MILAN and VENICE — These days, almost every museum with a historical collection wants to be seen embracing contemporary art. The favored methods involve asking a contemporary artist to display new work among the old stuff; to make new works that riff on the old stuff; or to select a new show from among the old stuff.
In principle, I’m all for it. But there’s invariably something feeble and insincere about these gestures, like one of Ricky Gervais’s queasy half-smiles. If it’s about sending a signal — Hey, we’re contemporary! We smell sexy! We’re not old! — what it more often reveals is a fundamental lack of conviction in the museum’s core collection. Encountering these shows, you sometimes feel as if cheap air freshener has been squirted around a musty room.
How genuinely refreshing it is, then, to see a new museum, built to house a renowned collection of contemporary art, devoting serious resources on the occasion of its grand opening to a brilliant exhibition of classical Greek and Roman sculpture. What an inspired reversal!
The Prada Foundation, created in 1993 by the world-conquering fashion designer Miuccia Prada and her husband, Patrizio Bertelli, has this month opened a new home in Milan. Instantly, it has established itself as one of the world’s most impressive venues for contemporary art.
Housed in a former distillery reimagined by the Dutch architectural firm OMA (led by Rem Koolhaas), the new museum is a 40-minute walk from Milan’s center. It combines old and new buildings seamlessly, so that, as you navigate its eclectic spaces, you’re never sure whether you’re in one of the old industrial spaces or one of the three new structures.
Instead, the whole feels like what Koolhaas describes as “an ensemble of fragments.” Interior galleries merge with piazza-like outdoor spaces; cavernous underground cisterns alternate with high narrow towers; new walls made from high-tech semi-translucent or reflective materials are beautifully married to wood, stone, and brick.
Leavening the museum’s pervasive atmosphere of tasteful austerity is a whimsical bar designed by the film director Wes Anderson, replete with pinball machine, jukebox, and tromp l’oeil wallpaper, and a tall central building covered in gold leaf.
The Prada Foundation has been staging brilliant exhibits for more than 20 years. In 2009 it organized an unforgettable John Wesley show at the Giorgio Cini Foundation in Venice. In 2011, it took over parts of the Palazzo Ca’ Corner della Regina in Venice, where it mounted dazzling shows such as “Art or Sound,” which combined contemporary sound-based works by the likes of Christian Marclay, Janet Cardiff, and Laurie Anderson with obscure, eccentric old instruments, turntables, gramophones, and other sonic devices.
Now, in Milan, the foundation’s new museum has opened with terrific displays of postwar and contemporary art drawn primarily from its own collection. You can see major works by Yves Klein, Luc Tuymans, Gerhard Richter, Damien Hirst, Alberto Burri, Maurizio Cattelan, John Baldessari, Louise Bourgeois, David Hockney, Sarah Lucas, and Robert Gober, among many others.
But its main exhibition, to almost everyone’s surprise, is a wonderful, scholarly show devoted to some of the most famous sculptures in the Western canon: classical Greek sculptures so frequently reproduced — even today, when you might just as often see them in gardens alongside fountains and gnomes as in museums — that they are part of our mental furniture.
You may not be familiar with the names these sculptures go by — the Discobolus, the Crouching Venus, the Resting Satyr, the Doryphorus — but you will certainly recognize the figures themselves. In almost every case here, however, the original Greek sculptures are missing, and what you see instead are copies, mostly Roman.
At the most basic level, then, the show, called “Serial Classic,” is about the tension between originals and copies. It encourages us to ask whether proliferating copies rob originals of their prestige, or whether, on the contrary, they help to enhance a work’s aura, reinforcing prestige through ubiquity and endless simulation.
If the theme sounds surprisingly contemporary, so it is. The show is not big, but as you wander through it, you have the uncanny feeling that a familiar point is being made, and that the last time you registered it being made was at a show by Andy Warhol, or Louise Lawler, or Jeff Koons. You have to remind yourself that you are actually looking at 2,000-year-old sculptures from the Louvre, the British Museum, and the Prado.
It all begins, ingeniously, with a display case of original Greek fragments of body parts in bronze: fingers, ears, noses, and penises. They’re there to remind us of the diminished reality of our supposedly magnificent classical inheritance.
Bronze was the most prestigious sculptural medium for the Greeks. Although we know they made thousands upon thousands of bronze sculptures, only just over 100 remain intact. Most were rediscovered in the last 150 years, usually salvaged from the sea.
So in reality, the classical canon has been built almost entirely around copies. Proceeding through the show, we see empty pedestals, representing lost Greek originals, surrounded by clusters of Roman copies: three Crouching Venuses here, four Pouring Satyrs there, two Runners over there. The works are stunningly displayed — not on tall pedestals but against a travertine floor raised up in places by transparent acrylic bases. Glass walls reflect the backsides (often literally!) of the sculptures, lightly reinforcing the theme of replication.
Most of these copies were made between the 1st century BC and the first AD, when Roman artists mastered the technique of making copies by transposing plaster casts of the original bronzes to carved marble.
