Wednesday, 29 January 2014

RENAISSANCE - Bill Viola Confronts Carpaccio at Espace Louis Vuitton, Venice

Emergence by Bill Viola (2002)
(Venice, Italy) A quiet Renaissance is taking place between two artists who were born almost five hundred years apart. The pioneer video artist, Bill Viola (1951-), shares the same space with Vittore Carpaccio (c. 1465/70-1525/26) in the second exhibition presented at Espace Louis Vuitton Venezia. Designed by the art historian Adrien Goetz and the exhibition curator Hervé Mikaeloff, Renaissance is an inspirational gem tucked away on the top floor of the new Maison Louis Vuitton just off Piazza San Marco.

Two "little masterpieces" by a young Carpaccio were recently attributed after sitting for nearly two centuries in storage.

Madonna and Child by Vittore Carpaccio (1487 ca.)
The Madonna and Child had been part of the original Teodoro Correr collection bequeathed to the city upon his death in 1830, but no one knew it was by Carpaccio. A couple of years ago, in 2012, Andrea Bellieni, the Scientific Director of the Museo Correr pondered the painting as it hung in storage. It was cataloged as a work by a 16th century Venetian painter, but something about it stood out. On a hunch, Bellieni gave the painting to the restorer, Antonio Bigolin. After removing a recent over-painting, the inscription VETOR(E) SCHARPAÇO OPV[S] appeared on the short bottom ledge. There was no doubt it was the work of a young Carpaccio before he had Latinised his name to "Carpathio," and whom we know today as the great master Carpaccio.

Pietà by Vittore Carpaccio (1488-90 ca.)
Incredibly, the same thing happened again when Professor Giorgio Fossaluzza was in the storerooms of the Correr to conduct a comparative analysis between a small panel recently acquired from an American collection with a old picture from Federico Zeriì's photo archive. He came face to face with the Virgin Mary holding the dead Christ on her lap (Pieta) in a very poor state of preservation, and proposed that it might be another Carpaccio. Again the restorer, Antonio Bigolin, performed his magic, and again another work by a twenty-year-old Carpaccio was uncovered.

Eternal Return by Bill Viola (2000)
Louis Vuitton has partnered with the Fondazione Musei Civici a Venezia, Venice's Civic Museums, to sponsor the restoration of classic artworks, which are then loaned to the new space on the top floor -- the funding for Madonna and Child came from the Fondazione Musei Civici Venezia and the Regione del Veneto; the funding to restore the Pietà came from Louis Vuitton.

Then, a contemporary artist is invited to exhibit, inspired by the classic work. To complement Carpaccio, the invited artist was the American contemporary video artist, Bill Viola.

Bill Viola happens to be my absolute-most-favorite-male-contemporary-artist-ever -- I think he is a genius -- and Carpaccio is, well, Carpaccio, so it was an enormous thrill to sit and enjoy these two artists who are separated by the centuries in the here and now... in the same space and time...

Hervé Mikaeloff: You refer to the theme of the Pietà in your video called Emergence. What are your sources of inspiration? Can we see it as a reminiscence of the Pietà by Carpaccio?

Bill Viola: Emergence came from my fascination with the early Renaissance, and artists like Paolo Uccello, Luca Signorelli, Masaccio and Masolino da Panicale. At that time, I was especially taken by Masolin's Pieta in Empoli. Christ's figure is half risen out of his tomb, supported by his mother Mary and John the Evangelist.

My idea for Emergence was to create an extended vigil for the two women waiting by the tomb. I wanted the scene to transform from their vigil, to a Resurrection, then to an Ascension, which soon becomes a Birth as water flows out onto the ground, and finally takes the form of a Pietà and Lamentation as the two Marys grieve their loss. But I feel that this is not the end of the story.

In Emergence, I tried to express that when we think all is lost and empty, the Christ figure, or someone like him, rises up seeming to ascend to Heaven, but, in fact, he deliberately falls back to earth in order to help relieve the suffering of all human beings and creatures. This is the time for us to re-connect with the earth, with nature, and the people who we care about most. I think Emergence relates very well to Carpaccio's Pietà.

Hervé Mikaeloff: Why did you use slow motion in your works?

Bill Viola: I use slow motion so that I can see more deeply into the fabric of space and time, and especially our Souls.

Ciao from Venezia,
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

Bill Viola

January 24 to May 25, 2014
Mon to Sat 10-7:30
Sunday 10:30-7:30
Free entrance

Espace Louis Vuitton Venezia
Calle del Ridotto 1353
30124 Venezia
+39 041 88 44 318

All photos of the work of Bill Viola: 2014©Bill Viola and Kira Pervo
All photos of the paintings of Carpaccio © Fondazione Mu.Ve.-Venezia/Antonio Bigolin restauratore-Quinto di Treviso



  1. Bill Viola: I use slow motion so that I can see more deeply into the fabric of space and time, and especially our Souls.

