows, and music videos. At left is one of the better gags, from a Simpsons episode in which the doltish American family visits Pompeii to confront Stendhal syndrome and mortality. Pompeii still resonates because it’s us, and the clock is ticking.

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