LondonCreation from Destruction
“Every act of creation was once an act of destruction.” – Pablo Picasso
The birth of the new and unique often comes from the destruction of the old. This year for the Frieze Masters 2020 Viewing Room, Robilant+Voena presents Creation from Destruction curated by Virginia Brilliant and Carolyn H. Miner. The exceptional Old and Modern Masters that will be displayed were manifested in the wake of calamity or unrest and testify to our innate impulse to find beauty, meaning, and reconciliation in the act of creation.
Early modern Europe was beset by calamity. Life was fragile, and conflict, pestilence, and famine felled even the most prosperous. Macabre images bear witness to a society in which death was a brutal fact of daily life. Yet the Christian message promised resurrection and eternal joy for those who had suffered. Artists responded by portraying skeletal remains, as in a Skull by Ubaldo Gandolfi, to remind viewers that power, riches, and beauty were fleeting, images of martyred saints suggested an antidote to the transience of earthly life—the faithful could anticipate heavenly rewards greater than any worldly pleasure.
The eighteenth century ushered in a new age of reason, science and enlightened philosophy. Rationalism competed with religion in the quest for truth and meaning. Scholars rediscovered the great civilizations of the ancient past, and travellers to Italy confronted the monumental ruins of the Roman Empire, inspiring awe but also reflection—if this greatest civilization could fall and be lost to time, so could their own achievements. Artists painted the ancient ruins again. Like the memento mori images of past centuries, works such as Alessandro Magnasco’s Joseph Interprets the Dreams of the Pharaoh’s Servants Whilst in Prison (ca. 1726–31) found beauty in decay. But while a memento mori spoke to the exigencies of the individual soul, Rome’s ruined temples exposed the fragility of entire civilisations.
In the twentieth century, world wars threatened the civilisations forged in the crucible of the Enlightenment. Empires fell, and new global powers emerged. Unprecedented physical and psychological destruction spurred artists to demolish and reconfigure Western artistic practice. Echoing contemporary advances in science and technology, material experimentation, technical innovation and conceptual inventionwere hallmarks of post-war art. Channelling their ruined surroundings, artists like Alberto Burri, Lucio Fontana, and Mimmo Rotella assaulted and jettisoned canvas. Ripping, cutting, burning, and affixing objects to their surfaces in lieu of paint, they created an iconoclastic art which evoked life and death, creation and destruction.
The history of humankind is pockmarked by calamity. Yet from the detritus of destruction emerge works of art that enable us to see the opportunity in what lies ahead.
all images © the gallery and the artist(s)