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Mitoraj’s Classical fragments find their perfect setting in ruins of Pompeii

by Ada Masoero

The Centaur and the Blue Icarus are displayed in the Roman Forum, Dedalus in the Temple of Venus, the Centurion in the Terme Stabiane and the Winged Icarus in the Triangular Forum. Until January 8, 2017, thirty sculptures by Igor Mitoraj will inhabit the most famous and evocative places of Ancient Pompeii, in close connection with its streets and squares.

Igor Mitoraj’s only apparently Apollonian figures, in fact, bear within themselves the seed of corrosion, as well as signs of the decay of their seemingly perfect forms: reduced to fragments, to crippled, mutilated, cracked, blindfolded bodies, they display the fragility and transience of those heroes and deities who were believed to be incorruptible by those who created them.

And the ruins of Pompeii - an “interrupted” city, not ruined by the passing of time but struck down in a few hours, at the height of its bloom, by an immense and unpredictable catastrophe - convey the same feeling of insecurity and impermanence of existence that is inherent in those figures. This is also eminently a sign of our time.

It is precisely this shared nature of grief and sorrow that generates the spark that lights up and unites Mitoraj’s sculptures, the ruins of Pompeii and our time; it is the ''outdated modernity,” so to speak, of those classical and harmonious figures, that nevertheless convey that same feeling of insecurity and instability that everyone today experiences.

The exhibition “Mitoraj in Pompeii” arose from a conversation between the artist and Emmanuele F.M. Emanuele, the president of the Terzo Pilastro-Italia e Mediterraneo Foundation (that designed and promoted the event with Contini gallery), at the opening of the large exhibition held in the Valley of the Temples by Agrigento.

Here, Mitoraj confided his long-standing desire to showcase his works amid the ruins of Pompeii, which he saw as the most appropriate location for his art.

Five years later, the artist’s dream has at last come true, although Mitoraj, who died in 2014, can no longer enjoy it.

When talking about Mitoraj’s work, we often mention his nostalgia for a lost beauty. However, we should rather speak of the nostalgia for an age (a cruel one, for that matter) that through the lens of time now appears like a golden age.

Besides, Mitoraj’s life story points to this direction: born in 1944 in Oederan, in Nazi Germany, of a French father who became a war prisoner and a Polish mother who was deported and sentenced to hard labor, after the war Mitoraj went back with his family to Poland.

The country had been ravaged by the Nazis (and the Jewish part of its population even more so), offended by the Auschwitz concentration camp and oppressed by the Soviet regime that, furthermore, imposed Socialist Realism, which would frustrate Mitoraj’s avant-garde aspirations.

It was experimental artist and filmmaker Tadeusz Kantor, his teacher at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, who came to his rescue.

Kantor used to show to his students, instead of Alexandr Dejneka’s or Petrov-Vodkin’s celebratory paintings, works by Yves Klein, Roy Lichtenstein, Mario Merz and Andy Warhol.
It was Kantor, moreover, who, sensing his pupil’s talent, suggested him to leave Krakow if he wanted to “create something important.”

Mitoraj took his advice, and in 1968 he moved to Paris, at the École Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts. From here, he moved to Mexico, where he discovered pre-Columbian art, and later to Greece, his most intimate homeland, and to Italy, where he set up his home and studio in Pietrasanta (while retaining a base in Paris), huddled in the shadow of the Apuan Alps and of Michelangelo.

De Chirico, too, in his metaphysical period, with his statues as lonesome as shipwrecks, had a big influence of Mitoraj, rooting him in the imaginary of the ancient Mediterranean, to which the painter, Greek by birth and early training, felt heir.

In this culturally stimulating environment, where he found himself after the dramatic events of his early youth, he forged his own style, imbued by a tragic sense of history.

You just need to look at the Blue Icarus, from 2013, lying in the Forum, or the torso of Icarus, from 2002, that resembles the empty shell of a large washed-up sea creature, to sense the feeling of failure of history that imbues all his work, while the sleeping, often blindfolded heads conjure the allegorical recollection of the temporal abyss that separates us irrevocably from that age.

(Mitoraj in Pompeii, Pompeii, archaeological excavations, until January 8, 2017. Catalogue by Peruzzo)