Once upon a time, many many years ago in a faraway land, lived a king who ruled over a country which was very tiny indeed, but he was so powerful and wealthy that other kings felt very envious. This king was also very smart; he knew the power of art, so he searched far and wide for the most talented and famous artists to decorate his castle with the most beautiful tapestries, paintings and sculptures – and paid them handsomely.
Of course, I'm talking about the Vatican and its smart patronage of the best artists of the Italian Renaissance, including not only the soulful, divine Raphael, but also the hell-raising, rule-breaking Michelangelo. However, with the passage of time, Roman Popes started to lose the conviction which once enabled them to utilize the vision and genius of contemporary artists for the glory of the Catholic Church. When ten years ago the traveling exhibition "Angels of the Vatican" came to the Hammer Museum with a survey of the religious art belonging to the Vatican Museum, it was almost embarrassing to see next to the few masterpieces of Renaissance and Baroque art so much second-rate 19th and 20th century art.
But something was definitely brewing behind the well-guarded gates of this tiny kingdom; to celebrate the Jubilee year 2000, the Vatican had the vision to commission Richard Meier, one of the most celebrated avant-garde architects of the day – who also happens to be Jewish – to build a new church at the outskirts of Rome.
Meanwhile, the New York Times reported recently that "Pope Benedict XVI greeted more than 250 artists, musicians, directors, and writers in the Sistine Chapel...pointing out their "great responsibility to communicate beauty."" Among the guests were architects Zaha Hadid and Daniel Libeskind, composers Ennio Morricone and Arvo Part, and artists Anish Kapoor and Jannis Kounellis, along with our fellow Californian Bill Viola, the most celebrated video artist of today.
A decade ago, here in Los Angeles, we had the chance to see at LACMA a retrospective of his art, with its particular focus on the mystery of life. In 2003, the Getty Museum commissioned the artist to create a video inspired by religious art in its collection, resulting in a dramatic new work, "The Passions."
During a trip to Venice in 2007, I went to see the exhibition of Bill Viola's videos in a small, de-consecrated church where he placed above the altars large plasma screens with images of men and women slowly, very slowly, moving through a curtain of cascading water, in obvious allusion to the ritual of baptism. Currently, the artist is working on an even more ambitious project, multi-panel video altarpieces for St. Paul's Cathedral in London.
It should come as no surprise then that Vatican officials have been circulating his name as one of the artists whom they might commission to make new works for the next Venice Biennale, where for the very first time, the Vatican will have its own pavilion. Are we witnessing the second coming of Pope Art?
Meanwhile, if you hurry, you can catch a glimpse of Leonardo da Vinci's genius in an exquisite, tiny exhibition at the Italian Cultural Institute in Westwood. Among his few drawings is the erotic "Angel in the Flesh," controversial enough for Queen Victoria to purge it from the British Royal Collection. Da Vinci's drawings are dramatically juxtaposed with yet another Bill Viola video, "The Last Angel," made in 2002. Though the exhibition closes this Saturday, the Institute's director, Francesca Valente, has agreed to extend visiting hours on this last day until 9pm, so you, faithful listeners of Art Talk, have extra time to experience Leonardo's magic.
Leonardo Da Vinci and Bill Viola
On view at the Italian Cultural Institute of Los Angeles through December 12
Banner image: Detail of The Creation of Adam, a section of Michelangelo's fresco Sistine Chapel ceiling, painted circa 1511