According to cliché most artists, aside from having the key characteristics of egocentricity and vanity, are also, to a certain degree, liars. I wholeheartedly agree with this, if you can read it in a positive way. Looking at it linguistically, the difference between creative, inventive, innovative, and visionary characters is mere nuance—it’s all just a question of people who, to varying degrees, like to make stuff up. Whether their audiences then believe them or not is an entirely different matter, and no responsibility of theirs.
It’s often said that pathological liars fool no one but themselves, and herein lies the difference. To counter what many historians and critics like to think, artists working with visual and verbal material (or any other medium, for that matter) usually know what they’re up to. I was in a bookstore the other day decorated with various quotes along a series of columns. Waiting at the checkout I came across a phrase from Einstein, something along the lines of “true creativity lies in knowing how to conceal your sources.” Both the London Review of Books and the New York Times Book Review have, over the past few months, run articles and letters discussing the growing length of author’s acknowledgements, source credits, and writer’s general fear of becoming the next J.T. Leroy or James Frey. In other countries it’s perfectly acceptable to publish a book filled with extended quotes of other works as long as the author is mentioned—the title and other information about the quote’s source are seen as superfluous, and the reader just needs to know or be willing to hunt it down. In the United States a similar approach would have one publisher’s legal department phoning the other non-stop. This obsession with full disclosure is beginning to suffocate; readers and viewers are free to trust or distrust creative types, and I’d like to think they’re bright enough to distinguish things without relying on someone else to tell them what to think. That someone else might be untrustworthy anyway.
I went to see a Piranesi exhibition at Rome’s Museo del Corso, which among copper plates, sketches, and countless prints included the over 135 etchings in his Views of Rome series. I’ve never much loved his lines, and am fairly convinced he was a sell-out, but I nevertheless can’t deny his importance. The show’s curators chose to title it Piranesi’s Rome: the Eighteenth-Century City in the Grandi Vedute. A newspaper review of the show is more accurate with its title, Piranesi, or Rome as it Wasn’t. Curiously, the museum space itself was most appropriate; there wasn’t a window in the entire place, and it was depressingly dark, completely cut off from the outside world—the world that would’ve exposed some of his embellishments.
In many etchings Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778) liked to bestow the title of Architect on himself, even if—or maybe because—of his many architectural projects, only one was ever realized. That design, his renovation of the church Santa Maria del Priorato and adjacent garden on the Aventine Hill in Rome, brought him much less recognition than his obsessive, incessant print production. In a pre-photographic period he was the major promoter of ancient Rome’s grandeur, and foreshadowed the Romantics’ fancy for ruins by several decades. In 1746, six years after he’d moved to Rome from Venice, the twenty-six-year-old etcher undertook the immense task of documenting views of his adopted city. At the same time the city was being invaded by ever more foreigners on the Grand Tour; French, English, German, and people of countless other nations, primarily from northern Europe, couldn’t get enough of the decadence depicted in his work. How much the fact that he himself was a northerner at heart influenced his perspectives I can’t really say, but they can certainly be seen as propaganda. A few (and some of the most interesting) works in the show were done independently of any commission; a multi-plate plan of Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli is a visual fugue stretching over nine feet. Pope Clement XIII, a member of the powerful Venetian Rezzonico family and one of his main patrons, commissioned a church renovation that was never realized for lack of funds. So these few architectural projects are utterly peripheral in comparison to the prints that sold like hotcakes both to visitors and a vast audience abroad—people who’d never have the chance to actually see the sites he portrayed. Perhaps he would’ve embellished certain scenes and buildings regardless of his audience, but I think he gained great liberty in recognizing that there wouldn’t be any fact checkers poring over his work. Hence SPQR, the acronym of Senatus Populus Que Romanus (the Senate and People of Rome), becomes something like Sabinae Populus Que Resistet (the Sabines, People that Remain/Resist/Persist) in one of his inscriptions. Over drinks the other day I was discussing this with an archaeologist who held mixed gratitude and disapproval for the Vedute—some of them are the sole depiction of important structures since destroyed, and therefore important documentation, while some are simply made up. Most fall somewhere in between. Photoshop didn’t yet exist, not to mention photography, but Piranesi managed to fool people with many of the very same techniques of today’s advertising—bits of his richly evocative scenes are the equivalent of the perfectly blue skies, radiantly blemish-free teen models, and high-gloss world in commercials for travel and just about everything else.
