“Terrae Motus”

Villa Campolieto

“Terrae. Motus” commemorated the earthquake that devastated the city of Naples and its surroundings in November 1980. The disaster inflicted social wounds that have not yet healed, and the show pointed these out in vivid fashion. Its selection of works by 25 artists is to become the nucleus for a museum of contemporary art in Naples; the exhibition was born through the unbounded enthusiasm of dealer Lucio Amelio, and in the summer of 1985 a second group of work will be presented to the public under the same title.

Harsh, painful, and altogether obvious contrasts exist between “Terrae Motus”—an exhibition of museum-quality art set in the Villa Campolieto, an 18th-century mansion at the foot of Vesuvius, with views of the Bay of Naples from its balconies—and the squalor of the surrounding region. Compare this prestigious and valuable collection with the desperate poverty of some of Naples’ population; consider the facile picturesqueness of the area, with its barefoot street urchins, its laundry hanging from windows, its thieves and police, its soccer star Maradona (who is treated with as much reverence as the Madonna), and its overwhelming sunsets; combine all these elements, and the exhibition in the Villa Campolieto becomes potentially explosive. It is a thorn in an already tattered social fabric which in political terms has long been abandoned, an open challenge to the institutions that maintain the city in a backwardness nearly without equal in Italy (rivaled only by that of Palermo).

As for the show itself, the artists gave of their best. Nearly all created large-scale works or installations, inspired, as was requested, by the earthquake theme. The subject calls for iconography evoking the intrinsic fragility of life, and this subtext was in one way or another present in all the works. Andy Warhol’s series of prints of the front page of the daily newspaper // Mattino for November 25, 1980 was titled after the issue’s headline, “fate presto” (make haste), which expressed the urgent need for aid in the days after the tremor. Given the tardiness of the help that came, the work is provocative in political terms, and the aggressive assertiveness of Warhol’s composition makes the words heartrending. Tony Cragg’s Moon Shadow, 1983, refers to the catastrophe in symbolic, naturalistic terms. Cragg focuses not on the collective tragedy but on the silent testimony of the landscape to the destruction; preserving fragments of what has survived, and casting over them a black shadow in the shape of a crescent moon, the piece brings one close to the magmatic violence of the quake.

Ronnie Cutrone and Keith Haring both painted danses macabres, comic book fantasies glowing with yellows, reds, and blacks. The results, somewhere between the blasphemous and the funereal, are effective metaphors for the ambiguously carnivalesque Neapolitan way of life. James Brown’s more somber work poses heads and other parts of human and animal bodies on black grounds, in a lacerating triptych which, despite its “primitive’ markings, approaches a Goyaesque vision of a humanity scarred by natural and moral disasters. Nino Longobardi’s meditation op the catastrophe confuses skulls and the bodies of swimmers with a ground like muddy liquid; the subjects wallow as if putrefied in a livid organic state, where life and death have no clear borders but nightmarishly converge. Carlo Alfano seems to have taken his cue from those terrible figures one can see in the archaeological excavations of Pompeii—casts of human bodies lying in the poses of their deaths, condemned to perpetuate over the centuries the moment of Vesuvius eruption in 79 A.D. In Eco-Discesa (Echo-descent, 1981), a grayish body is drawn upward in a black abyss divided by four diagonal lines. Appearing as a vertical stripe in the center of the composition is a break in the weave of the canvas, a large, irreparable unraveling like a sign of ”the beyond," of the impossibility of reconciling the flow of history and the unrepeatable uniqueness of a life.

Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Annunciazione Terrae Motus (Earthquake Annunciation, 1962–84) is a diptych of steel plates polished to mirror surfaces. In a kind of domestic Annunciation, an image is silk-screened on each plate: a man with his back turned to the viewer, and a woman seen in profile, wearing a nightgown and slippers. Caught in a moment of private intimacy, the woman recalls Fra Angelico’s portrayal of the Virgin—dismayed, in bleak, ordinary surroundings which give no hint of her special nature. Nor is there anything dramatic or celestial about the melancholy “angel” in blue jeans. This Annunciation occurs in an utterly human, rational climate; Pistoletto seems to suggest that it is only through an awareness of human need that we can decipher the drama.

Finally, Joseph Beuys’ Terremoto in Palazzo (Earthquake in the palace, 1981) elicits all the feelings implied in the works above (themselves representing only a few of the artists in the show). Everything here appears in uncertainty: a table balanced on bottles, broken glass scattered in a corner, the leg of a second table stuck in a glass jar, terra-cotta pots precariously wedged between table and wall. The internal vitality of the objects is manifested by the possible catastrophe they dare. Nothing could more aptly define the theme of the earthquake—or of the lives of all of us, here and now, even if we live on solid ground indeed.

Ida Panicelli

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.