I started my day at the Getty by joining a 15 minute spotlight tour given by a volunteer docent.* The description of the tour stated that we would look at Soldani-Benzi’s bronze sculpture, Venus and Adonis, and debate the question: Can love last forever? Sounded right up my alley, I love the conversation that oscillates around a work of art, forever circling but never replacing it, allowing us to test our intellect and imagination against the object, which at its best acts like a flint, igniting ideas and challenging pre-conceptions and prejudices, giving us a chance to walk in someone else’s shoes for a while, at least metaphorically speaking.
We gathered together in anticipation. At the appointed hour (there is an official time piece at the reception desk) a small group of us were led through the gallery to our designated object. Once our intimate bunch were gently corralled into position we were introduced to the sculpture, by the guide sharing a potted version of the myth the sculpture was depicting. A sad tale of unrequited love. Venus (who is a God) having been shot by cupid’s arrow falls in love with the next man she sees – the beautiful young Adonis (a mortal). Venus wants Adonis to love her back and asks Cupid, to shoot Adonis for her. Although Cupid is Venus’s son he doesn’t do as she asks and so, sadly, Adonis doesn’t love Venus in return. Adonis instead goes off boar hunting and is mortally wounded, gored by a boar. The sculptor chooses to represent the moment when Adonis lies bleeding to death, and Venus is cradling his head and looking (we think) adoringly into his eyes. He returns her gaze but we’re unclear what his gaze conveys. The boar is prostrate beside Adonis and a hunting dog has it by its ear. Venus changes the blood dripping from Adonis’s wound into tiny flowers – anemones, which have soft, light flowers that move easily in the breeze prompting some to call them wind flowers. (Anemones are short lived but beautiful, perhaps symbolizing the short lived but beautiful Adonis.) The sculptor was a master craftsman, a caster of great renown, best known for making coins and casting the work of other artists. This exquisite piece is one of the few examples of Soldani’s own creative work. It was cast in several pieces (I think seven) and the leash that is holding the hunting dog, Venus’s billowy cape and the seamless joins are all particularly fine examples of Soldani’s great skill with bronze casting. The sculpture is small but full of muscular drama , writhing bodies animal, human and god push against each other, providing tension and sensuality, life, death and longing are achingly represented in this work and it is without doubt, beautiful.
We are almost out of time, but we still haven’t addressed the big question that was posed as the catalyst for the tour. A member of the group says, well you’ve given us a great introduction to the sculpture but what about the question – does love last forever? The guide says, ‘yes of course it does, now if you haven’t got any questions about the sculpture, that’s our tour finished.” And that was that!
I loved it, it wasn’t exactly what was advertised, although, we did spend fifteen minutes looking intently at the nominated sculpture. Or did we? Did we actually spend fifteen minutes listening intently to a version of the myth? The guide actually a storyteller. The object providing her with the scaffold for her story telling? Does it matter? To me it does, I love the discussion about just how do we draw into ourselves what an artwork has to offer and how do we share with other people the richness of that experience? This blog will be an investigation into engagement in art gallery’s, at times focusing on the perspective of the curators, producers, art educators and guides and at times entering the conversation through the experience of the audience. Is there a continuum along which various stages of engagement ,visual, verbal, sensory, imaginative, intellectual slide, forwards and backwards, converging and amplifying the experience? Or is the aesthetic experience damaged or altered by the overlay and impact of other ancillary information? There are advocates in all camps, this blog will seek to examine, with real examples, the nature of art cultures in art galleries and how these cultures effect an art objects relationship to its audience.
‘There is a great power in observing anything – when people observe art it speaks to them and they speak back – the Getty is a great place for dialogue.’ ** What a great place for my blog to be born.
* Docent – what a wonderful, evocative, old-fashioned name to give to Gallery guides.
** An excerpt from an audio tour provided at the Getty, when I visited on Sunday 28.10.2013.