He’s a little more honest in his 1760–61 series Carceri d’Invenzione, where he admits his inventiveness in the title. He’d begun exploring this theme fifteen years earlier in a series initially titled Invenzioni Capric[ciose] di Carceri, with a nod to the fundamental caprice underlying it all. Piranesi was convinced that Rome’s grandeur came not from the Greek legacy, but from the Egyptians, via the Etruscans. This explains a lot of the simply wacky interventions he adds to buildings that would otherwise be plainly classical. My question remains: does it really matter how faithful he was to the world around him? Does it really matter if he’s trying to pull the wool over our eyes, or really was convinced of his own visions?
In 1930 Henri Focillon published Esthètique des visionnaires, an essay discussing the visionary esthetics of Daumier, Rembrandt, Piranesi, Turner, Tintoretto, and El Greco. His clearest claim in what could otherwise be dismissed as a relic of Romanticism is that visionaries don’t view their subjects, they rather envision them. He goes on to say that these visionaries possess (I’d say are possessed by) a particular virtue that doesn’t alter nature, but rather imbues it with a striking vivacity, intensity, and profundity. These are mere words—he contradicts this later on by writing that visionaries can’t be contented with the real world, and so they use it as a point of departure; “They interpret more than imitate, and transfigure more than interpret.” Fine.
Returning to the so-called Architect’s one completed building project, the church atop the Aventine is almost impossible to visit, as it’s closed to the public, but the garden next door can be viewed through the keyhole of its door, where six or seven people were lined up as I got there late this past Saturday evening. Stooping to peer through the keyhole, your eye meets an orderly perspective, lined with well-kempt cypresses, receding to the illuminated dome of Saint Peter’s at the very center of the composition. Not only is Piranesi controlling what you see (a dome framed by dark vegetation, much more orderly than the surrounding city and most of his chaotic print compositions), but he’s also dictating how you see it; you’re limited by the keyhole’s outline, then by the trees. These limits closely relate it to Borromini’s famous colonnade perspective at Palazzo Spada, the views of ideal cities produced in Renaissance Florence, and the Olympic Theater of Palladio and Scamozzi in Vicenza. This last connection, to theater, is fascinating, and reveals a lot about our contemporary culture. Going to the theater—or cinema, for that matter—people expect to be removed from their own world; it’s entertainment, imagination, fantasy, and can appear more real than the people, places, and things we see around us each day. It’s the circus, it’s make-believe, it’s the Surrealists’ theater of cruelty, it’s a theater of the absurd, it’s a theater of war. It’s Dionysus’s thyrsus-led procession, the drunken debacle that became the origin of all theater. So why do people bring such different expectations to visual art? A few contemporary artists are venturing into theater: Kara Walker’s silhouettes, although immobile, narrate past and present characters and their often frightful histories; William Kentridge’s Black Box / Chambre Noire, a tripartite riff on the themes inherent in the black box as theater (realm of performance), airplane device (to record disaster), and camera (interior between lens and eyepiece), was shown at the Deutsche Guggenheim but not in New York; and Pierre Huyghe’s puppet shows all merge static visual arts with theatrical realms.
Infinite possible worlds exist, and coming into the theater—or peering through the keyhole (be it Piranesi’s or Duchamp’s)—a single filtered, channeled world is presented. Such miniature theater can be sculptural object, projection, installation, print, and vice versa. The grand narrative and scale of present and past history are here reduced to small theater. Piranesi’s prints, distant relatives of later architectural follies, were both products cranked out for commercial profit and visions loftier than any debate of real vs. unreal.
At times Piranesi’s hand grew heavy, and the acid bath a bit strong, but this darkness could be read as the reverse side of the Enlightenment looking glass. The nature of shadows is key; in talking about his exploration of the black box, Kentridge describes how, while observing a solar eclipse, he became aware of the process of looking, “of being made conscious of the nature of light,” and how light diffuses mystery, making “everything immediately comprehensible.” This light can be useful, but also has the power to overexpose an image, leaving a bleached-out scene, robbed of its essence—be it actual or invented.