  2. Sorry, I have to be very frank about Mr. Viola´s effort to present himself as an adequate dialogue partner (!) of Vittore Carpacccio (!):
    I´ve seen his piece two or three days ago on site at the very tastefully designed exhibition room, and I can´t but say that the man delivered a true banality. The actor destined to represent Jesus looks like newly escaped from a sports and/or gay magazine, and he comes out of the sink like some jack-in-the-box or the protagonist in some Punch-and-Judy-show, only slower. The staging is talentless, the scene, since placed in the center, is boring (and due to colour and and casting just as well), and the reflections destined to inflate the poor visual appearance with buzz-words ("fabric of time and space", "our souls" etc etc) remind me of a statement by the late German artist Horst Janssen (1929 -1995): "The actually disgusting dualism is not the one of art and commerce, it´s the one of art and commentary".
    It´s an old thing, as old as modernism: big issues, big themes, little form (if any). The same goes for the splish-splash video opposite to the visually cheap "re-enactment" of the Pietà motive. Mr. Viola claims to be deeply impressed by water as the source materia of life: well, who isn´t. The related video could rather be some kind of makeshift thing, done perhaps by my neighbour´s fifteen year-old son on his new Mac.
    Maestro Carpaccio is dead, thus Mr. Viola is safe against any adequate commentary on his attempt to link arms with a master that makes him appear a dwarf desperately trying to gain eye-level relation with a grand artist.
    Sorry. But being encouraged to leave a comment, I decided to prefer honesty rather than diplomacy.
    Best regards –
    Michael Vorwerk
    ps.: I pity the actresses who seem professionals hired for a poor piece.

  3. Dear Michael Vorwerk,

    I like people who speak their mind, and sign their name. I find it refreshing.

    However, I disagree with your opinion. For me, Bill Viola is a genius. He is the real deal. The first time I encountered his work was back in 1997 when "Bill Viola: A 25-Year Survey" arranged by the Whitney in NYC came to the LA County Museum of Art. I was so transformed by the experience that I saw it 5 times in a row. I had the opportunity to meet Viola when he was here in Venice to open "Ocean Without a Shore" (another deeply moving experience) at the 2007 Biennale, and had a brief conversation with him about Jung.

    Bill Viola represented the USA for the Venice Biennale in 1995 with "Buried Secrets." He has exhibited in most of the major museums all over the globe, including the National Gallery, London; the Guggenheim, Berlin; the Guggenheim, NY; the Whitney, NY, the Met, NY and the Getty in LA -- in fact, it was the Getty that commissioned "Emergence," which you dislike so intensely, back in 2002.

    Viola has long found inspiration in the work of the old masters, and has a strong history of researching medieval and Renaissance paintings. So if any contemporary artist deserves to be in the same room with a very young Carpaccio -- remember, those paintings were just discovered in 2012 after slumbering in storage for nearly 200 years -- it is Bill Viola.

    Could it be that you don't like contemporary art? I certainly dislike much of it. But the point of the space at Louis Vuitton (which I am glad you appreciated; I think it is a little oasis in a zone overwhelmed by tourists) is that it's a collaboration between the Civic Museums and Louis Vuitton in which a classic work is restored, and then paired with contemporary artist.

    You also hit on one of my personal peeves. Because of modern technology, these days everybody thinks they're a writer, a photographer, an artist, and does not appreciate the professional effort involved. The video wasn't some sort of "makeshift thing" that your neighbor's 15-year-old son could create on his Mac. It was originally shot in 35 mm film. From The Getty:

    "The piece is based on a fresco painting of the Pietà by the 15th-century Italian artist Masolino that represents Christ half-length in the sarcophagus, being supported on either side by his mother and St. John. Emergence shows two women looking into a well from which a deathly pale man slowly rises to the surface; with increasing effort, they lift him from the water and lay him out. Shot in 35mm film, transferred to HD video and greatly slowed, the image has a dazzling clarity that reinforces the poignancy of the act."

    Anyway, even though we disagree, I really appreciate the time you took to leave your comment and that you spoke so honestly.

    Warm wishes,
    Cat Bauer

    1. Dear Cat Bauer, thanks a lot for your substantial reply. I have no doubt that Mr. Viola has a wide reputation, and of course I do respect various and differing views on his work. Yet the number of medals, awards, contributions and titles are less impressive to me. I do allow myself the freedom of looking at the works first. I often do find – to answer to your question – inspiring, surprising and magic pieces in modern art. The Biennale di Venezia last year, while not convincing me with most of the works exposed, showed me some as I find high class examples of what modern art can do while sailing off the beaten tracks. The works of Andra Ursuta, in a way a remote soul-sister in art of Joseph Cornell, may be mentioned, the works of Turkish and Chinese artists as well and the marvelously young, up-spirited and magical research desk created by a gentleman named Gianfranco Barrucchello who is in his early nineties. Thomas Zipp, who created a ghostlike studio of psychiatry and research, may also be mentioned.
      On Mr. Viola´s contribution: I might have exaggerated a bit with my rant/rave/roar on the film that´s presented opposite to the "Pietà". But while reading that it was done in 35mm-film I have to say with even more fervour: so, that is all? With these technical means, I find, a big chance was poorly missed.
      Generally, I dare recommend some of what a writer once called (pardon me for my makeshift translation from German) the craftsman´s humbleness. So much skill and creativity have evolved and been built up in centuries and millenniums with grand results, and no matter I do not claim an artist of our times should paint like Tiepolo or Ricci, and while appreciating the means and options of contemporary techniques and devices, I find that elementary challenges have remained: how to tell a story, how to stage a scene, how to chose and combine colours, how to compose an image. And in this respect – I start repeating myself – Mr. Viola fell far behind the chances offered (and required) by the themes he refers to.
      Again, dear Cat – many thanks for your fast and communicative response. I´d appreciate a chance to continue our highly controversial dialogue "in vivo", that is face to face. I´m in Venice these days and will stay till near end of March, with an interruption of one week. Perhaps we somehow manage to run into each other, let´s say at the top floor of the Louis Vuitton building? I know a marvelous bar nearby where we´d have a view on S. Giorgio and Sta. Maria Salute just across.
      I remain yours sincerely with my best wishes –
      Michael Vorwerk

  4. Dear Michael,

    Well, that sounds like an interesting offer! Please write me at