“Don Giovanni: An Opera for the Eye”

Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum

In Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni (1787), the most famous musical interpretation of the story of the legendary woman-conqueror, two recurrent themes in Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto attract attention. The first is Don Giovanni’s insatiable desire for women, which is really an excuse to avoid facing himself. The second is da Ponte’s almost cynical interchanging of the characters’ identities in order to question the validity of Don Giovanni’s behavior. Da Ponte’s Commendatore, the figure called into existence to punish him in the end, is actually Death in various guises, including the death of Don Giovanni himself: when he shakes the hand of the Commendatore, Don Giovanni dies, and in death he finally confronts himself.

Neither da Ponte’s libretto nor Mozart’s music seduced the viewer of “Don Giovanni: An Opera for the Eye,” yet the subtitle was nevertheless deceptive, since this exhibition required the total involvement of the spectator. The show comprised, in effect, a kind of rite of passage, an elegiac journey that inevitably recalled the fate of Don Giovanni: a journey through the underworld, with no chance of resurrection. As conceived by museum director Rudi Fuchs, “An Opera for the Eye” constituted both set and performance: the installations—by Daniel Buren, Jannis Kounellis, Markus Lüpertz, Mario Merz, Marisa Merz, and Giulio Paolini—transformed the solemn museum space into a stage; and the spectator, in the absence of any discernible image of Don Giovanni, assumed the protagonist’s role. A visit to such an exhibition was, as it were, an invitation to a beheading.

It is easy to see in Don Giovanni’s problematic relationship with his wife a symbol for the audience’s relationship with art, its constant search for new and different art and artists and its unfaithfulness to its former favorites. A paralle] of the artist’s constancy to the fickle muse is also implicit. This maze of relationships could have produced an ironic exhibition that would have addressed the current situation in art with a smile and a wink, but the show was a serious affair that forced the spectator (as Don Giovanni) to question his own behavior. A number of masks by Marisa Merz, the only woman among the participating artists, illustrated the exhibition’s central idea: these elegant heads of gray-white and light-blue clay showed the protagonist spectator, for once not thinking of a new conquest, recovering his senses to see his own hands flying at his throat.

The serious tone of the exhibition did not allow a literal or frivolous translation of the works within it as metaphors for the lewd behavior of Don Giovanni. It would have been too simple to read a straightforward reference to the number of virgins who could not resist Giovanni’s advances into Kounellis’ installation of little paraffin lamps along one wall. Although the number was of vital interest to Don Giovanni, who had his servant Leporello prove to Donna Elvira no less than 2,065 conquests, the melancholy mood of the lamps told another story. It would have been too easy to see a simple allusion to Don Giovanni’s greed for conquest in Paolini’s pages torn from Mozart’s score and pasted on the walls of some of the halls. Mario Merz’s metaphor for Don Giovanni’s unbridled voluptuousness—a tentlike construction, as if for animals, of sticks wrapped with steel wool—also far surpassed mere allusion to the hero.

The idea of the labyrinth, which Buren has handled masterly in the past, was placed in a fascinating context here. In a canvas structure positioned diagonally in a hall, the visitor was slowly disoriented by the continuously shifting light cast by a number of slide projectors, which created fake passages, dead ends, and misleading shadows including one’s own silhouette. The world of character transformations and doubles that resulted echoed an important recurrent theme in Mozart’s opera. All this led to what could perhaps be called the climax of the exhibition. A framework of canvas was suspended above a cloth that hung down to the floor and moved mysteriously and continuously as if stirred by the wind. Buren’s insane metaphor suggested the vanity of life and the inevitability of death as powerfully as the Commendatore in Mozart’s opera.

In the presence of such fluid translations of the opera’s themes, Lüpertz’s painting, although attractive, was nothing more than a successful set. This monumental composition, representing the moment when the Commendatore appears at the festive table and Don Giovanni’s fate is sealed, adhered too closely to the text to stand as an autonomous work of art. This was not true of a second installation by Kounellis. He surprised the audience with the hissing, rustling flames of gas burners—a tangible threat to whoever drew too near. Coats and hats, black as death, hung on the wall between the burners, suggesting at the least that a lugubrious game was being played.

“Don Giovanni: An Opera for the Eye” was a remarkable exhibition, which best took shape in the works that allowed as broad as possible an interpretation of its themes. Yet it is alarming that only one woman took part in this exhibition, especially considering its subject matter. It seems clear that this was a patriarchal event, reminiscent of the 19th-century European fin-de-siècle.

Paul Groot

Translated from the Dutch by Willem.