It was during this key period when Roman elites, having subjugated the Greeks and Macedonians to their east, succumbed to a profound nostalgia for the Greeks’ signal achievement: the “polis,” the independent city governed by its own citizens.
Copies of Greek sculptures were collected, often in multiples, and displayed in the villas of wealthy Roman citizens, just as the wealthy citizens of Europe prized and collected them from the 16th century on.
So the show emphasizes the Western world’s persistent devotion to Greek sculpture, despite the dearth of original examples. And it highlights curious connections between the Romans’ habit of making copies and the procedures of modern archeologists, who have tried to reconstruct lost Greek originals from fragments.
But the show’s curator, Salvatore Settis, wants to make an even more basic point: The original Greek sculptures themselves, he believes, were formulaic, often conceived serially as replicas with minor variations.
They were not, in any case, the singular, timelessly beautiful creations of individual geniuses — Praxiteles, Phidias, Polyclitus, and so on — that we have taken them for. That distortion, he believes, is a product of Romanticism, and of the 19th-century doctrine of art for art’s sake, which has very little to do with how the Greeks thought about sculpture.
Sculptures, for the Greeks, were functional objects designed to reflect the values of the Greek polis. Moreover, since bronzes were made from a mold using the lost-wax technique, they were themselves often produced in series.
They were painted, too, with lips, eyes, and other parts often made from shiny silver or colored stone, so that they may have looked more like Jeff Koons’s gaudy production-line confections than we may feel comfortable admitting. (A series of brightly painted copies here makes the point dramatically.)
The show’s star attraction is a torso of Penelope, the wife of Odysseus. It’s an original Greek marble that the Prada Foundation has somehow managed to borrow from the National Museum in Tehran.
It was discovered, beheaded and on its back, in 1945, during the excavation of Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the Persian king, whose palace was wrecked by the army of Alexander the Great in 331 BC. Everything in it — including the Penelope — was systematically smashed and shattered.
But what was a Greek statue of Penelope doing in the palace of the Persian Achaemenid dynasty, the Greek world’s bitterest enemy, in the first place?
It was almost certainly a diplomatic gift, commissioned around 450 BC, when Athens was initiating its first diplomatic contact with Persia. After years of fighting between the Greeks and the Persians, and catastrophic losses on both sides (one in six Athenian families lost a husband or a son), the mythical Penelope was a powerful symbol of loss, loyalty, and endurance. She stood for the interests of both warring territories as they prepared to sign a treaty which would safeguard their men, reunite families, and ensure stability.
The Tehran sculpture is surrounded here by six fragmented copies from the Roman age.
The mystery is this: Although the Roman copies of the Penelope are more or less identical to the original Tehran Penelope, they cannot have been copied from it because at the time they were made, it was buried in the wreckage at Persepolis. The ineluctable conclusion is that there was not one original, but rather, two — one intended for the Persian king, the other for public display in Athens, probably in the central sanctuary on the Acropolis.
Making two identical marble sculptures is much harder than using a mold to make copies of bronzes, so this practice was not common. But it does suggest, at the very least, that there was much more to the production of Greek sculpture than modern eyes, preoccupied by the idea of timeless beauty and individual genius, usually realize.
Settis’s basic argument is that the notion of reproduction — of replicas, doubles, copies — was conceptually built in to Greek sculptures, just as it is in Warhol’s screen prints. My own sense is that, in his eagerness to champion an idea of art as communal, useful, and political, rather than magical, sacred, and individualistic, he overstates his case.
But it scarcely matters. The show, just by the force of its layout and the quality of its contents, is more than a mere polemic. It is an intelligent inquiry, and it kindles all the best kinds of curiosity.
Better yet, it has spawned a spinoff. At the Prada Foundation’s Venetian base, the themes of “Serial Classic” are extended in “Portable Classic,” which looks at small-scale copies of ancient sculptural prototypes, especially those from the Renaissance and beyond.
During this era, reduction in scale and reproduction in increasing quantities spread the fame of a small number of Greek prototypes, including the Belvedere Apollo, the Farnese Hercules, the Laocoon, and the Crouching Venus. The nobility of the palaces and residences in which these copies were displayed (the Belvedere Courtyard in the Vatican, the Palazzo Farnese in Rome, and so on) only enhanced their prestige.
It’s an exquisite show enhanced by its own glorious palatial setting. It includes a tiny Crouching Venus made from rock crystal, on loan from the J. Paul Getty Museum, alongside small-scale bronzes, marbles, and drawings of the same subject. There are several paintings, by the likes of Tintoretto and Lorenzo Lotto, of collectors holding antique statuary. And, filling the show’s long central gallery, is an extraordinary sequence of eight versions of the Farnese Hercules, all in different materials, and increasing in size from 6 inches to more than 10 feet.
I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s a knockout.
Serial Classic and Portable Classic
At: Prada Foundation, Milan, through Aug. 24, and Prada Foundation, Ca’ Corner della Regina, Venice,
through Sept. 13.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.