Trapped in a print

The Piranesi Effect at the Ian Potter Museum of Art

When deciding on the design of The Piranesi Effect exhibition, currently on display at the University of Melbourne’s Ian Potter Museum of Art, curator Jenny Long was persuaded by a line from J G Ballard’s Cocaine Nights to consider what it might feel like to be trapped in a Piranesi print. In the words of one of Ballard’s characters, “I never thought I’d live within those strange etchings.” Using contemporary Australian and New Zealand art displayed alongside a selection of prints by the master printmaker, Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-78), Long invites viewers to enter an imagined three-dimensional space inspired by Piranesi’s etched world. In turn, she offers a unique and strikingly nuanced perspective of the eighteenth-century artist’s oeuvre.

A couple of centuries or so after his death, the Venice-born printmaker Piranesi is currently experiencing something of a popularity boost in Melbourne’s cultural pockets. In addition to the show at the Ian Potter Museum is an exhibition at the State Library of Victoria comprising an extraordinary assembly of prints, largely from the artist’s Vendute di Roma (Views of Rome) series. Having first trained as an architect, before then focussing his attention on printmaking, Piranesi developed a shrewd intuition for depicting the built landscape of Rome. Indeed his Vendute, with their intricate detailing and palpable atmospheric appeal, became internationally renowned during his lifetime and were greatly influential in shaping popular understandings of the Roman cityscape. In contrast, the Ian Potter Museum exhibition highlights Piranesi’s equally celebrated Carceri (Prisons) series. Here are images of chain-wrapped pillars and staircases that lead to nowhere; what Jenny Long describes as “illogical spaces, not tied to reality”.

When Long was presented with this curatorial task by the museum, she was also given a title around which to determine the parameters of the exhibition, The Piranesi Effect. Transforming these words into a lucid display of art undoubtedly required a great deal of creative gumption on her part, especially considering the considerable eminence of the primary subject, Piranesi. Sidestepping the potential minefield for the misuse of logic in the word ‘effect’, Long uses the allocated title to fashion an ambience, inspired by the works of the eighteenth-century artist and using the works of several contemporary artists.

She thus avoids drawing clumsy connections between the practices of the contemporary artists and the example set by Piranesi – for instance, “such-and-such looked at Piranesi in week seven of their first-year of art school”. Instead she presents a personal analysis of, broadly, how contemporary art can interact with historic art and, specifically, how the artistic concerns of Piranesi are timeless, extending across centuries to the present-day. Prisons and chains, light and dark, long lines, urban environments, landscapes of wonderment, unknown terrors, the reappraisal of history.

As Long notes, “It is hard for contemporary art viewers to look at etchings. They are more used to spectacle.” For this reason, Long has structured the exhibition space so that the viewer needs to pass through the contemporary art to get to the wall of Piranesi prints, which are hung in such a manner as to “slow people down to look at them”. When the viewer turns around again after examining the prints, they find that the contemporary works they saw first, in large sculptural forms, photographs and modern prints, were seemingly dragged from the historic world of Piranesi into the current three-dimensional space. For example, Peter Robinson’s Viniculum (2008), an oversized white chain lying on the ground, was clearly yanked straight from Piranesi’s prison scenes. Of course, no such direct correlation exists, real or imagined, other than the inspiration drawn from Long’s curatorship. The wittiness of Robinson’s work becomes clear when it is noted that the heavy-looking chain is actually made from polystyrene.

The sensation of being trapped in a Piranesi scene is partly realised in the exhibition through a monotone palette. The lithe steel strands of Mira Gojak’s Positioning the edge (2009) resembles the fine black lines used by Piranesi to identify depth and shade in his etchings. Rick Amor’s black-and-white prints, while wholly different to those of eighteenth-century artist, emphasise the joint cause of the two printmakers across the centuries. For Long, it was important to include a contemporary printmaker “who could stand up to the comparison”. A feat well accomplished by Amor. Michael Graff’s marvellously cerebral, if not a little cryptic, sequence of wall-based works emphasises the classical historicism of Piranesi’s practice, as well as the artists’ allied reassessments of history.

In dialogue with the State Library’s current exhibition, curated by Colin Holden, and complemented by a recent symposium organised by the Australian Institute of Art History examining the printmaker and his wide-ranging influence, this exhibition at the Ian Potter Museum breathes fresh life into the historic prints of Piranesi. Jenny Long’s curatorship serves as an elegant and compelling reconsideration of the artist, whilst also promoting the increased integration of historic and contemporary art displays.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Remains of the aqueduct of Nero, 1740–78. The Baillieu Library Print Collection, the University of Melbourne



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