More Roman Conquering!: MAXXI, only kind-of worth it

I’m an art historian, but I only kind-of like going to art museums and modern/Contemporary art museums especially give me pause. When I’m teaching, I will argue for the validity and necessity of post-modern, meta-, superconfusing contemporary art (and I have in the past stared down a student who actually asked me, “why are we studying this, this isn’t art?!”) But in my daily life, it’s not something I seek out, and I’ll be the first to say when faced with a particularly opaque example of contemporary art, that it’s ridiculous bullshit. But. But! I do have a giant soft spot in my heart for the artist William Kentridge. First exposed to his art in an undergrad course on Art since 1945, I was mesmerized by his pencil-drawn animated films about apartheid South Africa (see a good example here). So I was PSYCHED when I saw a poster about a William Kentridge exhibition up at MAXXI, the Museo nazionale delle arti del XXI secolo, or Rome’s contemporary art museum:

pretty like a spaceship

It opened just a couple years ago and was designed by lady-architect Zaha Hadid, and as much as I want to give props to the architect (ladies got to stick together, particularly in male-dominated fields!) and the museum itself, I really just can’t. I am an extremely well-practiced museum goer, but I found the structure, while striking from the outside, an impossible labyrinth on the inside. It took what seemed like AGES to actually find any art in the space. And perhaps the challenging lay-out, with sparsely displayed objects is some sort of meta-commentary about the inaccessibility/opacity of contemporary art or the upper echelons of the art world, or something absurd like that. But art museums are supposed to be about DISPLAYING ART, which MAXXI was not particularly good at. Particularly in the challenging arena of contemporary art, it behooves museums and galleries to be especially accessible to viewers to make artworks that are frequently difficult to understand more comprehensible. Or else, like I said before, even the art historically inclined (and I’ve taken classes on this stuff and read the underlying theories!) will declare it all to be ridiculous bullshit.

the entrance
looking out from under the “art”

Now, after raining on MAXXI’s parade, I will say that the Kentridge exhibit was exceptionally awesome. It was an exploration of how his work interacts with elements of theater and stage performances and a meditation on art and time. There were some films that included elements like in the link above, but the showstopper was a multi-projection + sound + breathing machine extravaganza that he made for a recent Documenta. Both of the people I was with, one another art historian, the other a Roman who is an artist, also agreed with me that the museum itself was not great, but that the Kentridge exhibition made it worth it (there was also an exhibition of Le Corbusier’s experiences in Italy, which included a ton of his beautiful sketches and drawings, that was pretty nice, though my penchant for architecture made that more interesting to me than my companions). And while I was happy to cross MAXXI off my lonely planet list, I don’t think I would go back unless there was a particularly appealing exhibition to draw me there.

also pretty, but less like a spaceship
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6 thoughts on “More Roman Conquering!: MAXXI, only kind-of worth it

  1. The NYC Guggenheim gets the same complaint. The spiral walkway tends to draw you away from the art, and when you do step into an alcove to look at a group of paintings there is an odd sense of boredom. When I worked in the photography dept there I would escape to the Metropolitan Museum on my lunch breaks.

    1. Thanks for reading and excellent point! Prior to Rome I lived in the NYC area for five years and went to the Met constantly (though it could be argued that they have their own display issues– the european painting galleries are pretty airless and labyrinthine). But in my whole five years, I went to Guggenheim a grand total of once, and was definitely more excited about the building than the art in it. I am certainly not the only person to notice, but fancy new museums (here’s looking at you, Frank Ghery), seem to be about creating interest in the structure, rather than the art; a problem if the very function of the building is *displaying* art. I suppose museum administrators might say that getting people interested in the museum, even if it’s strictly interest in the building at first, is a win, but from an art historian’s perspective, that’s nuttiness! MAXXI certainly isn’t the only offender (in terms of lousy museum-going experience) here in Rome, but because the art there is so challenging, it seems like a far graver offense.

      1. When I was in NYC last year it was heartening to see just how many people were interested in being at the Met. And I had the fun of being the first person in the door after easing my way past the bus loads of tourists, yes! I did think of one good use of the Guggenheim: great people watching across the spiral at art openings. I’m enjoying your Italian experiences.

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