Saturday, 6 October 2012

Pompeii paintings: Museo Nazionale, Naples

The paintings are made of flicks of paint, brush marks. The impression is that the painters were trained to make brush sketches. There's a lot of movement in the figures and the way they are painted: it's a lively way of painting. Great images of figures and animals in movement. There's little attempt to smooth out the marks to make a photorealistic image: a highlight is built up out of a big medium-tone mark with a smaller lighter mark within it. Some work is sketchy, a few quick flicks to create a face, some is more carefully built up, but the marks are still fluent, lively. It's fresco, so painting had to be quick before the plaster dried.
There were great Roman painters of the human figure, of still life, of landscape, of plants and flowers, birds and animals. Birds and animals must be the commonest decorative motifs; huntings scenes, dogs and deer, less common. The Romans must have loved to feel they lived in an ordered landscape, the natural landscape, with trees, temples, hills, human/divine figures (they look much the same). 
The paintings in the Museo Nazionale in Naples give the impression of being individual paintings, but of course they are the bits the archaeologists picked out. At their best they are remarkable. Scenes from myth are imagined and painted with remarkable skill. 
You could sneak this into an exhibition of Renaissance painting, and it wouldn't be out of place. The story of the minotaur (lower left) slain by Theseus. It's incredible how similar in style these paintings are to renaissance art. I don't think renaissance painters had access to any Roman painting: sculptures were being discovered, but I'm not aware that paintings were known. And it's extraordinary that often enough these scenes appear, in a painted frame, in the middle of a solid red wall. Before picture frames were invented! Our galleries of classical painting still follow this example. But occasionally in Pompeii, a single figure appears in the centre of a wall, without a frame. It can be breathtaking.
Roman painting fed off Greek painting. Apart from the wonderful vases, I'm not sure that much Greek painting has survived, but there's a huge mosaic in Naples (composed, incidentally, of the tiniest tesserae) which is thought to be a Roman copy of a lost Greek painting. (A smaller copy is in Pompeii.) 

It recalls Ucello's Battle of San Romano, which is perhaps a millenium and a half later and much more formulaic. Here, the horses are in movement and at all angles, and the figures are interlaced in a complex image of war, often linked by where fighters are looking. It's quite extraordinary. It's a reminder that our view of art is conditioned by what has survived, not by what existed. I've read that the use of blue to suggest distance, along with smaller figures, was a Chinese innovation from the T'ang dynasty, around 900CE. Not so. It was there in Pompeii 1,000 years earlier.
The human figure, often partly or completely unclothed, is very much the central motif: human or divine, there's not much different. They are painted with wonderful warmth, and they almost step out of the paintings. & the Museo Nazionale is a wonderful space for the work, the more wonderful that it has windows that open and you can step out onto big balconies and refresh your gaze by looking out over the city. It makes the paintings less of museum pieces and more part of contemporary life, where the background sound isn't the hushed tones of a museum but the sound of the streets below.
& in Naples there are just two paintings of painters at work: in both, the painters are women.


Elizabeth Brinton said...

Now I know where to go next! I love the frescoes that are in Rome. I see what you mean about the brush stroke still being there, and the freshness of it. offers us such a window...

Tangocommuter said...

Thanks, Elizabeth! I've been meaning to go for a while, and it was well worth it. Pompeii too, but that's a lot of walking for relatively few paintings. Go in the afternoon when the guided tours have left. Not to miss is the Villa Oplontis, a short walk from the Torre Annunziata stop on the Circumvesuviana railway, because the frescos are still there, and weren't removed. It's thought to have been Poppaea's villa, and is very extensive. (It even had a 30-meter swimming pool...)